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What is Sustainable Architecture?

Sustainable Thinking within Design Methodology

Sustainability is the marker of our generation.  It cannot be categorised as a soulless slog towards carbon neutrality.  It cannot be reduced into our material pallets or obsession with solar panels.  Sustainability instead is an alternative approach in the design methodology; an offering of alternative thought which seeks to combine technology and philosophy under the guise of architecture. 

Architecture has long been regarded as a physical marker of our existence, a marker which proclaims our philosophical motives, current belief and aspirations for the future.  This has been observed throughout various movements long before the emergence of sustainable design: from Classicism’s representation of a new way of ordered thinking to the Russian Constructivist’s architectural representation of Soviet societal ideals.  Sustainable architecture is not an anomaly to these either, proving that our generation too, has its own alternative approach to design with its set of own unique core values and aspirations.

Those who choose to design sustainably choose to address the needs and aspirations of the people today while facilitating the makers of tomorrow with the same opportunity to use resources as we do.  There is a philosophy to sustainable design which can be reduced into the three elements; time, place and person.  This philosophy aims to provide a thought structure which is simple and accessible to everyone designing with sustainability in mind.   

Time

Buildings are living structures with varying lifetimes. Buildings takes on many different purposes than the one we design for.  Many of these iterations will occur once we have left the design world and therefore, we should anticipate and help facilitate these changes that others will make.  This forces us to acknowledge from the beginning of the design process the prospect of disassembly, reuse of material and ground.  Interrobang’s Ilford Community Market is an outstanding example of designing with time and disassembly in mind; its avoidance of below the ground foundations means that when its tenure is finished it can be removed without damaging the original site.

Interrobang’s Ilford Community Market

Sustainable architecture recognises that the privilege of designing is transient.  This means that sustainable design has an embodied consciousness of the next generation. 

Place

Buildings do not exist in isolation.  They sit within a sensitive ecosystem that sustainable designers recognise.  Most designers recognise the importance of the visible context: addressing a designs sensitivity to immediate landscape, response to the overall local environment or recognition of a place’s culture or heritage.  However, sustainable architecture seeks to address not just the visible but also the invisible context of a building.  Invisible context relates to the choice of materials and technologies used to construct the building.  Choosing local material over imported material and utilising local skills and contractors over outsourcing labour and technologies fosters a sense of ownership over the structure whilst supporting a local economy. 

This is integral to the sustainable design process as sustainable structures can also create sustainable communities.  Every design requires careful maintenance over its lifetime and if integrated into the local community and economy the maintenance is easier to carry out and thus, more likely to occur.  The relationship between architecture, place and community is exhibited in Brown + Brown Architects Portsoy Boatbuilding Centre in Aberdeenshire; the retention of existing structure and a large amount of the construction carried out by local volunteers. 

Brown + Brown Architects Portsoy Boatbuilding Centre in Aberdeenshire

The purpose of this building is to construct traditional boats while teaching others the skill therefore, teaching volunteers the skills from the beginning of the construction process already cements the purpose of the building.

Buildings are part of our everyday existence.  Considering our interaction with them from the beginning allows strong relationships to be built preventing them from feeling like strangers when they are integrated into communities.  Buildings also serve a purpose past facilitating space, when we design sustainable structures, we understand that they serve not just the immediate user but can be integrated into benefitting wider communities and economies. 

People

Sustainable buildings are healthy buildings.  There are positive physiological effects (better indoor air quality, lower toxicity of materials, higher levels of ventilation) for occupants in sustainable structures.  This is important as how a building feels to someone and its impact on their health is as important, if not more, than its aesthetic or functionality.  Sustainable architecture highlights that as architects we have the grave responsibility of the health of our buildings and occupants. 

Sustainable structures understand that life is never static.  At different stages of life, we have different requirements of our space; caring for relatives, expanding families, condensing families or space for a new revenue flow are all common examples of changes that arise during a lifetime.  Therefore, sustainable designs can adapt to create flexible solutions that are easily carried out by occupants at a relatively low cost.  Studio Bark’s flat-pack U-Build System embodies the idea of self-building which is integral to sustainable architecture.  Self-building provides occupants with a greater sense of ownership of their space while encouraging the ethos of ‘improve don’t move’.

Sustainable architecture places the person at the fore of the design.  We are on the cusp of an alternative way of not just design but also how we choose to live.  When you choose to design sustainably you are also choosing to live with the greatest sensitivity towards individuals, place, community and future makers.  Sustainable design is not about superstructures or egotistical spectacles.  It is about designing architecture that represents a higher quality of life for normal people like you and me.      

Key Resources

SEDA Design Guides

RIBA Sustainable Outcome Guide

Passivhaus Trust Guidance

Passive House Plus Publication

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