Principles of Sustainable Design

On eco-friendly architecture

Sustainability considers the impact of our life on the well-being of the environment. Sustainability has been defined as:

meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Sustainability is a word that seems to have dropped for the moment from our political lexicon, but the issue of appropriate energy use will not go away. Australians live in some of the largest houses in the world, in rather dispersed suburbs, and our energy grid is based on polluting sources. The problem of ecologically sustainable development – meshing economic growth with environmental protection – can be described as the tragedy of the commons:

depletion of a shared resource by individuals acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group’s long term best interests.

Our ecological footprint is the ultimate sustainability metric

if every inhabitant of planet Earth lived as we do in Australia we would need 3 Earths to provide the resources. Architect/inventor/futurist Buckminster Fuller succinctly outlined what ought be our collective objective:

to make the world work for 100 per cent of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offence or the disadvantage of anyone.

An architect’s contribution to this work is to design projects that do not give ‘ecological offence’, i.e. to design to build ‘sustainably’ (Architects’ work also contributes to social sustainability, but let’s keep this discussion to individual buildings for the moment).

When we talk of sustainable design we look at a building’s impact on the environment from a ‘whole building’ point of view. To assess a building’s full impact we must look at the cost of constructing the building – capital cost – as well as the ongoing costs – operational cost – associated with operating the building, of running the necessary machinery, over its lifetime. The built fabric is critical to lowering the resource use of the building for years, but over time the greater contribution to overall energy use will be the operating cost.

Sustainable design must be flexible to change and contribute positively to the built environment

When we design we should look first to strategies that minimise resource use, then we can look at a way to maximise use of renewable energy sources. Until the building envelope is as good as it can be there is no need to deal with energy saving systems – good design beats green gizmos.

Any design striving to reduce its environmental impact should address the following aspects:

  • site location, to reduce the costs of transportation for the building occupants
  • site planning to optimise solar gain – maximise in winter and minimise in summer – optimise daylighting, prevailing winds, views, etc.
  • maximise floor plan efficiency
  • well-designed building fabric incorporating insulation methods to reduce the need for mechanical systems
  • minimise water consumption
  • reduction of waste, during construction and the life-cycle of the building
  • maximise renewable energy sources
  • the design can make the building ‘an educator’, to make it inspire the occupants and perhaps provide feedback to allow those who want to a way to interact and modify their behaviour.

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Principles of sustainable design for residential projects

A residential project in NSW that requires development approval must pass BASIX, the state government’s energy conservation planning tool. This stipulates insulation requirements in walls, roofs and floors, energy efficiency requirements for new light fittings, hot water systems and windows, and water conservation measures.

However BASIX, as the name suggests, sets a low bar for green initiatives – it is a minimum compliance. Beyond the requirements of BASIX our commitment to energy efficient design leads us to strongly recommend the application of the following to all our projects regardless of the brief or budget:

  • the incorporation of passive solar design principles throughout the project
  • extensive use of thermal mass and insulation, including energy efficient doors and windows
  • limited dependence on external energy sources (gas & electricity)
  • the incorporation of active solar design principles such as green roofs
  • installation of a solar hot water system
  • installation of solar power panels, or at least the provision of wiring suitable for their future installation
  • limited use of air-conditioning
  • use of environmentally appropriate materials, in particular recycled materials
  • limited use of non renewable resources (rain forest timbers, aluminium etc)
  • avoidance of MDF, particleboard, laminated wood, copper and heavy metals; minimal use of PVCs
  • use of low off-gassing (VOC) paints, products and materials
  • ecologically appropriate landscape design based on native and, preferably, endemic species
  • provision of a rainwater collection system to collect roof water for reuse on the site
  • smart metering/ energy monitoring

Sustainability principles beyond the less-bad

The term sustainable usually describes the less bad – BASIX is a minimum compliance – whereas the truly sustainable is restorative: near zero energy homes are quite easily achievable nowadays. We could consider a building like a tree, that gives more than it takes.

We believe that sustainable design should be an extension of our goal to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our clients and those who use our buildings – now and in the future.