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In the fifth insight of our series on sustainable tourism, Jon Capel, Partner at Harrison Sutton Partnership, looks at how buildings can create a more sustainable future. 

Not a day goes by without a mention of climate change and the significant effect we are having on the health of our planet. Buildings are one of the most essential and significant parts of our lives, however they contribute significantly to energy consumption in vast quantities, from the production of raw building materials and the construction stage; to the daily running of building services; periodic fabric maintenance and upkeep; alterations and adaption to new uses; and ultimately in demolition and recycling.

Buildings being designed today have to comply with a whole raft of rules and regulations, many concerned with the environmental and ecological impact the building has now, and how it will affect the occupants of the future. The compliance standards should be considered as being the minimum level and we should all aspire to doing significantly better where we can.

Whilst there will always be energy use associated with all stages of building construction and subsequent occupancy, it is the collaborative process between designers and their clients to ensure that all the resources employed in the construction of the buildings are responsibly specified and ultimately executed to allow end users not only to occupy and enjoy the spaces created, but to do so with minimum usage of energy and precious natural resources.

Sustainability is, we hope, a word that will disappear out of the everyday vocabulary as buildings become more and more energy efficient and "green" thinking becomes the norm rather than the exception. For example when we specify windows, our clients assume these will be highly efficient and only question whether they are double or triple glazed.

Ultimately, whilst much is touted about the evolution of technological benefits to buildings, there are fundamentals to building design which can ensure that from the initial concept all buildings are created from a fabric first approach. A well designed building will be the result of the designer’s detailed response to the brief and the skill in which the building is crafted to respond to the site, its context, and how the internal flow and connection of spaces not only optimises the use but provides a healthy and positive environment for the everyday interaction of its users. 

We are moving closer towards optimum insulations levels. The sine curve is beginning to plateau in terms of the benefits of additional insulation thickness versus improved thermal values as demonstrated through the Passive House design which achieve such high levels of insulation that space heating is no longer required. Ironically, our buildings are becoming so well insulated that when combined with very high levels of airtightness, overheating is now becoming a problem.

For those in the fortunate position of commissioning a new building it is important to take time to examine your brief and options with your architect to ensure that you get the most of your designers skills to explore options on paper to maximise the design potential before it gets to site. Good design costs no more than bad design, particularly in the early stages of development.

  • Consider the positioning and layout of the building in terms of orientation, noise, prevailing wind, solar energy etc. 
  • Spend time getting the basic building envelope right - buildings which are highly insulated and airtight have much lower energy demands and therefore don’t require such sophisticated mechanical services installations and have lower running costs.
  • In addition to heat loss consider potential heat gain from both usage and solar energy. Where solar heat gain is excessive, incorporate design features to reduce this risk in order to avoid the need for cooling.
  • Consider the materials chosen in the building and balance embodied energy with longevity. Something that lasts a long time and gives lots of use may be more sustainable than a cheaply produced product that has to be renewed regularly.
  • Don’t be frightened of exploring options - drawings are easy to change, it’s not so easy once the structures are built and are in operation.
  • Consider waste generation during the construction period and future maintenance - both in terms of access (health and safety) and choice of materials.
  • Find a way to bring delight into the design. This does not have to be complicated or expensive but will contribute to a happy, healthy and productive environment and reduce energy needs.

Make the most of the opportunity presented by your project and remember that good design should save you energy but also provide you with stimulating and enjoyable spaces to inhabit.