Architecture and the planet: a crucial moment

 

David Attenborough’s ‘A Life On Our Planet‘ brings into sharp focus the destruction of Earth’s habitats that he has witnessed during his nearly 70 years in broadcasting. There is no mistaking the significant scale of the issues currently faced by our planet. At the end of the film, Attenborough offers us some rays of hope: the power of the right financial incentives to encourage reforestation and renewable energy development; the potential to replenish the seas with fish by protecting our coastlines; the importance of raising the global standard of living to slow population growth. But what role can architects play in tackling the pressing issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution?

Garden studio RISE Design Studio

Cultivating a circular economy

It is common knowledge that buildings have a significant impact on our environment. In 2014, a European Commission report noted that construction and builing use in the EU accounts for 40% of all energy use, 35% of greenhouse gas emissions, 50% of all extracted material, 30% of water use and 35% of all generated waste.

Armed with this information, it has become imperative that architects consider how their design decisions can reduce the impact of the industry. It is time to move away from the traditional ‘take, make and waste’ system towards a ‘take, make and reuse’ approach – a circular rather than linear economy. Recycling materials becomes paramount, working hard to divert construction and demolition debris from landfill and reusing, repairing or remanufacturing materials where possible.

Burrows road home renovation RISE Design Studio

– This glazed extension to the rear of a house in London used bricks reclaimed during the demolition to create a feature wall in the new space. 

Building in biodiversity

We also now know that plants and trees in our cities play an important role in tackling climate change and improving the health and wellbeing of residents. Green infrastructure – networks of green space and other green features in our communities – is central to quality placemaking. There is a compelling case for developing more natural and semi-natural habitats in our cities, towns and buildings, and architects play a key role in considering green infrastructure in the earliest stages of design.

Mill Hill new build RISE Design Studio Green roof

– Our new build house in Mill Hill features a green roof (along with other Passivhaus principles) to minimise the environmental impact and energy consumption of the house.

Embracing energy efficiency

Increasing the energy efficiency of buildings is a concern that has been increasingly recognised in UK legislation and policy. This may involve retrofitting buildings – using new technologies and materials such as insulation to increase energy efficiency. Conserving energy not only has environmental benefits – improving the quality of the indoor environment and reducing dampness increase health and productivity levels of residents.

Rise-Design-Studio-Douglas-House-ph-Edmund-Sumner-25-600x817

– Our Douglas House renovation features a range of passive and active environmental technologies (insulation, airtightness, solar panels, a mechanical ventilation heat recovery system, rainwater harvesting and smart thermostats).

At RISE, we see the importance of contributing to positive change in the way we conceive, construct and deliver the built world. We have made a serious commitment to reducing the impact of our projects on the environment and creating designs that improve the health and wellbeing of our clients and communities.

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.

Passivhaus explained

 

Increasing the energy efficiency of buildings is a key concern for a sustainable architect. In this blog post, we look at the basic principles of the Passivhaus (or Passive House) standard: a sustainable construction concept that is the fastest growing energy performance standard in the world. Developed in the early 1990s in Germany, the standard can be applied to any type of building – residential, commercial, public and industrial – in any part of the world. 30,000 buildings now have the standard worldwide, with more and more non-residential buildings such as administrative buildings and schools being built to Passivhaus standards. Passivhaus standard components are also being applied to retrofit projects.

Passive house

So, what exactly is a passive house?

Not to be confused with solar architecture, although it shares some common principles, the key concern for an architect designing a passive house is to reduce dramatically the need for space heating/cooling and primary energy consumption, while at the same time creating good, healthy indoor air quality.

A well-designed and constructed passive house can allow for energy savings of up to 90% when compared to typical building stock in Europe, and over 75% when compared with the average new build designed for low energy consumption. This means that passive house owners and tenants tend not to worry about rising energy prices – passive houses require less than 15 kWh/(m2/yr) for heating and cooling, compared to an average of 150 kWh/(m2/yr) for the space heating demands of a typical house built since 2000.

A passive house uses 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. A mechanical heat recovery ventilation system allows fresh air to enter the building without letting heat out, and allows heat contained in exhaust air to be reused. This highly efficient heat recovery system means that fresh air is supplied without draughts and guarantees low radon levels and improved health.

In order to ensure that the ventilation system is effective, a passive house must be properly insulated and airtight, allowing for minimal air leakages in and out of the building through thermal bridges such as the walls. This means that heat can be kept out during the summer and in during the winter. Windows are triple paned glazing and the whole building is oriented so that shade is received in the summer and low angle sunlight in the winter.

It is an exciting time to be working with the Passivhaus sustainable construction standard. Even though ventilation systems require an extra investment, passive house owners/users can save a considerable amount of money over the long-term in energy savings, with many projects showing how applying the standard can be surprisingly affordable as a new build. A Resolution of the European Parliament in 2008 called for implementation of the standard in all member states of the European Union by 2021. With 2020 as a deadline for all new buildings to be nearly ‘zero energy’, the Passivhaus standard provides architects across Europe with a robust, holistic set of guidelines for achieving this goal.