We live in a financially sensitive world.
In the wake of the financial crisis and with the uncertainty of Brexit looming, the cost of energy and power continues to rise, and looks set to do so for the foreseeable future. Never before in our history has it been more important to consider both how we produce and consume energy on our planet.
As a culture, we have also become more attuned to the benefits of good design. We want our buildings to be at once beautiful, comfortable, practical and affordable.
These are indeed exciting and challenging times for designers.
The emergence of ‘eco-bling’
During the early years of the ‘green revolution’, technology was heralded as the saviour of our planet. We rushed headlong towards gadgets and high-tech solutions as an instant way to make our buildings more ‘green’.
However, many of these ‘eco-bling’ add-ons proved little more than expensive gestures with little or no long term benefit. This green jewellery that adorns our buildings, an outward display of our eco-credentials, seems to have done little to slow the rate of climate change.
Simply adding solar panels and a wind-turbine to a badly designed, energy hungry building will achieve very little. Eco-bling can also be expensive and can take a long time to break even, at which point the technology may already be obsolete and need replacing.
Another problem with this technology is that it relies on external forces: the national grid, government policies, subsidies and feed-in tariffs as well as market forces for funding and research. It is just too easy for somebody else to pull the plug (literally) on your investment.
There has to be a better way, a simpler way.
Why nature is better
In many ways we have forgotten the lessons of vernacular architecture. We seem to no longer know how to work with the specifics of a site, its climate and the locally available materials and trades.
We persist in working against nature rather than with it.
Our vernacular buildings have been around for centuries. While not perfect, those that have survived have successfully adapted to the changing patterns of life and living. Built in a pre-industrial age, before the advent of electricity, these building had to instead rely upon harnessing the forces of nature.
We can, indeed, learn from our past by adopting a more considered approach to power and energy right from the start, while the designs for our buildings remain on the drawing board. We need to regain a careful consideration of how we place buildings on a site. We need to worship the sun, and bend in the breeze, while respecting the changing of the seasons.
This is a methodology, rather than a surface treatment. We will design for durability and longevity in every aspect of the building – from the location of window openings to the choice of door handles. This is not something that is simply bolted on once the design of the building has been completed, but a vital, driving force behind the entire design process.
I am not suggesting we simply retreat to the vernacular tradition and jettison all of the amazing technological advances of the past 100 years. Instead, what is required are new solutions suited to the realities and meaning of modern life and the condition of our planet.
We can use design to solve our problems without the need for expensive equipment.
A more sensible type of sustainability
It is time we took a more practical, flexible and common sense approach to sustainability. The necessity of conserving and managing our energy has to come before its generation, even if it is from renewable sources.
There is always going to be limited benefit to any eco-measures if a building is poorly insulated. Given that such a high proportion of power use is devoted to heating and cooling, better insulation and draft proofing has to be a number one priority.
Such measures are far from glamorous. They cannot be displayed to the watching world or worn as a badge of eco-heroism, but they are effective. Insulation is cheap and once installed will remain for the life of the building, irrespective of government policy or market economics.
A sustainable building is also a flexible one.
We can rely on nature to deal with the question of ventilation rather than mechanical equipment. Our buildings will make use of natural cross breezes, through openable windows, doorways and louvres that can be easily sealed and unsealed. Openable skylights at the top of a building will help to draw out hot air naturally, replacing it with cool air from ventilation gaps at ground level.
We will work with nature rather than against it and it will makes us feel better and healthier than any air conditioning unit ever could.
A sustainable building is one that allows itself to be orientated to take advantage of the sun for both heating and natural lighting. It uses thermal mass to regulate internal temperatures and respond to seasonal changes.
A new role for renewables
I am not against renewable energy, far from it, but it has to be appropriate, contextual and part of a wider, holistic approach to energy use in a building.
Technology can and will change the world, but only by changing ourselves and our attitude towards energy can we make a really big difference.
We have to accept that sustainability is not something we can buy. A sustainable life must be lived.
Words: Mark Gregory