Sustainable buildings: An oxymoron?
When considering the intensive process of constructing a building, it is difficult to imagine a large-scale structure to be branded as sustainable. Buildings account for approximately 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with 50%-80% of this generated by large urban cities such as London and Hong Kong. Statistics such as this make the phrase “sustainable architecture” seem almost oxymoronic, however, architects have and are continually experimenting with and cultivating inventive ways to effectively increase the sustainability of buildings.
As the climate changes, architecture must change alongside it, and the need for sustainable urban development is increasing exponentially as time passes. The UN Intergovernmental Panel recently announced the 2019 Climate Summit which detailed their ambitious plan to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, highlighting the alarming effects of climate change and the potentially catastrophic consequences it could bring. By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions would need to reach a net zero, and 70%-85% of electricity would need to be supplied by renewable energy. A global engagement in sustainable architecture is fundamental for these targets to be met.
In the context of architecture, the word “sustainable” tends to be quite broad. The level of sustainability of a building can be seen as subjective, though many firms choose for their buildings to assessed by BREEAM (an international scheme which assesses the sustainability performance of individual buildings, communities and infrastructure projects). When focusing on the effect architecture can have on climate change, the sustainability of a building would need be measured by factors such as energy efficiency, land use and habitat protection, materials, and pollution. For example, an architect could reduce a building’s embodied energy through using natural materials such as stone or timber. Postmodernist architecture is including vast amounts of “Eco-architecture” internationally, featuring characteristics such as green roofs, traditional materials and new technology.
The importance of sustainable architecture is being recognised increasingly, with the 2018 RIBA Stirling Prize being awarded to Bloomberg’s European Headquarters by Foster + Partners. Scoring 98.5% on the BREEAM sustainability assessment, Bloomberg is ranked the world’s most sustainable office building. The statistics are impressive, but when researching the innovative details of this building, the exciting future of sustainable architecture is revealed. The integrated petal-design ceiling made up of 2.5 million polished aluminium petals incorporate 500,000 LED lights, combining the heating, cooling, lighting and acoustic functions decreases the energy consumption by 40%, while the vents and positioning of the structure allow natural ventilation, with sensors which adjust the indoor airflow according to the population of people in the building, saving 600-750MWh per year. These are only two of the many features in this building, but they encapsulate how Foster + Partners manage to
embrace the restrictions caused by the need for sustainable architecture, and use it as a prompt for more inventive and impressive ideas.
My favourite modern architect, Bjarke Ingels, focuses largely on what he calls “hedonistic sustainability”. He challenges the misconception that sustainability should be a setback to architects with the belief that architects should be excited to be the “designers of ecosystems”. As a Danish architect, Ingels has constructed many sustainable buildings in Copenhagen due to its plans to become the world’s first carbon neutral capital by 2025. One of his most inspirational contributions to Copenhagen’s architecture is “Copenhill”, a structure which is simultaneously a waste-to-energy power plant, and a recreation centre with a ski slope, set to open this year. This structure plans to treat around 400,000 tonnes of waste annually in order to supply 60,000 households with electricity, and 120,000 with district heating, totalling to almost half of Copenhagen’s population! As it is also a clean air plant, it is safe for people to be in close proximity, meaning that an artificial ski-slope is feasible. The 440m ski slope features three different skiing lines, with moving carpet ski lifts and elevators inside the plant. Ingels expressed that he was keen to resolve multiple problems with a single structure, as there were no local ski slopes in this area of Copenhagen, people had to travel far to ski, but Copenhill is a solution to this problem. Not only is this plant sustainable, but it helps the social aspects of the community.
It is clear that architecture must evolve in order to meet and combat the climate issues faced today. I believe that sustainability in architecture should not be looked at as a set of strict guidelines to follow that severely restrict creative vision, but instead as an opportunity for increasingly innovative and unique expression. As Ingels put it, his plant is “economically, environmentally, and socially profitable—a perfect example of what we call hedonistic sustainability!”.