Over the last few decades, concerted global efforts have successfully tackled a number of looming environmental crises. From CFCs and acid rain to the hole in the ozone layer, it’s often the eleventh hour before mankind takes the necessary evasive action. Yet the ongoing climate emergency poses a far greater threat than anything we’ve faced before and consequently requires far greater action. The increasing focus on green buildings is one of many areas where society is moving in the right direction, making whole-life sustainable buildings the only environmentally justifiable option for future construction projects.
Mistakes from the past
In the decades following the Second World War, construction across Europe focused on supply rather than sustainability. In the UK, pre-war council housing typically comprised spacious cottages built from local brick; by the 1960s, local councils were paid bonuses for every extra story added onto system-built tower blocks whose hasty construction was subsequently exposed by a series of tragedies and scandals.
In some countries, everything from tower blocks to entire town centres was assembled out of concrete in the post-war decades. We now know this material to be a leading contributor to CO2 emissions. Growing understanding of whole-life environmental impacts has allowed modern-day construction firms to view sustainable construction in a more nuanced light than before.
Knowledge in the present
With our greater awareness of ecological pressures and the impact of certain raw materials, it’s easy to make informed decisions nowadays about appropriate construction materials. However, creating truly green buildings involves far more than simply selecting raw materials that are sustainable and recyclable. It requires top-down planning—maximizing solar gain through strategic window placement, incorporating renewable energy provision, reducing operational and heating costs, and so forth.
Most of this is established knowledge and accepted wisdom in many quarters. Yet there are still new developments that skimp on insulation, or which fail to incorporate readily available renewable energy solutions. The information is in the public domain, but it requires conscientious construction firms to identify and embrace it for sustainable buildings to become a universal phenomenon.
Planning for the future
Today’s construction companies bear a responsibility to design and build structures that are green buildings, not just today, but for decades to come. Below, we consider what is required to create truly sustainable buildings—and why it’s so important:
Choosing the right construction materials
As well as being a key emitter of CO2, concrete is a particularly difficult material to dispose of when a building reaches the end of its natural lifespan. Today’s green buildings still use concrete but in a more considered and sparing format. However, it’s preferable to use materials like steel for frames, since it’s less polluting to manufacture and far easier to recycle.
Sustainable timber provides a more ecologically acceptable cladding material than manufactured panels, and the variations in hue provided by natural wood can provide a dynamic aesthetic to any green building. The same is also true of some metals: Corten steel has a self-healing patina of rust that combines visual flair with durability. Aluminium’s melting point is less than half that of stainless steel, which reduces the amount of energy required to mould (or recycle) it when it’s used for cladding or internal structures like industrial staircases. Domestically sourced materials also reduce the travel footprint created by a building that would otherwise require the importation of certain materials, at considerable environmental (and financial) cost.
Incorporating renewable energy sources
Spiralling energy costs across Europe as a result of the war in Ukraine and the diminishing use of Russian gas have highlighted the urgent need to incorporate sustainable energy into all green buildings. District heating systems have been warming homes and businesses for the best part of a century through combined heat and power plants, while technologies like ground source heat pumps have themselves been on the market for decades.
Solar panels can easily be incorporated onto any south-facing or flat roof space; in the latter scenario, they can even improve rainwater runoff and capture for toilet flushing or sustainable drainage capture. Reducing water consumption is particularly important in regions where water is a scarce resource. Wind turbines are often controversial in appearance, but modestly sized turbines can be attached to (or incorporated into) sustainable buildings to capitalize on this abundantly present renewable resource. Creating a building that generates most (or ideally all) of its own energy reduces ongoing demand for external power, and could even see the building’s owners selling power back to energy firms. If every residential and commercial building in Europe could generate its own power, fossil-fuel-hungry power stations might one day be unnecessary.
Read more: Ten benefits of prefabricated construction
Having invested in capturing energy with minimal reliance on power stations, the next step in designing green buildings involves minimizing heat loss. The key here is effective insulation, from triple-glazing to residential attics packed with a heat-trapping combination of cellulose, fibreglass, and mineral rock wool. Maintaining ambient temperatures reduces the reliance on heat sources, which in turn means less fuel is needed for boilers. Not only does this slash operational costs for the building, but it also diminishes its requirement for gas or electricity that’s often partly produced using declining natural resources whose extraction from the earth is becoming increasingly difficult as easier resources are exhausted.
Increasing the amount of insulation a building contains is one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to achieve energy savings, which reduces ongoing maintenance costs—a particularly important aspect at a time of economic hardship for many. It will increase the appeal of both commercial and residential properties, reducing void periods and ensuring the building is seen as fit for purpose for longer. That in turn will reduce the need to plough further resources and investment into refurbishing or replacing the building in the future.
Recycling existing materials
It might seem easier to demolish a propped-up façade or existing shell and construct an entirely new structure. Yet retaining existing building elements usually has a smaller ecological footprint, even if each brick or stone was saved and repurposed somewhere within a new structure. Retaining elements of an existing building often delivers greater harmony with its surroundings, and it also reduces time and labor in dismantling or destroying what’s already in place. Buildings play a critical role in a town or city’s identity, and older properties, in particular, add character and charm whose importance is often only appreciated after they’ve been lost to neglect or indifference.
The preservation of existing resources in sustainable buildings can also extend to furnishings, décor, and invisible infrastructure—reusing existing heating pipes, for instance, or re-laying high-quality tiles from a demolished factory on the roofs of the new homes replacing it. Plus, if materials have been recycled once already, they should be suitable for recycling again once circumstances require it. Architects and designers are increasingly considering the practicalities and issues involved in repurposing and demolishing new buildings before they’re even constructed to avoid burdening future generations with a structure that’s hard to reinvent or dismantle.
Maintaining future appeal
Environmental concerns are changing our lives in all sorts of ways, with the rapid growth of electric vehicles being a prime example. A modern building that incorporates a number of rapid-charging stations is effectively future-proofing itself in anticipation of forthcoming societal changes. Failing to do so today could diminish the appeal of these homes or workplaces in the future, especially since retrofitting such infrastructure is more expensive and disruptive than installing it in the first place. A poorly-equipped modern building could deter the adoption of greener technologies by its future occupants, missing out on potentially beneficial changes.
Further reading: Modular Construction: Pros and Cons
Considering how a building can serve more roles than simply its primary function is crucial. Extending the main staircase and elevators up to roof level in an office block allows for apiaries to be installed, or carbon-capturing plants to be installed on redundant roof space nobody would otherwise see or access. Even if these elements aren’t directly beneficial today, designing a building that can accommodate them in the future will increase its appeal in future years. And with certain insect species in steep decline, creating a home for nature is another example of the importance of green buildings in preserving our fragile ecosystem.
Demonstrating green credentials
Installing beehives on an office roof might seem strange, but it’s a great way to engage employees, typically leading to lengthy waiting lists of volunteers. More importantly, it’s the sort of ecologically aware act that companies are striving to demonstrate in their annual reports and mission statements.
Doing the right thing is always more important than being seen to do it, but the latter can still be beneficial for recruitment, retention, and attracting inward investment. Green buildings represent an obvious way to showcase a commitment to environmental sustainability, and flagship projects like attaining carbon neutrality can be aided through sustainable buildings.
Celebrating the rise of green buildings
At LetsBuild, we’re acutely aware that construction has to be as sustainable as possible to allow future generations to enjoy them. We’ve investigated whether 3D-printed buildings could represent the future of sustainable construction, and we’ve also recently explained how to slash construction delays—freeing up extra resources by reducing project downtime.
To find out more about our efficiency-boosting construction management software, contact us for a personalized demo.