What can be done about the global sand shortage?

 

It may come as a surprise to learn that sand is the most exploited resource after water. Globally, we extract around 50 billion tonnes of sand and gravel every year and the United Nations is calling for increased monitoring of extraction and supply chains. We use sand in a very wide range of products, from toothpaste to paint, cosmetics to ceramics. Even in the glass in the screen you reading this on. In particular, huge quantities of sand are used in the construction industry, most commonly in the production of concrete.

Global sand crisis RISE Design Studio

Powering our infrastructure

Sand extraction is predominantly driven by demand for building and infrastructure projects. The industry generally requires river sand, which retains its sharper edges – beach and desert sand is of no use as it has been worn by the sea or wind, which makes it too smooth to function as an aggregate.

Building a single home can require around 200 tonnes of sand to manufacture the required concrete. With increasing global demand for housing, it is therefore unsurprising that several countries have significantly reduced the available supply of river sand. This has sparked a concerning new geopolitical situation, whereby there is substantial illegal trade of river sand. This is underpinned by dredging or mining for sand from poorer countries and then illegally selling this to countries with a shortage of supply.

What can be done?

A recent United Nations report calls for an international standard on extraction. With the global population predicted to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, and 70% of people expected to live in urban areas, the demand for sand is not likely to slow down. Countries need to wake up to the negative impacts sand extraction has on biodiversity, which means a fundamental shift in how we think about and value sand.

Making changes will be particularly challenging in the context of construction-led post-Covid recovery, which is a driving rhetoric in many countries. There are calls to implement wide-reaching standards that are enforced by agencies. These will require supply chain monitoring and scrutiny of links between governments, industry and other interests. Countries can also try to avoid surplus construction projects, plan more compact urban growth, employ green infrastructure, and design policy to make it easier for buildings to be retrofitted.

What role do architects have to play?

Making these wide-reaching changes will not be easy but architects have a role to play in helping to raise awareness and shift the mindset. First and foremost, they can demand that building materials can either be replaced or reused. In practice, this might mean greater use of materials such as wood, or exploring options like recycled steel or other elements that make up the circular economy. A focus on retrofitting existing buildings, rather than demolishing and rebuilding, would also have a significant impact on the amount of sand required in the overall material input.

 

What is the difference between Passivhaus and BREEAM?

 

At a time when energy prices are rising, it is helpful to know about options in the home for reducing energy consumption. From an architectural and design point of view, this equates to much more than having a shorter shower or reducing the time the heating is turned on. Today, there are several ways to deliver a high standard in energy-efficient construction, using well-developed design principles and sustainability assessment methods. We work with two approaches in particular – Passive House and BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method).

RISE Design Studio Passive House London

Passive House – Energy savings of up to 90%

In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the benefits of a Passive House (or Passivhaus). This is a construction concept that dramatically reduces the need for space heating/cooling and primary energy consumption, while at the same time creating good, healthy indoor air quality. In Europe, a Passive House generally uses as little as 10% of the energy used by a typical building, or 25% when compared with the average new build designed for low energy consumption.

A Passive House relies on energy sources from inside the building, such as body heat, light bulbs, heat from the sun, or heat from indoor appliances to create a comfortable and healthy living environment. A mechanical heat recovery ventilation system is used to enable fresh air to enter the building without letting heat out, and allows heat contained in exhaust air to be reused.

For a building to achieve the Passive House standard, there is strong focus on energy conservation, particularly via insulation, air tightness and optimal glazing.  It is quite a simple approach and checking the design and build against the standard is straightforward.

BREEAM – thinking about carbon emissions

Although more complex to apply in practice, the BREEAM standard is concerned with more than energy conservation. The standard takes into account carbon emissions as well as energy consumption, and is more holistic than the Passive House approach. BREEAM considers the environment/infrastructure surrounding the house – good management, water consumption, biodiversity, transport, pollution, waste management, etc.

This broad-reaching approach allows careful master planning of projects, infrastructure and buildings, which is increasingly important in areas where pressure for housing development is high. BREEAM ratings focus particularly on the reduction of carbon emissions, low impact design, biodiversity protection and climate change adaptation, allowing the client or other stakeholders to compare building performance. To date, an ‘Outstanding’ BREEAM rating has been awarded to less than 1% of new non-domestic buildings in the UK and serves to inspire developers and others to improve, innovate and make effective use of resources.

Sustainability assessment at RISE Design Studio

We regularly work with both the Passive House and BREEAM standards, on both new build and retrofit projects. Our recent work that follows Passive House principles of sustainable design has incorporated the use of air source heat pumps, solar panels, airtightness, mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, and additional insulation.

The focus on sustainable value and efficiency makes Passive House and BREEAM certified projects a worthwhile investment, not least for creating a healthy home or work environment with reduced operational costs, and contributing to sustainability both within and outside the home.

Passive House – a luxurious way to take climate action

 

At RISE Design Studio, we work hard to minimise the environmental impact and energy consumption of our projects. One way we do this is by working with the Passive House and EnerPHit standards. In October 2021, publisher and editor of Passive House Plus magazine, Jeff Colley, gave a TEdx talk in Tralee on ‘How Passive Houses can improve your life and help the planet’. Jeff’s talk highlighted some of the key reasons why the Passive House is key to tackling the climate emergency.

Passive House RISE Design Stdio

What is a Passive House?

A Passive House (or Passivhaus) tends to use energy sources from within the building, such as body heat, heat from the sun or light bulbs, or heat from indoor appliances to create a comfortable, healthy living environment. Typically, a Passive House features high levels of insulation to roofs, external walls, ground floors (with no heat loss at junctions), triple glazing and air tightness. A ventilation system recovers heat from stale outbound air and passes it onto incoming fresh air that is then filtered when entering the house.

Your home is your sanctuary

In an increasingly uncertain world, we are often made to feel that taking climate action equates with making sacrifices in our lives. However, the Passive House shows us how climate action does not need to feel like this. Instead, it can improve life in several ways. Most importantly, a Passive House costs very little to heat (and in some cases nothing at all), and the internal environment always feel fresh and comfortable, whatever the weather.

The emphasis on ‘future proofing’ means that a Passive House can withstand any weather and/or temperatures that the future may bring. As Jeff Colley explains in his talk, people who live in Passive Houses regularly describe constant comfort, no ‘cursing at the cold’ in the mornings, and peace and quiet – acoustic performance is very high, making it hard to hear anything outside or between party walls in flats/other shared accommodation.

No need for heating

Impressively, there are many examples of Passive Houses whose residents rarely or never turn on the heating system. In some houses, a heating system is not even needed, with only small battery-powered back-up if required. For example, of 18 sheltered housing units built in Devon for elderly people, the heating had not been turned on in nine of the units five years after construction. Similar accounts relate to Passive Houses in which there has been a boiler issue but this is not an urgent problem, as in more standard homes.

A healthy home is a happy home

In the west, we spend about 90% of our time in our buildings, making it important that our home is a healthy place to be. Experiences during the pandemic have also made us think more about air quality and ventilation. Recent research in Ireland suggests that the benefits of Passive Houses go even further than reducing energy use and creating a comfortable living environment. Over 200,000 global lung cancer deaths each year are estimated to be caused by the presence of radon in buildings. This is a particular issue when the weather is cold outside and the indoor environment is warm – radon can rise up from the ground into the living environment. The average levels of radon in a Passive House have been found to be much lower than in an average home.

Drawbacks?

Some critics have questioned whether the Passive House standard restricts architectural freedom. However, the standard is remarkably flexible and accommodates good design, in both retrofit and new build projects. The standard can be applied to any building, including commercial and residential, and even listed period buildings.

The first Passive House hospital is nearing completion in Frankfurt and Passive House schools are becoming increasingly common, such as the Harris Academy in Sutton. Impressively, the standard has also been used in a very progressive council housing scheme in Norwich. The standard can be used to create a good indoor environment for ‘things’ rather than people as well. For example, an Imperial War Museum archive near Cambridge uses the approach to protect its artefacts for future generations.

Jeff Colley suggested that the main drawback of living in a Passive House is that it may become hard to stay in other people’s homes when one has become so accustomed to such high comfort levels. Joking aside, the Passive House is an excellent example of how ‘being green’ doesn’t have to mean sacrifice. As Jeff argues, it is one form of radical climate action that everybody can agree to. We fully support this argument and we continue to work with clients on new build and retrofit projects that apply the Passive House and/or EnerPHit standard.

Photo: Hervé Abbadie and Karawitz

Architecture and the Kindness Economy – learning from Mary Portas

“Architecture is not just about what we build – but how we live.”

We have been captured by Mary Portas’ work on the Kindness Economy. This new value system requires businesses to understand the fundamental role they play for the wellbeing of people and the wider fabric of our society. At the heart of this approach is the need to balance commerce with social progress. We also see the need to balance our architectural and design business with the environment. In this post, we reflect on what we have learned about the Kindness Economy that resonates with our work at RISE Design Studio.

Mary Portas ii

Our shifting relationship with buildings

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, we are realising just how much buildings influence every part of our lives. After spending more time in our homes and immediate neighbourhoods than ever before, we have become more aware of how we interact with the buildings we inhabit and how nature is reflected both internally and externally within and close to our homes.

In her recent podcast with Amanda Levete CBE, Mary Portas suggests we are going through a radical shift in our relationships with buildings. Architects are therefore at the forefront of designing our world post-pandemic. Buildings are the greatest expression of the idea of community and we need to understand who we are building for, particularly as different communities have different values, which need to be reflected in the architecture that surrounds them.

Lead by example

There is growing concern that volume housing is often built cheaply, with a focus on maximum profit for the developer, rather than on achieving maximum impact for the people who live there. As architects, we need to understand who we are building for and tailor designs accordingly. Different communities need different buildings, and housing should be designed around shared values not the value of a project or the resulting profit.

In an era of spending more time living and working in the home, it seems conceptually inappropriate that the design is in many cases driven by profit for someone who is not rooted in, or connected with, that community. This raises questions about how to encourage a shift in approach – Mary Portas would argue that this can be done by leading by example and showcasing successful projects for others to take inspiration from.

Between office and home

What will change as many of us start to return to the office? It is perhaps hard to predict but within the Kindness Economy there lies potential to re-imagine the office as a family home. Small companies may move from warehouses into townhouses, creating a homely office or a neighbourhood co-working space. It will be important for companies to have conversations with their staff about the future, to achieve a more positive work/life balance.

Attracting people back to the office will also require more thought about what kind of spaces people want and whether they want to work in those spaces. There is an opportunity to design buildings from which everyone has access to some outdoor space, nurturing the connection between inside and outside, and the local environment that we have all got to know so well when our movement was restricted.

Nurture community and connection

Although we live in an increasingly digital world, we are arguably more disconnected than ever before. Enforced remoteness and distance has negatively affected the culture and connectedness of our lives. As we re-emerge, we need places to meet, to learn new skills, and to feel a sense of culture around us. As we look to new ways of living and working, social interaction will be very important. How can people be put at the heart of buildings?

As many town centre properties lie empty, there is now an opportunity to begin a transformation but this will need risk-taking, innovation and creativity. Mary Portas points out the immediate opportunity to re-purpose these buildings without extensive demolition, in a way that exploits the characteristics that make a building so difficult to convert – a large central atrium, perhaps, or large indoor spaces with no natural light.

While challenging, these are exciting opportunities for architects – perhaps we can convert old department stores into spaces that are home to community functions and activities that will help to bring us all together again? Perhaps they could become places where people can grow food, making use of the latest technology in hydroponic farming? People’s concepts of a shop have changed and there is growing agreement that we need to re-purpose and re-vision these properties to create spaces and activities to bring people together.

You can visit one of Mary’s Living and Giving Shops across the UK.

 

Refurbishing homes for net zero – upskilling our design team

 

Refurbishing and retrofitting existing homes is a large part of the challenge of transitioning the built environment to net zero. We are faced with a significant task, especially as every home is different – efficiency measures that work in one home may not be appropriate for another. Retrofitting is also a daunting task for homeowners, particularly in terms of engaging a contractor with the right skills and experience for the job. At RISE Design Studio, we have worked on several projects that have included energy efficiency measures and, as the push to net zero becomes ever more critical, we are working hard to upskill our design team so all our projects are as energy efficient as possible.

Retrofit flat London

Embracing refurbishment

The 2008 Climate Change Act committed the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The buildings sector accounts for 37% of total UK GHG emissions and, of these emissions, 65% are from the residential sector. As a result, there has been growth in the residential retrofit industry, with buildings being adapted to be more sustainable and energy-efficient. The majority of our existing residential stock requires some level of retrofit to enable the government’s ambitious emissions targets to be reached.

Common measures include improving insulation. A new heating system might also be installed, or double glazing might be fitted. Yet, conserving energy is not the only reason to retrofit a building. Improving indoor environmental quality, reducing dampness and mould will all lead to increased health and productivity levels of residents.

Upskilling our design team

Recognising the increased momentum in London around reaching net zero, we have really enjoyed working with clients on refurbishment projects that incorporate environmental considerations. Modern architects are well-placed to add creativity and innovation into the drive to retrofit existing housing stock, particularly those that may prove very expensive to retrofit. For example, historic buildings such as Edwardian terraces are protected, and increasing energy efficiency can pose a real challenge. However, there are exciting options to retain the façade and rebuild the living spaces within the building.

More and more clients are seeking energy efficient homes and we are fully aware of the important role architects play in helping to reach the government target for 2050. As a result, we have been working hard to upskill our design team to work on these types of projects.

Maximising design benefit

There are several industry standards designed to increase the efficiency of residential property, including the Passivhaus and EnerPhit certifications. A Passivhaus project tends to use energy sources from within the building, such as body heat, heat from the sun or light bulbs, or heat from indoor appliances to create a comfortable, healthy living environment. However, it can be difficult to reach the exact requirements of the Passivhaus standard in a retrofit project.

Recognising this, the Passivhaus Institut has developed the EnerPHit standard for projects that use the Passivhaus method to reduce fuel bills and heating demand. We are working hard to implement this standard in our projects and our design team has developed the skills to align retrofit projects with this approach. EnerPHit takes into account the limitations associated with retrofit projects and relaxes some of the Passivhaus criteria to reflect this. Nevertheless, it is still a very demanding standard and generally results in a building that outperforms a new-build property both in terms of energy and comfort.

What is retrofit?

 

The 2008 Climate Change Act committed the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80% by 2050 (against the 1990 baseline). The buildings sector accounts for 37% of total UK GHG emissions and, of these emissions, 65% are from the residential sector. With this in mind, there has been growth in the residential retrofit industry, whereby buildings are adapted to become more sustainable and energy-efficient, while in the non-domestic market, retrofit can often be part of a larger refurbishment project. The majority of our existing residential and commercial stock requires some level of retrofit to enable the government’s ambitious emissions targets to be reached. In this post, we look at some of the methods available for retrofit and consider the role of architects in the retrofit of existing buildings.

retrofit living spaces

Making homes more energy-efficient

A study in conducted in 2014 estimated that 40 million houses in the EU would have to be retrofitted by 2020 if the reduction of emissions is to stay on track. In general, retrofitting involves the use of new technologies and materials within the home, to increase energy efficiency. A popular and simple example is improving insulation. A new heating system might also be installed, or double glazing might be fitted. There is also the option to carry out a Passivhaus retrofit. Although it is more difficult to reach the exact requirements of the Passivhaus standard in a retrofit project, the Passivhaus Institut has developed the EnerPHit standard for projects that use the Passivhaus method to reduce fuel bills and heating demand.

High performance buildings

Conserving energy is not the only reason to retrofit a building. Improving indoor environmental quality, reducing dampness and mould will all lead to increased health and productivity levels of the building’s users (read more on our blog about sustainable architecture principles that improve health). A retrofit project also presents the opportunity to reassess the accessibility, safety and security of a building.

The role of the architect

Retrofitting the home to increase energy efficiency can have significant architectural implications for the interior/exterior of houses. Modern architects are well-placed to add creativity and innovation into the drive to retrofit existing housing stock, particularly those that may prove very expensive to retrofit. For example, historic buildings such as Edwardian terraces are protected, and increasing energy efficiency can pose a real challenge. There are exciting options to retain the facade and rebuild the living spaces within the building. Because architects have an overview of the whole build process, they tend to be well-placed to act as a lead co-ordinator in retrofit projects. If you are keen to implement the Passivhaus method, you are likely to need planning permission as the work may require external insulation or changes to the roof, for example. Again, an architect can help with this.