Sustainability in architecture part 2: where we go from here

21 July 2015

Sustainability, as with architecture, is open to interpretation and exists largely in degrees. How do we make the most sustainable building? Does it exist? What role do architects play in the sustainable construction industry?

Just what is and isn’t sustainable is a matter of opinion. But there is some common ground: everyone agrees that we need to move forward.

Manufacturing Sustainable Architecture (MSA) has, at first glance, a counter-intuitive idea around sustainability: positing that buildings use steel and silicone in place of wood.

“I’m a professional engineer,” Karl Rusher of MSA says. “Steel and glass aren’t as counter-intuitive as sustainable materials to me as they may be to others.”

Karl was spurred to look at alternative materials – instead of traditionally used brick and wood – by, what he feels, is a lack of action from government and the industry.

“My own children face a depressing future. So few people, companies and governments are doing anything that will make a significant difference and observing fruitless attempts by good people trying to do the right thing or trying to create change was the catalyst for exploring alternative materials,” he says.

As an engineer Karl uses what he describes as a scientific approach to construction which is, “not blindly following anecdotal evidence. There’s a lot of misinformation and pseudo-scientific garbage out there”.

Both he and Simon Dodd, of architecture practice Warren and Mahoney, agree that we need a completely new system. Simon describes the current situation and the amount of waste created as a cancer. The MSA houses, Karl says, are waste free.

“We’re in an age of rampant consumerism and admiration of rampant consumerism and there’s an implied status value in creating waste,” Simon says.

“Cities are considered the greatest achievement of civilisation but without planning pose a huge threat to the planet,” Simon continues. “We all want to be technologically connected and we want to physically connect closely to the landscape beyond cities but we keep reinventing parts of cities and consigning the waste into a pile around the city, which is not what we should be doing.”

Ethical design, according to MSA, is the process of ensuring that all materials are ethically sourced. This includes making products that work, last, are low maintenance, don’t break and aren’t designed with planned redundancy, but instead are designed with future generations in mind. They are 100 per cent indefinitely recyclable, thus minimising wastage in cities and buildings.

Phil Smith of Collingridge and Smith says that apathy and lack of awareness are big contributors to challenges faced by sustainable architecture.

“In the UK and Europe,” Phil says, “sustainable architecture is definitely very high on the agenda across the whole industry – very much down to the awareness within the industry and from government regulation. In New Zealand it’s talked about often but not done in any meaningful way. Larger firms are usually the ones leading in this field.”

Warren and Mahoney is one of those larger firms and Simon says that while there is an element of introducing sustainable ideas and concepts to corporate builds, effort is sometimes required to ensure clients understand and accept their goals are being achieved in ways that align as far as possible with sustainable ideals.

“I think designers are fully on board with many initiatives but their uptake by clients depends largely on the clients’ understanding of the benefits and value to them, their business and their community. People are really on board about energy consumption, that’s a no brainer, and water consumption, that’s easily quantified, but beyond those, some people struggle to understand how initiatives relate to them and their project.”

Phil says there’s more to sustainability than saving energy. “Truly sustainable architecture should take a holistic approach – and this goes further than just low energy design or non-toxic materials. It should encompass the community and place in which the building is being proposed – the building should have a positive effect on its community creating new social, economic and environmental opportunities for all.”

Buildings that have those benefits are what MSA is offering, even if that’s not immediately obvious. The material Karl posits – glass, silicone and steel – need to be mined and therefore cost energy and pollution during the early stages of the process.

“The energy used to mine, process and transport materials and to construct the house is repaid by installing enough solar energy to run the home and repay 100 per cent of that embodied energy in three to five years through a grid tied system,” Karl says.

“Building waste is essentially zero. Offcuts of all materials to build the house are very small and will be 99.9 per cent recycled.”

Phil says the key is that Collingridge and Smith has aligned itself with sustainability along the construction chain.

“We try and start from first principles which for us start with the client. If they are on board with the notion then it’s an easy process for all. We strategically align ourselves with certain industry sectors and clients in order to achieve this, and then we set about the actual design process, having established common values and goals.”

No matter the school of thought, sustainable architecture’s biggest challenge is turning the unconvinced into true believers and once that’s achieved, it has a bright future in the corporate and domestic worlds.