IN the world of planning and architecture, the term sustainability has long been used to address the pressing issues of global warming, rapid urban growth, and depletion of natural resources, among others. While it is great that people are becoming more aware of the dire situation we are in, it is also essential to fully understand what sustainability is and what it encompasses.
Sustainable development was defined in 1987 by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development in the Brundtland Report as a “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
But I prefer the explanation of a Native American Chief that we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children. We owe it to the future generations to preserve our nature.
From trend to necessity
Sustainable design has gone beyond being a trend—a bonus factor to appeal to investors—rather, it should become a requirement for all buildings. Climate change and scarcity of resources have been pushing architects and planners to design for sustainability, but this should not be limited to planners and architects. As professionals in the built environment, we have to make our clients understand how important it is to practice sustainable planning and architecture. The construction may be costly for the first three years, but for the years thereafter, it is all savings.
Planning for sustainability requires a holistic approach, wherein the interiors of the building, the materials, and building design itself among others, should adhere to sustainable principles as well. The main goal for sustainable building is to minimize the embodied energy, from the selection of the building materials, down to energy consumption during operations and maintenance.
Sustainability in materials selection
There is a scarcity of natural resources, forests are being denuded fast, and there is just much waste produced in constructing a building. In response to climate change, the use of sustainable materials is highly preferred.
Materials have a progressive life cycle that they go through: from raw materials extraction, manufacturing, site construction, operation and maintenance, to demolition. Designing for sustainability offers a way to avoid this one-way progressive cycle. It aims to close the loop by recycling materials, whether off-site or on-site.
Materials must be sourced locally/regionally. Sourcing materials locally can help lessen transportation and energy cost. It also minimizes pollution, apart from contributing to the local economy. For a material to be considered as local or regional, it has to be extracted, harvested, and recovered must be within 500-mile radius from the site. Using local materials is not only good for the environment and the local economy, but it also adds context and recreates the local characteristics, thus enhancing a building’s sense of place and identity.
Materials must be made of easily renewable materials. A material may be local, but the rate to grow or to harvest the material must be taken consideration too. With growing demands, the rate of consumption vis-à-vis the rate of harvest of the material, is unbalanced, and would therefore lead to the depletion of that certain material. Easily renewable materials also require fewer lands, so the rest of the land may be used for other purposes. To say a material is rapidly renewable, it has to be ready for harvesting within ten (10) years or shorter.
Materials must have recyclable content. Using materials with recycled content helps reduce the rate of raw material consumption, as well as the amount of waste being produced. It is also becoming more popular due to the unique character it gives the structure.
Materials must be recyclable. Likewise, materials must be good for reuse, since the aim of sustainability is to have zero waste. This decreases the amount of wastes that goes to landfill, which contributes greatly to the preservation of the environment. It also saves cost, since less waste is going to landfills.
Designing with nature
Apart from materials selection, it is important to design in harmony with nature, and not against it. Proper building orientation is important to minimize the need for mechanical cooling and lighting, allowing owners to reduce their operations cost. It requires a study on the sun path and wind flow. Where is it most sunny, and which direction does the breeze come from? These factors affect where to put large windows, shades, and the spaces among others. They also affect the shape of the building. Usually, the longer side of the building should be facing the east-west direction, in order to reduce heat gain in the building.
Nowadays, technology has found ways in order to harvest natural resources without creating a negative impact on the environment. Rainwater harvesting is one example. We should take advantage of the amount of rainfall in the Philippines annually. Instead of letting it go down the drain and cause more flooding, adding green walls and roofs, rainwater catchment tank, the water collected could be put to greater use. It would also help reduce the urban heat effect in Metro Manila.
Sustainability is often misunderstood and applied to a building superficially. Application of “green” materials without proper analysis and integration does not equate to sustainable architecture. Like nature, buildings should learn how to respect and adapt to their natural surroundings.