Renewables and locally sourced materials are a great way to minimise the carbon footprint and embodied energy associated with a building, but is there a deeper rooted method which has less emphasis placed upon it?

Lewis Johnson
November 9, 2020

Longevity & Timlessness.

With more and more ephasis being placed on sustainability within the construction industry and the wider economy as a whole, clients are more educated and therefore more aware of its importance. What was once a consideration of the few, is now a requirement for the many. The growth of renewables - partly attributed to government incentives in the past, it is felt to have done more than just incentivise the application of solar panels, cavity insulation and renewable heating strategies to name a few, but arguably more importantly it has educated the population into the benefits; both financially and environmentally. As a result of the incentives (which are of course great), the general population default to 'solar panels' etc as the only way for the building to have sustainable attributes. They have a low barrier to entry and can be retrospectively applied to existing buildings, as can the other methods above. However, can we do more when building from scratch?

Having read a publication over the weekend, this provoked thoughts into broader sustianability and how I, myself, think about sustainability. I believe renewables have been vital in begining the conversation about sustainability, and have captured the attention of the mass population. But how can architecture play a role on a macro level, instead of simply applying mechanical elements to a building.

When asked "what does sustainability in architecture mean to you?", Petra Gipp responded with "In my profession, trying to work with high quality architecture is the best way of thinking of paying atention to sustainability. Then people will hopefully respect and take care of their spaces".

The above begins to think more broadly about the physical output itself, and how the building can provoke an appreciate from its users and engrain a responsibly to maintain the building. Taking care of the building ensures longevity, and prevent damage and deterioration.

Charlotte Coward-Williams, Editor of Enki Magazine said this so well, in that "opting for the hot water tap, the stone worktop or the wooden floor might be the more expensive choice in the short term, but in the long term you'll never need to buy a kettle again, you'll save energy and your worktop will last a lifetime, as will the wooden floor that is created with care."

We have a 'through-away societal mentality. When element of a product breaks, we will often replace the entire product it instead of attempting to fix the component. We are so quick to replace things that this offsets the good we are attempting to do elsewhere (i.e. renewable heating). The excerpt above susinctly describes how specifying quaily from the start will reduce the likelihood and/or repetition of replacement. The lifecycle of the product is significantly longer than that of its cheaper/less durable counterpart. This is not to say that to acheive a durable home with a long lifespan that you need to spend more money on more expensive materials, but it does say that more thought needs to be placed on longevity. Charlotte goes on to state that "it has become vital that we make a conscious effort to decisively move away from consumerism and instead focus on acquiring things that will last."

Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten. Invest in durability, it will no doubt save you money in the long run.

Closing Thoughts

Finally, on an even more macro level, the design of the building itself must avoid the whims of fashion. A building which dates quickly will be sooner replaced as tastes change than that which is timeless. Harking back to the quality and durability traits noted above, if the components are cared for and in-tact, there is less need/desire to replace the building as it remains beatiful, functional and usable. The longer the building and its components are in-situ, the longer the lifecycle of the building and ultimately, the more sustainable the building is. This, combed with the use of modern technology (i.e. heat recovery systems, smart lighting, rainwater harvesting etc) aims to create a new breed of buildings. If old buildings didn't lose so much heat, they would have great sustainability credentials as 1) they haven't been replaced for centuries, therefore lowering the embodied energy associated with the building fabric, 2) they are often built of natural materials sourced locally and 3) their components last. Flag stone floors and hardwood timber floors. These still remain today; a world away from volume built homes we see erected everywhere. These are the homes which will be replaced quickly. History has repeated itself over and over.

Yes, the most sustainable building is the one which already exists, but to allow this quote to play out, we must ensure there is a building to 'already exist'.

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