Architecture for the environment

Richard Hyams, founder and director of astudio, explores how architects can build sustainability into our cities.

Paving the way for mass vaccination, the UK has become the first country in the world to approve a coronavirus vaccine. We have made successive steps to put our health first, but with the pandemic’s end in sight, we must now turn our attention back to another crisis. This year’s lockdowns have provided welcome relief for the environment, but it has long suffered from unsustainable pressure, which we now need to alleviate.

With the UK having set itself the lofty target of reaching net zero by 2050, construction has work to do if it is to achieve this goal. Our built environment accounts for 40% of the UK’s carbon footprint, while a staggering 78% of CO2 emissions in cities, such as London comes from homes and offices. There are, however, steps we can take to reduce the impact our cities have on our planet.

Chairing the Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben recently implored the property industry to build on the environmental lifeline provided by the pandemic, in a timely reminder that much work remains to be done. Heeding this advice, we must now step up our efforts, utilising new technologies and designing for sustainability in order to reduce the impact of our buildings.

Mobilising modular

New ways of working are required if the construction sector is to meet its sustainability targets on time. Modular construction provides a solution that is both fast and flexible, having already helped schools and hospitals increase their capacity in response to Covid-19. The environmental benefits of modular over traditional methods make it an ideal means of cutting construction’s carbon footprint.

Modular buildings are manufactured in a factory setting, where the environmental impact of construction can be reduced by recycling waste material into new projects, or by using more eco-friendly materials in the first place, such as FSC-approved timber and sustainably sourced steel. With the construction sector consuming 400 million tonnes of natural resources per year, wider adoption of modular construction would be of immense benefit. Moreover, by reducing onsite building time by more than 75%, modular methods minimise the severity of air and noise pollution onsite.

With projects often completed in half the time of traditional builds, modular enables us to deliver desperately needed housing stock at speed. astudio’s Desborough Road project in High Wycombe, for example, will provide 58 units of accommodation for vulnerable families who would otherwise be homeless. Far from being a quick fix, however, modular buildings are a sustainable solution for the long term, limiting the carbon footprint of these much-needed new homes.

Open BIM enables more informed collaboration, resulting in better quality builds. Credit (all images): Reid Brewin Architectes

Having a piece of software that uses a non-proprietary-based data exchange means the files can be easily shared.

Going greener

National lockdowns have given us a renewed appreciation for the outdoors, with a recent mental health survey reporting that roughly half the population coped with the stressful situation by visiting green spaces. Furthermore, leading bike manufacturer Brompton saw a five-fold increase in sales, underlining people’s newfound enthusiasm for eco-friendly outdoor activity.

Appetite for the outdoors has coincided with an increased aversion to public transport among commuters who are understandably anxious about packing onto crowded trains and tubes where the risk of Covid-19 transmission is relatively high. To avoid an upsurge in personal vehicle use which would only exacerbate cities’ pollution problems, planners must provide equitable space in city centres for pedestrians and cyclists.

Personal vehicles pose a particular challenge, which cannot be solved simply by switching to electric models. Electric vehicles will require the infrastructure to support them, which is a much greater manufacturing job. They also consume considerable amounts of electricity, for which we do not currently have capacity. Growing demand for green electricity can only be met by embracing innovations such as solar-powered homes, which would empower individuals to become more self-sufficient – and even sell surplus energy into the grid.

Embracing efficiency

Only around 1,300 buildings in the UK have been built to Passivhaus standard for energy efficiency, which reduces heating requirements by 75% compared to standard UK new builds. Evidently, more projects need to prioritise energy efficiency if the sector is to meet its sustainability targets. At astudio, we’re committed to minimising the impact of our projects. The St Paul’s Way Trust School project, for instance, uses natural ventilation and high thermal mass to reduce emissions by 60% compared to a typical school.

Touchless technology can also help buildings become more energy efficient. astudio’s 70 Wilson project used motion sensor technology to activate lighting and heating systems only when somebody is present, providing opportunity to save energy in underused areas.

Smart systems can also save water, with advanced irrigation technology able to regulate water usage according to local weather forecasts. These systems can reduce water consumption by as much as 35% per year, amounting to considerable cost-cutting which helps explain why smart homes are so quick to deliver return on investment – both financially and environmentally.

Healthier, happier homes

Lockdowns and remote working have put the sustainability and comfort of our homes under the microscope, and concerns are unlikely to subside anytime soon.

Milan’s Bosco Verticale, with its two towers each housing hundreds of trees, is an example of how truly green residential buildings can be. The UK’s construction sector should begin to explore similarly imaginative solutions.

One possibility for the greener homes of the future is ‘living wall’ technology. At astudio – the first UK architecture firm to purchase an algae machine from US pioneer Sustainable Now Technologies – we, in partnership with Brunel University, designed a method of skinning building exteriors with algae compounds. These living walls absorb pollutants from the atmosphere and provide a sustainable source of biofuel to subsidise the cost of powering the building. Moreover, these structures can be grown waste-free using natural substances, such as fungus mycelium.

The positive impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on the environment has been a silver lining of the pandemic and provides the UK construction sector with a foundation on which to build a more sustainable future. By embracing innovations such as modular construction and smart technology to improve the sustainability of our buildings, we can not only bounce back from the pandemic, but overturn the environmental crisis in the process.

Main image: Bosco Verticale in Milan. Credit: Josè Maria Sava / Unsplash