Some thoughts on Sustainability and Building


– by Antony DiMase

One of the biggest myths in sustainable architecture is that somehow it costs more to build a green building.  Leaving aside the lifecycle cost and social impact of not building green – this myth ought to be challenged.  The common thought amongst developers is that green buildings cost about 15% more than regular buildings and that the consultant costs are much higher.  As such it is difficult to justify building less of what you need to be more “green”.   Sure we all want to do the right thing – but as George Osborne told the British Parliament in 2011 “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”.  Closer to home – think of a school committee trying to justify not building a new classroom in order to be more sustainable – it simply is not going to happen.

The reason this myth permeates is that somehow we have linked building in a sustainable fashion to the need for green technology and green features.  I suggest there is even a rustic “green” aesthetic – which may or may not relate to the thermal performance of a building project.  Some good examples of this are solar panels, rainwater tanks and black water treatment plants – all of which are add-ons to the core building and are ancillary to the function of any given building.  Green features provide an example of the way we think we can consume our way out of climate change and its harsh effects.

Collaborative design and decision making onsite at our Brunswick St North project. Photo by Matt Irwin
Collaborative design and decision making onsite at our Brunswick St North project. Photo by Matt Irwin.

However, I want to be clear – installing solar panels and other tried and tested technologies are a good thing – but they not the only way we can achieve sustainability in our built environment.  My point is that sustainability can be achieved by other means that do not rely on additional features to the building.

In reality a sustainable approach to building should cost no more and no less than the cost of building any given building.   However, more thought and more consideration is needed at every step of the way to create a building that uses less energy to operate and fewer resources in the building process.  It’s about doing the right thing and making choices that get s back to what we need – rather than what we want.

So how does this play out in any given project?  How can an individual, family or organisation set about making their building more sustainable without spending more than their neighbour?  Well let’s start with “how big?  The simplest way to reduce energy consumption – both long and short term – is to THINK BIG and build small.  This is obvious – but so often we can’t allow our imagination to think of using spaces for more than one function, instead we’d rather cater for those few occasions when a big space is needed =- but in reality – most of the time spaces go un-used or underutilized – especially when we look at our housing stock.

Secondly invest in the building fabric rather than add-on features.  And in case you are wondering what building fabric means – well it’s the walls, floor and roof of the building – the shell of the building.  It’s everything you need to protect you and the better you build the longer it will last and the more it will protect you in the long term. If you can afford other features – like solar panels – by all means do so – but do not compromise is in the building fabric of the building you create.  Insulation, sealing pesky gaps around openings, double glazing and creating buildings that are thermally protected from outside is the best way to reduce energy costs and keep the interior spaces warm in winter and cool in summer.

 Insulation installed onsite at West Melbourne Passive Warehouse. Photo by DiMase Architects.
Insulation installed onsite at West Melbourne Passive Warehouse. Photo by DiMase Architects.

By creating a smaller foot print and investing in the building fabric – the building is doing all the work for you.  The building becomes resilient to the effects of weather.  The smart building owner is not relying on external sources to keep the building cool and warm as the external conditions fluctuate.  Plus the smart building owner will save money by not having to pay for so much heating and cooling.  It’s an investment. The building itself shields itself from the exterior environment and you can retain a thermally comfortable space internally.

Material choices are absolutely critical – re-using materials and re-using existing structures is simply one of the best ways to be more sustainable.  Materials with a high-embodied energy like aluminum are difficult to justify.  However, plantation timber, recycled timber or bricks that have been recycled or earth construction do not require large volumes of energy to create are highly desirable.  Anything that is locally sourced is simply much better for the planet and bear in mind just how much packaging each item that is selected brings with it.  These choices are all common sense activities – but they can make a real difference.  My experience tells me it’s easy to go with the flow – rather than make those choices that use less energy to make, less energy to reach the site and more consideration on how to re-use materials and spaces that already exist.

Despite this it all comes down to how we live in our buildings – a six star building with a one star user does nothing to save the planet.  Just because we install water efficient showerheads is no justification for 20-minute showers.  Houses have grown in size in the past 20 years – from about 12 squares to about 25 spares – such that our connection to nature, daylight and fresh air is diminished.  The number of occupants per household has also diminished and we spend less time at home and more time at work.  When at home we spend more time indoors, connected to technology and consuming stuff that our bodies don’t need.  Houses themselves have become large scale containers of “stuff” that eventually find itself into landfill.  This is probably the cycle that is most difficult to break and it comes down to individuals making good choices for themselves – not the government.

Finally the best definition for sustainability is that it is about the creative optimisation of available resources – it is not about an illusory targets or spending more to consume less.  Creativity is at the core of sustainability – not the wringing of hands and worry that comes with the issue.  The new economy of sharing everything makes sense, supporting local based building industries and tradespeople, finding locally sourced food supplies, encouraging indigenous landscaping, re-cycling goods and finding more sustainable forms of transport all figure in a better way to live.  These ideas relate closely to the way we live and build and ultimately the metric we need to apply when thinking sustainability is the energy consumption of the choices we make at every step of the way.

Investing in sustainable buildings brings a return in investment by costing less to run and less to maintain.  Also sustainable buildings are becoming more desirable – as anyone living in a Nightingale Developments can attest.  Thirdly the health benefits are tangibly better – connection to fresh air, daylight, and nature and – if you use an architect – visually) interesting spaces. Health and sustainability is not a connection that is discussed that often – however, when you consider the toxic effects of pollution and poor building practices – it is a powerful argument for green buildings everywhere.  The reality is that we can challenge the myth that sustainability in building needs to cost more – it doesn’t!
By making sustainability in building more accessible and more easily understood – then the change can lead to a brighter future that we can all play a role in making.

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