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Small steps towards sustainable design collectively make a big difference

Emily Booth
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Don’t underestimate the power of what thoughtful, greener buildings mean for the people you design for, writes Emily Booth

Perhaps it is the sheer scale of environmental challenges that underscores the inadequacy of the most-used label we use to describe sustainable design: ‘green’. We know there is just so much that is rotten in our surroundings: the lingering taste of diesel fuel from belching buses, the plastic fibres in our food and water, the heavy metals in our soil. Here are just two recent environmental news stories that chilled me: 1) UN official Baskut Tuncak has warned that the UK government is flouting its obligation to protect people from toxic air pollution. 2) Microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world.

So how on earth can the positive green credentials of one building possibly help in the face of humankind’s overwhelming ability to trash our planet? And if we’re thinking along those lines, what does it matter if another building cuts a few corners in the sustainability stakes? It’s all small-fry, isn’t it, in the bigger picture? Against this backdrop, it is easy to look at the various green measurement schemes on offer and feel your eyes glazing over. To reduce sustainable design to a minimum box-ticking exercise necessary to win that job.

Rather than always knocking down and building new, architects are embracing the idea of innovation without demolition

But small steps at ground level can make a massive, measureable difference to local communities. From Passivhaus to BREAAM, there are recognised, achievable approaches for small-scale excellence. Each children’s playground safely sited, each water-saving approach, each openable window which reduces the need for energy-guzzling air conditioning (take a bow, AHMM) shows what is possible.

These daily steps remind us to always think about how architecture can support, rather than destroy, a healthy environment. Rather than always knocking down and building new, architects are also embracing the idea of innovation without demolition, coming up with stunning retrofit designs which make significant energy savings while boosting building performance. You can see a variety of standout projects among this year’s AJ Retrofit Awards winners.

Zoom out a bit, and approaches such as the mayor of London’s Good Growth by Design initiative are to be welcomed. Fifty design advocates will help inform London’s growth agenda, and the environment is an integral part of their priorities. A joined-up and holistic approach such as this one acknowledges that the environment is not something to be put in a silo, but one that informs all aspects of our lives.

Zoom out even further, and there are other encouraging signs. Renewable energy has just received a significant boost with the cost of building UK offshore wind farms falling to a record low. It means green energy doesn’t have to be expensive – and business is waking up to that fact. Once markets get moving, big business gets a move on. In the meantime, don’t underestimate the power of what thoughtful, greener buildings mean for the people and communities you design for – and the impact the small-scale has on the bigger picture. 

This article was published in the Green and wellbeing issue – you can buy a copy here 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Yes, there are 'encouraging signs', but in the last few days the AJ has featured the apparent need to demolish and redevelop the site of a useful and well designed (by Fielding & Mawson) building at Canary Wharf, and the change of mind of the University of Surrey - who've scrapped plans to refurbish and extend Maguire and Murray's student union building in favour of demolition and new build.
    I wonder how many architects would turn down the opportunity of work because it involved replacing a serviceable building?

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