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Green Buildings: In Transit to a Sustainable World

By Raymond J. Cole

Reprinted with permission from Canadian Architect, July 1996, Volume 41, No. 7, pp. 12-13.

C.K. Choi BuildingWhat would a sustainable would be like?  Imagine a reduced and stabilized population, no more culture of consumerism, an economic framework that fully incorporates environmental impacts, significantly reduced use of resources, and the concept of waste eliminated.  We are far from existing in such a world now, but we are in the early stages of a period of reappraisal and change which  will extend well into the next millennium.  Designing in this transitional period as society realigns itself to meet the dictates of sustainability is quite different from designing in an era in which an environmental ethic has fully matured.

No architect would intentionally design a building which degrades the environment.  The adverse environmental consequences of buildings derive from the collective impacts of a host of small choices and actions, each made without knowledge or concern for their aggregate effects.  And design decisions are made for a society which has different priorities and is ignorant of the environmental effects.

Architects cannot easily change the context in which they operate, they can and should address the issue of greater environmental responsibility and awareness.  We can design environmentally responsively and responsibly today ­ it just requires different design priorities and different knowledge.

Changes are already occurring within architecture, ranging from improving energy performance through to material re-use and on-site waste water treatment, which suggest considerable environments are attainable on all buildings in our time.

Forward to Basics

Energy is, and will remain, central to sustainability.  Natural Resources Canada’s C-2000 program has created a new benchmark in energy performance, which is 50 per cent below that of the ASHRAE/AES 90.1 standard.  The program has also made tentative steps to address other environmental issues.  Projects such as the "Green on the Grand" office building in Kitchener and Bentall’s office building in Richmond, British Columbia have now been completed under this program, and they meet or exceed the C-2000 requirements. The natural conditioning of building interiors is regaining acceptance.  The School of Engineering and Manufacture at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom uses natural lighting, high thermal mass, natural stack ventilation and simple heating techniques to condition a wide range of different spaces, including laboratories and lecture theatres.  Michael Hopkins’ design for the Inland Revenue facilities in Nottingham, England uses similar strategies and has received one of the highest performance rating in the U.K. building environmental assessment program, BREEAM.  The Earth Sciences Building by Busby and Associates at the University of British Columbia, now in schematic design, also reverts back to simple, straightforward, user controls such as operable window walls and closeable insulating shutters, and wherever possible relies on natural system.

The transition to sustainability will go hand in hand with a more effective use of non-renewable resources, and will eventually lead to a conversion to renewable resources.  Buildings should be designed so that they can be modified to accommodate solar and other renewable energy collecting systems.  And the design should take a comprehensive approach where energy is matched to the end use, and where waste heat from one process can be usefully employed in another.

Whereas solar buildings of the 1970s typically focused on passive measures for space heating, and active systems for domestic hot water heating, recent projects such as the Boyne River Ecology Centre in Ontario by Douglas Pollard Architect (CA June 1994) use a carefully integrated range of strategies such as photovoltaics, wind and small scale hydro for electricity, solar collector systems for domestic hot water, and passive solar to offset winter heating.

Mineral Switch

We have begun to substitute problematic materials with greener equivalents.  If all the possible material substitutions were made to the way we currently design buildings, we could reduce the overall embodied energy and attendant environmental impacts of building by approximately 15%-20%.  Material substitution is the most direct approach to sustainable building and one which interests both design professions and the materials industries.  It is a critical first step for all architects as they enter into environmentally responsible design.

Make it Last

Longevity is central to environmentally responsible building design, and it applies to whole buildings as well as their material parts.  A building that can be adapted and reused saves building new.  Its components can be recycled material or salvaged materials.  The common aim throughout is to keep materials within the materials cycle as long as possible without the need for further processing.

Increasing discussions about life-cycle analysis, and books such as Steward Brand’s How Buildings Learn have stimulated the growth of awareness of how important it is to think of the future implications of design decisions.  One can distinguish strategies which result in immediate environmental benefits, such as reusing existing buildings and materials, from strategies where the benefits are deferred to the future, such as designing so that materials can be recovered, and with increased floor to height ratios to allow greater adaptability to other uses.

More with Less

Build space is a critical resource and most is currently underused.  Hot-desking, where employees use any available desk rather than having their own is beginning to be explored as communications and globalization continually emphasize the need for the 24-hour office.  Hot desking reduces car travel as well as demand for built space.

Mixed use buildings also give opportunities for creatively intensifying the use of space.  Antoine Predock’s Thousand Oaks Civic Centre in California, for example, elegantly combines such diverse uses as the city council chambers and a theatre for a local repertory company into a single space ­ civic business by day, theatre by night.

Less is More

Since the industrial revolution made commodities cheaply available, we have had a century or so for cultivating the notion that "more is "better."  Indeed, increased affluence has made it possible to satisfy an apparently insatiable demand for whatever we want.  Design problems have typically been solved through an increased palette of materials and more sophisticated technologies.  The downside, of course, has been greater use of resources and ecological degradation, and a tendency for users to be less understanding and less involved in their buildings’ operation.

Reduction is the primary method of conservation.  If the scale of demand for energy, materials and other resources is not managed, then other strategies such as reuse and recycling will ultimately prove irrelevant.  Reducing our use of resources also means reassessing our expectation.  This change in our attitudes will be an absolute requirement in the transition towards sustainability.

We are beginning to witness the deliberate exclusion of traditional interior finishing materials.  For example, the amount of drywall in the Strawberry Vale School in Saanich, B.C. (Patkau Architects) was reduced by limiting it to specific areas in the classrooms where it would be most effective at reflecting daylight.  This strategy was consistent with a broader architectural notion that the richness of a building derives, in part, through expressing how it was built.

Upgrading the existing building stock will become imperative during our transition to sustainability.  And existing buildings are a vast source of future building materials. We are already seeing materials being salvaged and reused in projects like the C.K. Choi building for the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia.  This project represents the most adventurous reuse of salvaged materials to date.  It incorporates a heavy timber frame recovered from a previously demolished campus building, reused brick cladding and a host of other salvaged interior finish components.

Meeting of Minds

A sustainable building will be recognized as much by the integration of the various environmental strategies it uses, as by the strategies themselves.  This integration requires architects, engineers and all other involved in the production of buildings to transcend their professional boundaries and work as a team from the outset.   The C-2000 program has already demonstrated that such changes in the design process result both in improved building performance and cost savings, and these benefits will most probably be even greater when extended to a broader range of environmental issues beyond energy.

Buildings currently rely on a single throughput of resources.  Potable water, for example, is used once and discharged directly as waste through the sewer.  Energy is supplied, typically in a high grade form, and dissipated as waste.  Materials are used once and then sent to the landfill. Buildings should be designed to draw the most use out of every resource in a cascading effect, from their highest quality upon supply, until they leave the building.  Martin Liefhebber’s winning entry to the CMHC Healthy Housing Competition (CA May 1992) now under construction in Toronto has rainwater collection, filtering, purification and storage for drinking and washing by the occupants.  This water can then be recycled for dish washing and toilet use, and the resulting waste is filtered and biologically treated on sit.  Clean water enters and clean water leaves.

New Knowledge

Architects must develop new skills, knowledge and attitudes to support both environmental and renovation issues.  Yes, there is a proliferation of environmental information.   Yes, the quality of information is improving as are mechanisms for finding one’s way through the sheer amount of it.  And No, we will never find the right information, at the right time, to make the best possible environmental choice.  But there is simply no excuse for inaction.

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