From Low Energy to Living Buildings?

28 January 2013

Time to ask what now for sustainable design ?

As we ease into 2013 and review the last few years, it becomes evident that quietly, almost imperceptibly, sustainable design and low energy (if nothing else) architecture have moved toward the mainstream. While deep green buildings are by no mean common across Europe or the US, the level of what is now considered normal is light years away from the inefficient, if sharp looking, buildings of even ten years ago. Many forces have combined to make this happen. In the EU the implementation of the EPBD and its delivery of transparency in building performance has finally penetrated the market and the consciousness of designer, agent and client. Rising fuel costs and the availability of better, cheaper modelling and compliance software have also lubricated the wheels for sustainable architects. In Ireland the tenure of the Greens in power led to higher targets  through tougher and tougher revisions of Part L (energy) of our Building Regulations which essentially set out a challenge; One that was neatly answered by the timely rise to prominence of PassivHaus construction with its knowledge base and insistence on rigour in construction detailing.

The availability of grants for certain energy improvement measures and the fact that construction cost have tumbled with the recession (though so also has the availability of investment funding) contribute in no small way too. Indeed a recent report by the Surveyors Institute shows that tender prices in Ireland are down by as much as 33% on peak boom construction costs. Previous reports by prestigious cost consultants in the UK which indicated that achieving LEED ratings on commercial building added no more than 3 to 7 % to their cost is helping dispel the myth that green architecture costs a lot more.  In addition to the energy payback gleaned from this small extra cost these hard nosed clients (who adopted LEED) are in line for multi year savings on energy and other resource costs (water, waste) and tangible improvements in worker, heath and productivity.

Does this all point to a mainstreaming of sustainability- or, at least, low energy design ?

Are we there ?

Well yes and no. Low energy buildings are now created, or at least designed, almost as standard practise. However it has to be said that the vast majority use what are, for us in Solearth at any rate, questionable materials to achieve these energy savings in use, and rarely look beyond energy consumption as a sustainability indicator at all.

For us the toxicity, energy and CO2 embodied in the building (and the insulation achieving the efficiency) is almost as important as the energy saved year on year. This embodied energy used to be such a small portion of the buildings overall energy debt (embodied energy plus energy in use over its lifetime), but as the in-use energy is reduced with better building designs, the energy embodied in the materials  becomes a bigger and bigger proportion, up from 10% to almost 40% nowadays. This coupled with the common use by most architects  of synthetic, high embodied energy insulants almost by default is a matter of concern and undermines the sustainability agenda. A US study in the last couple of years showed that the period  a building would have to be in use for to repay the global warming potential (GWP) of its insulation, ranged from 120 years to 5 months depending on the insulating materials chosen- for the same thermal insulation performance (the U /R Value). It must be asked if one could use one insulating material that neutralises its environmental impacts 200 times quicker than another to do the same job, why would you not ?  Quite the question.

Beside these question of poor materials true environmental performance  and their toxicity and affect on heath (of worker and building occupier), there are many  other fundamental aspects of a genuine sustainability that are not addressed or even acknowledged by current, laudable though they may be at one level, advances in low energy construction. Realising improvements in water, food, planning, habitat and waste WHILE utilising these aspects as opportunities to create delight and joy are notably absent from the current definition of successful low energy design, and design is all the poorer for it.

So for Solearth the answer is No, we are not there yet.

Where we need to get to is the creation of buildings that feed, fuel and heal themselves, that are delightful fecund systems not  merely photogenic artefacts. 14 years ago I wrote a dissertation in the University of California at Berkeley called ‘Sunbiosis, Toward an Architecture of Living Systems’ on this subject. The masters thesis written under ecological design godfather Sim Van Der Ryn set out an agenda for pragmatic but comprehensive ecological architecture and building, one Solearth has tried to follow with our Vital Design  protocol ever since. In the last few years our esteemed colleagues in the International Living Future Institute have coined the term Living Building to describe a multi faceted symbiotic (with nature) model of buildings that takes us to where architecture and construction needs to go to be fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Living Building Challenge is both challenge and inspiration and fulfilling it is perhaps what noted sustainability mentor David Orr calls our 'great' work… Stay tuned.


28Jan2013-Brian T O Brien

Leave a Comment