Protecting the environment isn’t just a trend or a fad; it has become a crucial part of building a sustainable future. This is particularly true when it comes to literally designing and building new buildings. The construction and operational lifespan of a building can have a major negative impact on the environment if it isn’t handled properly. If careful environmental consideration and planning undertaken the resulting “green” building can go a long way toward offsetting the carbon footprint of the companies and residents that inhabit it.
The necessary environmental considerations can be thought of as occurring in four phases: selecting the location for the building, selecting the materials that will be used for the building, designing the building itself, and planning for the finishing touches such as landscaping, appliances, and heating and cooling systems.
Selecting the Location
One of the most important aspects of designing an environmentally-friendly building is selecting the location for the building. A building’s location can cause minimal disturbance to the surrounding area, or even enhance it, or it could disrupt an important ecosystem. Consider the following:
Renovate Existing Buildings If Possible
In most cases renovating or retrofitting an existing building will require much less resources and create much less pollution than building a new building from the ground up. It will also often been less expensive.
Integrate with the Surrounding Community
Consider how your building will affect the surrounding community and in turn what resources the local neighborhood will offer. Minimizing reliance on automobiles and creating a community that allows for pedestrians and cyclists will help minimize pollution and improve quality of life.
Appraise Natural Resources
Consider the natural resources present in your potential location. Would it have enough sunlight to allow for solar panels should they be desired? Does it have healthy soil and vegetation that will make landscaping and development easier? Are there any existing trees and shrubs that can be left in place, thereby improving energy efficiency, and providing shade?
Selecting the Materials
Selecting the correct materials for the building is also a fundamental part of making it environmentally responsible. Using proper materials will also make the building more pleasant and cost-effective once it is completed.
Whenever possible select strong, durable products and materials for the building. This will allow those products and materials to remain in place longer without needing to be replaced. Frequently replacing products and materials is not only expensive and inconvenient, it is also a strain on the environment because those new products and materials require more resources to manufacture and create pollution in the process. Disposal of the old items can also create waste and pollution.
Try to select materials that won’t require frequent repainting, retreatment, and waterproofing. Once again this type of upkeep is expensive, inconvenient, and bad for the Earth.
Try to buy building materials and products that were produced locally. Not only will this help support the local economy, but it will also cut down on the carbon emissions associated with transport. Even if the materials aren’t available in your local city or state, still attempt to buy domestic if possible. For instance tropical woods require more energy and pollution than wood from domestic forests.
Use Safe Materials That Don’t Pollute
Unfortunately the chemicals in many solvent-based finishes, adhesives, carpeting, particleboard release hazardous compounds such as formaldehyde or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This is bad for the environment and can also make workers or residents sick over time.
Seek Recycled or Salvaged Materials
If possible use materials and products that have been made from recycled goods or salvaged from landfills. Once again this will cut down on the resources needed to manufacture all new products and will also help reduce landfill waste.
Avoid Excessive Packaging
Try to buy materials that don’t come wrapped in excessive packaging. For instance avoid plastic-wrapped plumbing fixtures or fasteners that aren’t available in bulk. The extra packaging creates needless waste in many cases.
When it comes time to select the insulation for the building avoid CFCs and HCFCs which damage the ozone layer and contribute to global warming.
Designing the Building
Obviously the actual design of the building is also crucial. The good news is that many of the best practices in terms of environmental responsibility are also very cost effective and create very attractive structures.
Just as it is important to use durable products and materials it is important design a structure that will be highly durable and long-lasting. Again this will reduce the need for frequent renovations. At the same time create designs that have a classic appeal that won’t go out of style.
Smaller buildings require fewer resources to build and maintain. Thus it is important to design with space efficiency in mind. Buildings that will have many offices or units vacant also create unnecessary waste and expense.
Don’t “Over Design”
Using standard ceiling heights will make the building more space efficient. At the same time avoid designing unnecessary nooks, crannies, and protrusions merely for visual effect. Simplifying the overall building geometry will make it more efficient and also often allow it to appeal to a wider range of sensibilities.
Make sure that the building features good insulation, high-performance windows, and tight, solid construction. This will make it much more energy efficient. Consider speciality glazing, paints, and coatings that also protect the building from local weather conditions.
Use Renewable Energy
If possible design the building to utilize renewable resources. This includes things like solar panels, natural light, natural heating and cooling, solar water heating and photovoltaics.
Plan for Recycling
To encourage recycling in the finished building plan with this goal in mind. That means making provisions for the storage and processing of recyclables and including space under sinks or in other areas for recycle bins.
Design Adaptable Buildings
Try to design the building in such a way that if the current intended businesses or residents move out it can still be adapted to fit new purposes. Within the actual building itself use recyclable materials whenever possible.
Use environmentally-responsible landscaping around the building. This means avoiding exotic grass, plants, and trees that will require excessive amounts of water and pesticides to maintain. Instead opt for native plants which are naturally well-suited to the local environment.
Good External Water Management
Try to design the landscaping so that it is efficient at absorbing rainwater and storm runoff from the building. If the building is located in a dry area consider designing water catchment systems on the roof which can collect rainwater for later use in landscape irrigation.
Good Internal Water Management
Equip your new building with water-conserving toilets, showerheads, and faucet aerators. This will lower overall water consumption and save money on water costs.
Efficient Climate Control
Install heating and cooling equipment that is high efficiency. Once again this will conserve resources and over time these units may end up “paying for themselves” thanks to the offset in energy cost.
Energy Efficient Lights and Appliances
The last piece of the energy-saving trifecta is energy efficient appliances and lighting. Great strides have been made in recent decades which allow these energy savings without sacrificing on the quality or capacity of the appliance.
Bearing these environmental considerations in mind when designing a new building will result in a structure that is good for the environment, aesthetically pleasing, and pleasant to live in. In many cases these green buildings will also be a source of pride for the architectural firms that design them and the businesses and people who inhabit them.