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Applications of Sustainable Architecture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 5501 words Published: 13th Jun 2018

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‘Sustainability: What it means for Architecture’


This thesis considers what sustainability means to architecture, and how architects can utilise their knowledge to not only ensure a greener future for buildings, but to promote a better understanding of sustainability on a far wider scale. The areas under study include an appraisal of the technical, social, and financial and energy-saving aspects of sustainable development. Research proposes that systematic research and study into what sustainability means can help the concept to be more fully understood and better implemented in industry. Research is secondary, and uses three case studies which I have selected for their relevance to my design interests and which I believe represent a unique and innovative approach to the concept and interpretation of sustainability in architecture.

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Contemporary definitions of sustainability suggest that it is a generic term which encompasses many areas of society and industry, including buildings, transport, and public space. ‘Sustainable architecture’ has been defined as a ‘cultural construction in that it is a label for a revised conceptualization of architecture […] A ‘sustainable design’ is a creative adaptation to ecological, sociocultural and built contexts (in that order of priority), supported by credible cohesive arguments.’[1] This dissertation seeks to address and discuss the varied ways in which sustainability relates to architecture, including physical constraints, impact of sustainable design, political and social trends and needs, and the availability of resources with which to build sustainable architecture. For architects sustainability and its implications have become of great value and importance – ultimately changing the direction of architecture as a discipline and practical science. I believe that the term sustainability is a term thrown around very often without much thought as to what it means often because it is a concept of such great depth – with potentially world-changing consequences – and that the concept requires far more research if it is to be fully implemented on a mass scale.

Throughout this thesis, I seek to define my own professional and creative interpretation of sustainable architecture by examining and learning from the work of others. In my structuring of the thesis I have narrowed down these interests to focus on three key areas as represented by three chosen case studies. These are to include:

  • Chapter One. Technical sustainability: Werner Sobek

This chapter examines how German engineer and architect Werner Sobek has integrated sustainable technical features into the design of his ecological home. The social housing Bed Zed project in London is also examined for its contributions to developing a clearer understanding of how architects might incorporate sustainable technology into their designs.

  • Chapter Two. Social Sustainability: Seattle Library OMA. This chapter considers the impact and function of the public building for the immediate neighbourhood, and why the development is socially important.
  • Chapter Three. Economical and Energetic Sustainability at Beddington.

This chapter examines the key features of the Bed Zed project and what energy-saving and economic incentives the project offers to the wider community. Now one of the most well-known sustainable social housing developments, designed by Bill Dunster Architects, Bed Zed provides a useful and insightful point of comparison for the other studies. This allows me to assess the changes and improvements which sustainable development has undergone over the last decade.

Chapter One: Technical Sustainability: Werner Sobek

As outlined by Stevenson and Williams the main objectives of sustainability include significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving resources, creating well-structured and cohesive communities, and maintaining a consistent and successful economy[2]. For architecture these concepts have opened up a new industry involving use of alternative often re-usable materials, which offers the architect space to experiment with new designs. A considerable body of research exists into the best use of construction materials, offering guidance to architects and construction companies. For example, in 2000 The Building Research Establishment published a paper called a ‘green’ guide to construction materials which presents Life Cycle Assessment studies of various materials and their environmental impacts[3]. Whereas Energy Efficiency Best Practice in Housing have already established through research that there is global pressure to ensure that construction materials are sustainable.[4]

Sobek’s design of his own sustainable home has been described as ‘an ecological show house of precise minimalism.’[5] Its principal design is of a cube wrapped in a glass shield, where all components are recyclable. The most obviously sustainable technical feature is the building’s modular design – glass panels and a steel frame, which forms a lightweight structure. Sorbek’s work illustrates a high degree of thought behind the architect’s conceptual understanding of sustainability. Sorbek has obviously thought about what sustainability means and has implemented his knowledge to create an example from which future practitioners will learn. In Sobek’s work we see the high degree to which he has embraced new technology and made sophisticated use of new materials, while also maximising user comfort by incorporating sensor and controlling technology. Furthermore, the use of arbitrarily convertible ducts makes the use of traditional composites unnecessary. Thus, Sorbek is progressing the discipline of sustainable architecture, branching out into bolder, and stranger designs, which displace the functionality and detract saleability from traditional designs.

In contemporary sustainable designs there needs to be a regularity and simplicity of form – as this seems best to reflect the sustainable philosophy of the architect. As Papenek said of the designs of ecologically sensitive projects: ‘common sense must prevail when a design is planned.’[6] Considering the example of Sobek it is clear that sustainable building – although fairly simple – can nevertheless draw from a range of theoretical models in its designs. For example, the influence of traditional, even classical traditions will never be entirely absent from contemporary design; moreover contemporary sustainable designs require a re-assessment of architectural theory and practice. As Williamson et al phrases it:

‘’green’, ‘ecological’, and ‘environmental’ are labels that embody the notion that the design of buildings should fundamentally take account of their relationship with and impact on the natural environment [..] labels refer to a particular strategy employed to achieve the conceptual outcome, and the strategies that occur in a discourse must be understood as instances from a range of theoretical possibilities. The promotion of a restricted range of strategic options regulates the discourse and the ways of practising the discipline [..] Overall, practitioners modify their concept of their discipline to embrace these new themes, concerns and ways of practice.’[7]

Ways in which these theoretical influences might be expressed include experiments in symmetry, and regularity of form. Very often, as shown by Sobek’s work, the sustainable features require certain areas of space which can be unified under the more common purpose of working collaboratively. At Bed Zed in London any aesthetic compromises are more than compensated for by the provision of its own renewable energy. Forms, although not ambitious or ornamental do adhere to the Vitruvian principles of symmetry, where symmetry is defined as :

‘A proper agreement between the members of the work itself, and relation between the different parts and the whole general scheme, in accordance with a certain part selected as standard.’[8]

In the BedZed project the regular layout, consisting of the assimilation of many component parts, reflects the sense of collaboration amongst the different companies which joined forces to create BedZed, and also the community feel amongst the people who live there. There is certainly a sense of completeness, deriving from the presence of many different units, fortified by sustainable features, where vents of varying colours detract from the strict regularity of forms, creating a light-hearted and ‘sunny’ aspect. Order and symmetry are integral to the design, as without these principles the amalgamation of materials and technological apparatus has the potential to look untidy. In both Sorbek’s project and at Beddington the presence of many windows, and solar panelled roofs, will come to symbolise not a lost tradition of architecture, but the securing of conceptual ideologies which aim to combine practicality with ecological sound principles and materials.

Chapter Two. Social Sustainability: Seattle Library OMA.

The Seattle Central Library, that opened in 2004, offers a unique blend of technical and social sustainability; where multi-functional spaces are combined with the most recent and efficient methods of construction. An important feature of the library’s placement is that it occupied the same site as the previous library. All too often new developments – such as the newly proposed re-building of the Thomas Cooper Library at USC, Columbia – involve purchasing a bigger site, often removed from the original location. This changing of location alters the layout of the city or town and thus changes the social dynamic of the area as well as the ways in which the public use the building. Designed by OMA Architects (Rem Koolhaas) and LMN Architects, the Seattle library has become one of the most famous buildings in North America[9]. Athens attributes this rise to fame to the building’s ‘daring form, soaring spaces, and unique interpretation of library functionality’, as well as being a primarily green building with a LEED certification.

The building is an irregular shape; this is necessary in order to maximise the exposure of the high performance glazing system to the light. A triple-layered glass wall allows for people within to have a shaded view out, while having plenty of daylight in the interior. One of the most sustainable features of contemporary projects should be to maximise daylight within the building and make best use of the energy that the sun affords. This not only means a greener ethic behind the building’s construction but also encourages people to make more use of the building as a public space, eg: for conferences, functions etc. The Seattle Library seeks to mark out a new definition of what public space means to the public, and how such a space can be multi-functional and dynamic in nature and design. Furthermore, the function of the building is not entirely contained to the immediate area or immediate society. For instance, the library has a rainwater collection system that is combined with a storm water detention tank. This means that the 40,000 gallon tank makes use of the required stormwater detention tank and increases its size by about 50% – offering additional storage capacity for landscape irrigation, thus both conserving natural resources and benefiting the local farming and economic community. This library project is of particular relevance to the subject of this dissertation as it made use of LEED NC points – an assessment method for the sustainable ‘points’ of a building as it is created. The Seattle library LEED NC points check highlighted social credits as being 28%:

This project is a good example of how sustainable development can benefit the community and promote social engagement within the design process. As expressed by Athens,[10] ‘by its very nature, design process can represent the social side of sustainability because it is all about the people involved—their vision, creativity, and collaborative skills.’ Because the library project was aiming to provide a large community of people with an important service, and because the project needed to ensure a high level of longevity for the building, an extra three months was taken before the actual project design in order to research and map out the future of libraries – their evolution, functionality and use of technology. Athens explains that ‘this process served to question assumptions regarding the core purpose of the project, and assess fundamental concepts for how needs could be met.’[11]

The Bed Zed project in London – although a social housing development – provides a useful point of contrast to the Seattle project. For example, Bed Zed is a good example of how local government can work with local society, in a community-based project. While Athens expresses, ‘social aspects are harder to define as value propositions within the triple bottom line, and are often thought of as “externalities,”[12] it was the primary objective of the Bed Zed project to ensure that all parties were represented and consulted throughout the course of the project. In this way the social sustainability of the project is best achieved – as once completed, the residents of the 82 homes have expressed their enthusiasm for the project, highlighting its convenience, its thoughtfulness in design, and its energy-efficiency. As Buckingham said of the social cohesion that went into the Bed Zed project, and which the project itself precipitated:

‘There is a synergy from building on these links so that capacity building is achieved through partnership in delivering local environmental sustainability projects and policies. Greater capacity as the sum of the collective work done in various initiatives is greater than the individual parts or partners, and, overall, individual projects and initiatives have a positive impact locally regarding environmental sustainability[..]

The design provides a carefully researched balance between the needs of residents, businesses and community activities; the need for sunlight and daylight; an economic construction system and high levels of insulation without losing contact with the outside world.’[13]

As designers Bill Dunster Associates have noted, ‘the true value of any site is determined by the amount of accommodation the local planning area sub-committee will allow to be built on it-empowering local communities to promote zero emissions developments, without relying on large central government grants, or asking the developer to pay for the increased building costs of super efficient urban fabric.’[14] Thus, in the design and implementation of sustainable projects it is necessary for architects to work closely and liaise with the local planning committee, stakeholders, and potential residents.

Chapter Three: Energetic and Economic Sustainability

In this chapter I seek to define the nature and importance of low-energy expenditure in construction and how to lower the building’s eventual energy output through new and innovative designs. Bed ZED Project, or Beddington Zero Energy Development, is the UK’s largest carbon-neutral eco-community in the UK. It was built in 2002 in Wallington, within the London Borough of Sutton, and offers 82 residential homes. The Project was developed by the Peabody Trust, a social housing initiative in London, that aims to fight poverty within the capital. The aim of this project was to build in partnership with both an architect and an environmental consultancy firm, in order to create a housing project that incorporates new approaches to energy conservation and sustainability, and to develop a thriving community to live within it[15].

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The BedZed design is unique for having incorporated a zero energy policy, where the energy that the building’s inhabitants need is produced by renewable sources generated on site.[16] Reclaimed materials were used, including floorboards, bollards, and timber.[17] It is a large site, including a sports field, offering 50 dwelling spaces per hectare, 120 workspaces per hectare, and over 4000m2 of green open space per hectare.[18] Utilisation of space is a key component of the design; the roofs of workspaces are used as gardens, where in comparable circumstances, most densities might only have room for a balcony.[19] According to the designers of BedZED, the “combination of super-insulation, a wind driven ventilation system incorporating heat recovery, and passive solar gain stored within each flat by thermally massive floors and walls, reduces the need for both electricity and heat to the point where a 135 kW wood fuelled combined heat and power plant (chp) can meet the energy requirements for a community of around 240 residents and 200 workers.”[20] The community treats all its black and grey water on site, and collects rainwater to minimise mains water consumption. A photovoltaic installation provides enough solar electricity to power 40 electric cars and the community has the capability to lead a carbon neutral lifestyle-with all energy for buildings and local transport being supplied by renewable energy sources. Other environmentally sensitive practices include community composting and plans for urban gardening on part of the adjoining Metropolitan Open Land, subject to local authority approval. Using the Bio-Regional principles of local material and labour sourcing stimulating the local economy, and minimising pollution from transportation, the team is now developing a site based prefabrication technique. Buckingham records that on-site workshops took second hand materials directly from demolition sites, cleaning up both timber and steel, and using simple jigs to build structural frames. Materials for this development – such as new hardwoods, including oak and chestnut – were sourced from local WWF Forest Stewardship Council approved woodland. Whereas local brick, concrete aggregate and precast floor planks were all sourced within 35 miles of the site, thus ‘ensuring that all bulky materials have a reduced embodied energy.’[21]

It is important for architecture to embrace and promote new sustainable housing as a viable and prosperous alternative to renovating older style homes – and installing sustainable features – as to the potential home-owner an affordable, sustainable home is far more likely to be a more valuable asset of the future, offering them more efficient use of energy and a better quality of life. As highlighted by Glasgow Housing Association[22] the most toxic build up of emissions occurs within the home, rather than outside the home, which is why new developments have greater viability for meeting the needs of housing associations and potential inhabitants. As stated in The Architectural Review, BedZed is ‘a piece of radical architectural design, and deserves to be seen within a wider context as a model for future volume housing.’[23] In terms of sustainability BedZed betters the Millennium Village as it includes photovoltaic cells and individual power units, and the heating requirements of BedZED homes are around 10% of that of a typical home.[24] On their design of BedZed, Bill Dunster Architects is quoted as saying that it was a ‘high profile housing development: designed to be carbon neutral eco-housing with ostensible eco styling’[25]; one where the houses were designed around a heat and power unit that operates on heat and electricity from tree waste[26].

The project, did however, run over budget and well over its timescale – due to problems in implementing the design and generating a truly sustainable outcome.

As discussed by Williamson et al, sustainable design can be problematic in decision processes being made throughout the design process:

“In practice an architect must make many decisions quickly and simply, on the basis of apparent fittingness with the right thing to do rather than deep analysis. Designers are also typically concerned with many decisions at the same time, switching from one to another in an attempt to find a fit between them, and initially regard most decisions as provisional anyway. Moreover, design problems are notoriously difficult to manage, to the extent of being labelled wicked.”

Whereas traditional strategies for decision-making and overcoming problems might rely upon an architect’s experience and ability to identify key features of a new situation and apply their knowledge correctly, within the relatively new field of sustainable architecture, architects have to make decisions based on the work of others. As Williams and Radford suggest:

‘skilful practitioners learn to conduct frame experiments in which they impose a kind of coherence on messy situations and thereby discover consequences and implications of their chosen frames. Long webs of ‘what if I try this?’ speculations are spun out in the process of making a design. In this way designers come to understand the possibilities and scope of a problem through a circle of making proposals and reflecting on their implications. From time to time, their efforts to give order to a situation provoke unexpected outcomes – ‘back talk’ that gives the situation a new meaning. They listen and reframe the problem.’[27]

It is this ability to problem frame; to on-the-spot experiment, and detect the consequences and implications of sustainable designs that will allow architects to succeed in creating truly sustainable designs – designs which do not overrun budget or time-frames, but which seek to make a compromise between the interests of all parties and the resources available. As suggested by a number of researchers – including Buckingham and Healey, ‘building local knowledge and building on local knowledge within civil society is key to the development of social capital and institutional capital.’[28] Healey comments on the importance of local knowledge within different areas of civil society, and suggests that there is a need for local government to learn about ‘different social worlds’ from which ‘stakeholder’ groups and organisations come.[29]


The case studies under discussion have exhibited the varied considerations and implications that sustainable development involves. Contemporary projects require an interdisciplinary approach – one that consolidates information and can be used as a resource for future projects and research. As expressed by Hinchcliffe et al calculations and projections for the economic viability of sustainable projects require making ‘what formerly might be held to be no expertise as a resource for possible innovation, and to think of a project whereby expertise is less about distant judgments and more about learning to gather together in innovative ways.’[30]

A thorough means of assessing to a specific degree the sustainability of projects can be achieved by measures such as the LEED NC, which should be a valuable and essential element of architectural practice. What the case studies have shown is that all sustainable projects need to be cohesive – stakeholders, interested parties, need to be involved and to work with the architect, if the sustainable aims are to be achieved. What all the sustainable developments under study have shown is that sustainable development is concerned with creating a build that is durable, while being economically, energetically, and practically sustainable. The overriding principle – as expressed by company ‘Sustainable Build‘ is that ‘less is more’, and it is easy for a design to run over its budget – simply by trying to include too much or be too clever. Thus, a professional architect will need to aim for simplicity and functionality, and aim to make optimum utilization of space, often by thinking dual-purposefully – as shown by the water tank at Seattle Library. Peter Fawcett sums up the contemporary relationship between architecture and sustainability – offering an explanation to the question posed at the beginning of this thesis:

‘People may ask – ‘what does sustainability mean for architecture?’ but perhaps the proper question is – ‘what does architecture mean for sustainability?’ The former question suggests a ‘weak’ approach to sustainability, i.e. an implicit assumption that sustainability has implications (possibly serious) for our present ways of procuring the built environment but those ways are basically appropriate. The latter question recognizes sustainability as the overarching concern, in terms of which all social disciplines and conduct must be reinterpreted and reformulated.’[31]

As mentioned above, sustainable development is about keeping within the means of a realistic and attainable budget and within the aims and scope of the people involved. It is not only about ‘installing energy efficient and environmentally friendly appliances, some of which can be expensive and where the paybacks may not materialise for some time but also about recycling and making the most use out of natural materials and other materials which may have been discarded or dismissed.’[32] Different people have different environmental goals that they wish to achieve, and each sustainable development will thus reflect these goals. Benefits to the community and to the individual can be huge, and often simultaneous. Yet more than this, sustainable development is more of an umbrella term – that affects (or should affect) the ways in which people live and build within their environments, and how these attitudes and practices can evolve and make best use of these environments.

In an article for the Guardian, architect Bill Dunster expresses his concerns that green-living should not mean ‘dull’ living:

‘I find the checklist-orientated green movement very dull. I am worried about eco-fascism and a distinct loss of “joie de vivre”‘[33] With respect to the designs studied in this thesis there is certainly a lively, contemporary feel to the design of the Seattle project, combined with an optimum utilisation of space. Again, in the Bed Zed project, the symmetry of design and the colours used in the materials created a fun, individual look, that could not easily be replicated. Taking all the above into consideration my own research into what sustainable development means has led me to the conclusion that sustainable architecture does not mean dull or simple living for buildings’ inhabitants. Rather, the use of sophisticated technology – as exemplified by the work of Sorbek – can mean a wholly different form of living to traditionally constructed buildings which are not sustainable. This new way of living – where space is used differently and more efficiently, and the impact of a person’s existence is immediately reduced and made to feel ‘sustainable’ offers a unique and more wholesome existence for the occupier.


In conclusion, research for this project has highlighted the term ‘sustainable’ to relate both directly and indirectly to architecture. While depending upon the social, technical, and financial structure of a project and its outcomes, sustainable development necessitates a flexible and dynamic understanding of energy, it’s potential, and its conservation. Sustainable development is all too often restricted by the options available, whereby practitioners modify their concept of their sustainability to suit individual projects. Although a degree of flexibility is required in order to modify design projects to suit the needs of all parties involved, it is essential for a professional architect to keep a clear focus on his or her definition of sustainability and what sustainability brings to the discipline and to their working life. In this way architects – such as Sorbek – can ensure that they create examples of truly sustainable architecture that can be used to teach younger architects entering into the profession.

As explained by Williamson et al, the practice of the discipline of sustainable architecture is necessarily subject to ‘concepts and strategies based on common themes or concerns’ where ‘the continuation, small shifts, fundamental transformations, or replacement of issues can be affected by institutional settings such as political events, changes in technologies, scientific discoveries, calamities (actual or imagined) or economic practices and processes.’[34] Seen in this way, says Williamson et al, ‘green’, ‘ecological’, and ‘environmental’ are ‘labels that embody the notion that the design of buildings should fundamentally take account of their relationship with and impact on the natural environment’, but the practice of implementing these concepts into physical realities requires a much deeper and more intrinsic understanding of what sustainability means – for design, operation, and budget of a project. Designs of longevity thus require an intelligent assimilation and interpretation of cultural trends and the ability to envision how a design might be embraced by future generations. Designs for the BedZed project might appear to have compromised some aesthetic elements in favour of cost and time efficient means of production. Yet these principles are essential to the future of housing design if the demands of the housing market are going to be met. Design thus involves incorporating aspects of the traditional, and the classical, in a new and dynamic housing solution, whereby the traditional principles of an architecture will never disappear from design, but will necessarily adopt a more subtle position in the ideologies of contemporary architects.

The potential remains for further research into the construction of more gracious buildings than the BedZed project, but perhaps less expensive than the Seattle library. Sustainability is about finding middle ground between sustainable objectives and availability of resources and the type of budget available. Research has shown that it is possible to construct buildings which can incorporate the fundamental technologies to propitiate sustainability, but remain aesthetically impressive or even monumental in their design. Yet it is important to remember that building with sustainability in mind is still a recent trend, and one that has not yet overridden the non-ecological techniques of mass housing developments – which are all too often seen as the easier, cheaper option for local governments. Therefore, sustainable designs remain very much in their infancy and future research will require sustained interest and financial support from both architects and from Governments alike if they are to be incorporated into mainstream architectural


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