A truly sustainable built environment re-integrates humanity into nature. In a natural system there is no such thing as waste and each individual’s waste products become inputs for someone else. It is possible for humanity to once again become part of these natural cyclical systems.
Buildings that take their cue from nature and their surroundings can support, strengthen and improve the functioning of natural systems while also improving their own functionality.
CONSERVING THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
Structures and infrastructure tend to disturb the natural environment and ecosystems significantly. Topsoil, vegetation, water cycles, animal behaviour and biodiversity in general are impacted on by the built environment. All of these systems are necessary for the healthy functioning of the planetary systems that are needed for our survival.
OPTIMUM USE OF BUILDING MATERIALS
Building materials utilise natural resources. Obtaining these materials requires timber harvesting, cultivation, mining and quarrying. Many of these activities are currently degrading the environment. Once obtained, these materials need to be processed, manufactured and transported. Using local materials as far as possible is an easy way to be greener.
It is therefore imperative to specify the most sustainable building materials possible and to use them in the most efficient way.
It is estimated that around 40% of the energy used on the planet is by buildings. By far the majority of energy is generated using non-renewable sources such as coal, gas and oil. Being non-renewable, these resources will get depleted and, as they become more scarce, become more expensive and more difficult to extract. The process of converting these fossil fuels into energy in most cases produces greenhouse gases (GHGs) which contribute to global warming.
Energy efficient buildings contribute significantly to lowering humanity’s overall energy requirements, which in turn reduces the building sector’s carbon footprint.
Fresh water is increasingly being recognised as a scarce resource and water systems are becoming increasingly polluted. It is estimated that buildings consume 40% of all fresh water that is used. This water is used for drinking, cooking, sanitation, cleaning and for the industrial processes that take place in many buildings.
Appropriate water harvesting, recycling and conservation can make a significant impact in preserving this most precious commodity.
Buildings generate an ongoing amount of waste during their lifetimes and in their eventual deconstruction. This waste can be liquid, solid or gas and places a burden on the environment because it can’t be safely and healthily disposed of.
Recycling is one of the best ways of managing waste. Not only can the continuous waste generated by the building be recycled but the actual building itself is able to be recycled when no longer required. In effective recycling waste from one function becomes a resource for another.
The careful management of consumption, clever design and appropriate material choice can significantly reduce waste output.
SOCIETY AND THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Buildings have a profound effect on their occupants and users – influencing and shaping the way in which we live, learn, work, play, contemplate and relax.
The design, resolution and ongoing condition of buildings can either improve or detrimentally impact on the wellbeing of the occupants.
A built environment that promotes human dignity, safety, security, hygiene, ease of use and sound community values will promote wellbeing on an individual and collective level.
Well adjusted, balanced and cared about people and societies are sustainable. Dysfunctional ones are not.
Buildings effectively create an internal environment which profoundly affects its occupants. Air quality, light quality, acoustics, temperature and hygiene can promote or hinder health, depending on how they perform.
It has been found that buildings that are environmentally sustainable tend to promote health, which in turn improves the wellbeing of its occupants as well their productivity. There are many case studies proving that the increased productivity of occupants has been the most lucrative result of a greening process.
Sustainability includes financial and economic sustainability. Resource-hungry buildings are costly to produce and use, and this places a strain on the overall socio-economic fabric of society.
The costs of energy, water and materials are going to continue to increase as they become more scarce and an efficient building can contribute hugely towards the financial sustainability of its users or owners. Poverty and financial hardship in the world are increasing and a thoughtful and efficient built environment could realise benefits for many levels in society.