S & S Decoded: Sustainable Cities & the Built Environment

At A Glance

The paradigm shift to sustainability requires a fundamental transformation in the way in which we inhabit spaces across the world. Investment in regenerative design of cities, communities and the architecture of buildings for long term sustainable development is at the crux of reconfiguring and reimagining our built environment.

This article explores the inherent need to adopt biophilic design, the criteria and metrics of sustainable cities as well architectural strategies that mitigate negative environmental impacts and carefully considers systems to provide sustainable solutions.

It looks to key organisations championing and advising best practice in the built environment, protagonists in the sustainable architectural field and examples of structures that showcase the limitless opportunities for the future.

In Focus

As the effects of global warming are amplified and we ebb closer to 2030, the year where global emissions need to peak, the reimagining cityscapes has never been more decisive.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals exist as a framework to secure a safe operating space for future generations and one aspect that requires undivided attention is finding sustainable solutions to urban areas in order to contribute to the curbing of rising temperatures.  

For world leaders to fulfil their climate and development commitments, they must specifically focus on Goal 11. The intention of this target is to cultivate cities and human settlements that are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Further efforts are needed to deliver this goal as close to 5 billion people are projected to live in cities by 2030 and cities occupy only 3% of the earth’s land area but account for 60-80% of energy consumption, emitting 75% of carbon emissions.

In defining a sustainable city, one must look to the practice of biophilic design. This holds the objective of constructing good habitats for people as biological organisms inhabiting modern structures, landscapes and communities. Design consultancy firm, Arcadis do well to set out the main criteria for such a dwelling by stating

“Balancing the immediate needs of today without compromising the needs of tomorrow is at the heart of being a sustainable city,”.

The intention of a sustainable city can be separated into three main arenas; economic development, social progress and environmental responsibility to create a viable, fair and liveable world. Key performance indicators look at profit in terms of real estate, people in regards to living standards based on health, education, happiness. Finally, and some would argue most pressingly, is the planetary factor focusing heavily on water, transport, sanitation, pollution, waste management and carbon emissions.

Cities that are emblematic of sustainability in the built environment, showcase progressive elements and have been ranked as the top ten cities in 2019 using the Sustainable Cities Index include Stockholm, London, Edinburgh, Singapore, Vienna, Zurich, Munich, Oslo, Hong Kong and Frankfurt. Others just outside of the upper tier include dynamic hubs such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Paris.

There are an abundance of methods utilised by the sustainable architecture industry to engage in biophilic design. Strategies consider urban planning, the use of sustainable materials, waste management, recycling, energy and water systems. Also accounted for are transportation routes, connectivity, harnessing sunlight and wind on the land as well as lifting up landscapes for vertical gardening and farming.

These methods look to reducing the negative environmental impact construction often causes and transforming it into a long-term valuable resource and space for all stakeholders.

Top sustainable architecture strategies take into consideration some of the following:

Passive sustainable design – consideration of sun orientation and climate for window placing to manage daylight or ventilation to reduce energy requirements. Within the correct climates this involves then utilising thermal mass techniques to harness solar energy.

Active sustainable design – mechanical/electrical engineering for the implementation of highly efficient, electrical plumbing to reduce footprints.

Renewable energy systems -whether it be solar or wind.

Green building materials – prioritising compliant materials like steel, lumber, concrete, carpet and furnishings from suppliers that are environmentally responsible and innovate with sustainable/recycled materials. For worst in class materials there is the RED list and includes chemicals that pollute the environment, bioaccumulate and harm construction workers including antimicrobials and asbestos.

Native landscaping – impacts water consumption, by planning with trees, plants, grasses native to the land it can reduce irrigation needs, also landscaping ties into the energy strategy i.e. planting foliage to shade rooves/windows

Storm water management – inputting the correct water management systems to decrease water runoff on buildings and surrounding infrastructure to allow it to be released slowly back into the ground thus reducing the negative environmental impact.

Typical features often integrated into sustainable buildings range from cooling towers that force water evaporation into the building to reduce temperature and thermal mass options such as thick walls to absorb heat during the day and releasing it at night. Even simple touches such as sloping walls that increase window surface area for surplus light and planting greenery to absorb carbon and connect its dwellers to nature make for beneficial building components.

Accelerating change

To accelerate and steer infrastructure in the above strategies, the role of NGO’s such as the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) and the UK Green Building Council (UK GBC) are pivotal in benchmarking best practice. The ILFI champion the Living Building Challenge which is a green building certification programme and sustainable design framework that “visualises the ideal for the built environment”. It adopts key metrics including place, water, energy, health & happiness, materials, equity and beauty all of which are required to deliver long term value for society. For Britain specifically, the UK GBC advise on how the built environment of public and private organisations is planned, designed, constructed, maintained and operated. They seek to achieve this mission by focusing on mitigating and adapting to climate change, eliminating waste, maximising resource efficiency, restoring nature, promoting biodiversity and health optimisation for inhabitants. These organisations recognise the world’s greenest buildings which are likely to have been awarded the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) – a rating system and framework for healthy, highly efficient, cost saving constructions.

There are a handful of protagonists in the architectural space who are responsible for driving positive change. The work of pioneer, William McDonough who devised the Cradle to Cradle framework that focuses on eco effectiveness and utilising waste as a valuable resource, believes design equals optimism. His conviction that waste is a valuable nutrient transcends into his practice and involvement in city planning to create architectural designs that stabilise temperatures, keep cities cooler, provide safe habitats for ecology, build living rooves, carbon sequestration, energy efficiency and so much more. His projects look to nature for solutions integrating biomimicry and energy positive buildings. With this, his most renowned works include the transformation of the US Ford plant to have a 454,000 square foot living roof and more recently the ICEhouse, short for Innovation for the Circular Economy at Davos, Switzerland.

William McDonough outside the Innovation for the Circular Economy House at Davos

Other influential figures in regenerative design of the built environment include Jean Nouvel, who has innovated the field of sustainable architecture creating the likes of One Central Park in Sydney. He holds the sentiment that

“The projects we build today need to be able to adapt to the challenges of tomorrow.”.

Reimagining sustainable architecture & design

Green School, Bali – This international education centre which provides holistic and natural learning experiences is constructed entirely from bamboo. Bamboo’s strength is not its only advantage for it produces up to 30% more oxygen to absorb CO2 and can grow up to one metre a day. Bamboo is also able to thrive in very dense plots thus is less labour intensive on land area and quality of soil. Green School uses human manure to fertilise the soils of local bamboo farms and has created a closed system with zero waste for this material.

Bullitt Centre, Seattle North AmericaDesigned with the intention to be the world’s greenest commercial building this net positive environmental impact hub is powered by solar energy and collects rainwater which is then used in a closed system. Its material composition includes timber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and is compliant against toxic chemicals.

Bosco Verticale, MilanIn the Italian city synonymous with design, the two landmark residential towers host over 900 trees. It is home to a vegetable system devoted to the development of a microclimate, absorbs CO2, produces humidity as well as featuring hanging gardens to deliver environmental sustainability through reconnecting urban diversity to sky scrapers.

One Central Park Sydney, Australia – Consisting of a residential tower and commercial unit it integrates vertical landscaping and botany intro its structure. Over 50% of the building’s façade has planted area. This coverage assists as a natural sun controlling device, shading in summer and admitting sunlight in winter. Panoramic terraces and galleries connect residents to nature and sunlight and surrounding areas are linked by planted terraces.

Final Thoughts

As the long-term consideration for a regenerative future both in lifestyle and habitat becomes ever more prevalent, biophilic design and sustainability in the built environment will be increasingly on the agenda of governing institutions and private developers.  

Harnessing innovative city planning that engages with waste as a valuable resource, maximises efficiency in energy as well as water and raises landscapes for farming will deliver long term value not only for inhabitants but also for the land on which the infrastructure resides. At the micro level, architectural design that encompasses the criteria set out in the Living Building Challenge that addresses place, water, energy, health & happiness, materials, equity and beauty will be crucial to create a net positive impact for not only the human population but the natural environmental systems that support the essential pillars of living. Commitment to this new era of reimagining landscapes and structures will in turn contribute to the essential reaching of Sustainable Development Goal 11 and ensuring the future of a safer operating space for the people and planet in cities.

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