ZCB US research trip: Stop 2 – The Oberlin Project, Ohio

This is the third instalment in a series of blogs by Paul Allen as he travels across the USA talking with numerous grassroots groups about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research project. The first blog explains the purpose of the trip and the second blog details his time in Boston. This blog covers Paul’s time in Ohio, the second of five stops on the journey.

My visit to Oberlin was a hive of activity. I gave three key Zero Carbon Britain presentations, two radio interviews plus a panel discussion to ‘flush out’ the relevant contacts. This was followed by seven meetings with active local groups, the recording of a joint composition with Oberlin musicians for the ‘theclimatemessage.com’ project, and culminated on the final day with a most exciting discussion with the Oberlin Project’s originator David Orr.

 Clearly something special is happening in Oberlin, it’s diverse, it’s facing up to highly challenging opposition, but it’s defiantly something special. The phrase they use to describe this activity stuck with me straight away; they call it ‘blessed unrest’. Coined by environmental and social activist Paul Hawken it describes actions towards a ‘great turning’ towards restoring the environment and fostering social justice. Blessed unrest is plentiful in Oberlin. It manifests in a wide spectrum of ways; from groups working to ‘weatherise’ (retrofit) dwellings of the less well off, to those teaching green ideas in a super green building with a ‘living machine’ to treat the wastes, to a radical college operating a 2 megawatt solar power station, to the citizen pioneers who have built ‘net climate positive’ houses.

My visit opened with a ‘get to know you’ meeting with a dozen or so key players from the various groups which comprise the Oberlin Project. It was hosted at Carl and Mary McDaniel’s home, “Trail Magic”. Construction was completed in 2008 with the installation of an airtight wood-burning stove. It was the perfect end to their personal journey and a great example of how the couple’s philosophy echoes through their climate neutral, LEED Platinum home (LEED is the US measure of impact reduction in the buildings rather like the UK’s BREEAM rating). Through Carl’s enthusiasm and ingenuity the house had been built at a cost similar to quality, conventional construction. Now that construction dust has settled, they regularly invite visitors to take a tour, and were marvellous hosts to our visit, offering residence to Joanna Wright our ‘video artist in transit’ for the trip, travelling with her son Wren.

The Oberlin project was established by leading green thinker and doer David Orr to act as a catalyst between the tow big players in the area – Oberlin City Council and the renowned Oberlin College. Oberlin College has a long history of progressive leadership in both race and gender equity, and now aims to lead on ecological issues too. In December 2006 Oberlin College was the first of its peer institutions and one of the first institutions in the country to sign the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (PCC), aimed at achieving “carbon neutrality.” Their commitment is reflected in two key elements; the first is a quantitative, campus-wide audit of carbon emissions arising from to day-to-day operations, and have developed a ‘dashboard’ to aid the process. The second is their action plan to reduce emissions to zero by 2025. Oberlin City, with a much wider remit, aims for zero by 2050.

I was very taken by this quote which someone there repeated. It is from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s in 1967, on the subject of ending the Vietnam War, delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. It feels directly relevant to the struggle with climate change today:

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood-it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on.”

My meetings during the Oberlin visit resulted in an impressive range conversations, including an evening with Rick Flood’s father who had worked for NASA in the early days of photovoltaics. Hearing the trajectory of the technology over someone’s lifetime was a moving experience. “The one thing we never expected”, he explained to me over a drink on evening, “was that photovoltaics would ever get so cheap, and the price looks set to comedown even further”. A mix of new film coatings crossed with the economies of global mass manufacture will bring the price down, and as the cost falls, the scale of the technology will continue to rise. Basically solar (and wind for that matter) are racing up on the inside lane, with grid parity per kilowatt-hour clearly on the horizon.

By coincidence my visit to Oberlin also coincided with a study tour from another Clinton Climate Initiative from the Danish county of Sonderborg, ‘Project Zero’. The very able local catalyser Rick Flood spotted this early on, and flagged up to the Oberlin project the potential for a ‘mini summit’. The Danish visitors Hans Lehmann and Elisabeth Ibing Holm enthusiastically explained to us how their entire county had developed a vision for a CO2-neutral growth area by 2029, creating and demonstrating robust measurable CO2 reductions and new green jobs for a talented generation of young people. It was created to unite all of the area’s stakeholders to reach a clear goal: CO2-neutral growth and sustainable urban development.

Their key driver seems to have been that for far too long, the focus of climate discussions have been in academic and political circles. Round about 2007, to get things moving Sonderborg, residents made a plan for taking action instead of talking – and the results speak for themselves, they look set to achieve a 25% reduction CO2 by 2015!
 This ambitious goal will be reached both by much more efficient energy consumption and increasing generation from their area’s own renewable energy sources. Hans explained to me the background; ProjectZero is a public-private partnership, which includes the innovative technical company Danfoss. Hans made it clear that Education is vital. New, clever and creative thinking will be required to combat the climate challenge. Therefore, a core aspect of ProjectZero is the engagement in education at all levels, right from Kindergarten to PhD – the climate must be in focus. Whilst at kindergarten and in school, children gain inspiration backed by the latest knowledge so that they can influence their parents.

Whilst in Ohio, through Rick Floods most able networking skills, I also was invited into Cleveland to present ZCB at their prestigious Natural History Museum. This allowed me to meet members of the Cleveland 2030 District group. Part of the Architecture 2030 US network, who had drawn a significant square footage of ‘downtown building space’ into a high quality retrofit scheme. A few days after the meeting I was pleased to receive a message from Jon J. Reidy Executive Director of the Cleveland 2030 District which included this kind comment:

“Thanks especially to Paul for your inspiring lecture. Your presentation was engaging and easy to follow, and I was especially impressed with the legibility of the graphics illustrating land use recommendations. Personally I must say that it is quite easy to get caught up in the minutiae and the daily slog of working to change hearts and minds in my community, but every so often I slow down to reflect on the big picture and absorb information which reinforces the importance of my work … your talk certainly re-charged my batteries. Best of luck to all of you, and keep up the great work!”

Key lessons from Oberlin:

  • Clearly ‘blessed unrest’ is thriving in Oberlin and Ohio. From municipal councils to non-profits, from families and single-person activists to academics, these groups collectively are pushing into new ground and working to catalyse the institutions in their locality to embrace the ‘great turning’.
  • But up lifting though it is, there still remains a general realisation that this turning is simply not happening fast enough (at least outside Denmark!) for humanity to stand a reasonable chance of avoiding the really dangerous climate change, which will be beyond our ability to adapt.
  • Having a zero carbon (climate positive) target is a strong motivator, but without scenarios there remains a lack of clarity as to how this can be achieved.
  • There is a great deal to be gained by investing a relatively small amount of resources in catalysing synergy between the larger players in a locality.
  • Using a ‘dashboard’ to make energy generation and consumption transparent can have a powerful effect in changing attitudes and behaviours
  • Engaging with the arts and creative practice is a powerful agent for change; we were invited to attend a meeting hosted by the beehive arts collective using highly detailed pen drawings, which was packed with young activists.


Build It Live: Getting Muddy with Self-Builders in Kent, 22nd & 23rd Feb

This weekend CAT is travelling to Kent and we are planning to get muddy. Like west Wales, Kent has had more then its fair share of mud recently, but our purpose is not related to the storms; we will be demonstrating some simple techniques for using earth in construction – making a cob wall and a pizza oven at the Build It Live Exhibition at GLOW, Bluewater.

Putting the final touches to a pizza oven

Build It Live is the ideal event for anyone who dreams of building or renovating their own home. With free seminars, access to invaluable expertise and live, interactive demonstrations such as ours, we are looking forward to a lively weekend. Visitors can talk to us about all our short courses for self-builders or any of the other services offered by CAT.

Clay rendering demonstration

One of main reasons people decide to build their own home is that they want to create something that is truly individual. Using natural building techniques, and building with earth in particular, can be an excellent way to create unique architectural forms because by its very nature, every element of earth construction will be unique in terms of colour, texture and finish. Unfired clay and sand require little energy to produce and can be sourced locally in many parts of the UK. When earth is mixed with clay, straw and water it creates cob – a lovely material to work with because it sets slowly, allowing time for experimentation, trial and error, remixing and reuse.

So that is what we will be doing. Anyone who hasn’t had enough of mud in Kent is very welcome to come along and get involved. In fact, if you are reading this blog you can have two free tickets worth £24 by following this link.

Three of a Kind: Two Missions: One School of Architecture: CAT


The Centre for Alternative Technology is delighted to be displaying work from three of its Professional Diploma in Architecture students at the first ever Wales Festival of Architecture.

Running six weeks long from 23rd March to 4th May, Aberystwyth Arts Centre is playing host to the to the new festival. Organisers aim to stimulate discussion about architecture, providing an opportunity to demonstrate and discuss the wide range of economic, social and environmental benefits that well-designed buildings can bring to a community. The Festival will provide a forum for architects, planners and other professionals and the public to share views and knowledge about the built environment.

The exhibition of CAT work entitled ‘Three of a kind, two missions, one school of architecture: CAT.’ is on display in the main foyer of Aberystwyth Arts Centre and features work from three of CAT’s students as well as a sample from this year’s diploma show.The exhibition showcases the innovative and dynamic forms of teaching post-graduate Architecture students that CAT uses which is unique in the UK.

The professional diploma course at CAT places an emphasis on sustainability and encourages students to explore the themes of transition and the vital role the building design plays in environmental impact. There is a huge potential within the architecture profession for environmental change and this is pivotal to the entire sustainability debate. This is a time of great debate about the future of architectural education in the UK where many want to see architecture get out of its bunker mentality; they want it to rethink the relationship between practice and education, and to embrace the challenge of  radical climate change by reconsidering the level of design intervention and thus resource use in any given situation. The Professional Diploma course at CAT is addressing these issues and is about to embark on a whole new chapter of its experimentation,” said Patrick Hannay, Tutor, Professional Diploma in Architecture.

” What is remarkable is how many students domiciled in Wales are forced to go out of Wales for their architectural education because places are limited in in the Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff. Wales urgently needs that talent to return, and thus coming back for their post-grad learning to the very heart of Wales at Machynlleth  on such a unique learning experience, in such a fine environment, would ensure that the best of talent would remain in the service of Wales.”

The Centre for Alternative Technology has won a number of awards for its building the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education including the Dewi-Prys TomosThomas Prize and the RIBA Awardsshortlist. For the last 40 years the organisation has been at the forefront of radical ecological experimentation and building design.

The Wales Festival of Architecture will open on the 23rd of March and will be opened by Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas.The launch is a free event, starting at 6pm in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre cinema.

To arrange interviews with any students or staff of CAT please use the following contact.

  Patrick Hannay  077960 65764


Sustainable Architecture Blog: Ramming home the benefits of earth buildings

Building with earth is an incredibly ancient construction method but that doesn’t stop it from being fantastic for modern building design. Rammed earth has excellent construction properties being flexible in design and application. It also embodies low-tech building methods.

Rammed earth is formed from loose subsoil, which is moist and compacted in layers. This presses the material to about half it’s original depth and forces the clay in the earth to bond with the aggregate. Because this process is physical, no chemicals are needed. You do however, need a high enough clay content (around 15-30%).

Due to it’s simplicity, this ancient building technique has been popular all across the globe. Cob, adobe and rammed earth were all used historically and these traditional building methods are now being re-discovered by sustainable developers and architects.

Rammed earth, in particular, is becoming ever more prevalent in modern architecture with the growing popularity for sustainable buildings.

There are many environmental advantages to earth buildings. In most instances, construction with earth requires low energy outputs and emits virtually no pollution. This means that rammed earth has very low embodied energy. The embodied energy of brick is six times that of rammed earth!

The thick walls of compressed earth buildings are also extremely fire-resistant; there are no flammable components and everything is so tightly packed there is little chance of combustion. At the other end of the scale, the addition of a stabiliser makes rammed earth resistant to most moisture but continued exposure to water at the top and bottom of earth walls must be prevented.

Earth has benefits for heating as well. It is a dense material that provides high levels of thermal mass, especially when compressed. However, the thermal resistance of rammed earth is very poor so it’s use in external walls is limited.

Rammed Earth: Design and construction guidelines suggests that “to meet thermal performance levels expected of modern energy efficient buildings… external rammed earth walls must either be very thick (over 70cm) or use additional insulation.”

Rowland Keable, co-writer of the book, began building earth structures nearly thirty years ago and now teaches on many natural building courses. He has extensive experience of working with earth, having published Rammed Earth Structures: A Code of Practice. He also established Ram Cast CIC and is a founder member of Ebuk. Clients of Keable’s have included the Eden Project, Big Brother and Bath University.

Building with earth is a great method for construction, especially when other buildings materials are limited. The Whole House Book states that “earth is the most immediate and locally available material it is possible to build with. It is also one of the cheapest and lowest impact construction methods.

Building with Earth is a three day short course at CAT that gives a thorough grounding in the building method. Designed for anyone that is interested in natural building methods, Keable’s course is very hands on and participants can expect to get muddy!

Sustainable Architecture Blog: Building a solution to rising energy bills

Last week the chief executive of Ofgem warned that Britain will come “dangerously” close to power shortages within two years. Swift action is needed to protect our communities against fuel poverty and improve energy security. Sustainable buildings hold the key.

Alistair Buchanan, chief executive of Ofgem, believes that reforms to the UK’s electricity supply will not be quick enough to replace power plants that are on the way out. But what if Britain simply reduced the energy demand of our homes?

Sustainable architects and builders are best placed to do this. Cost-effective energy efficiency measures could reduce the energy demand of Britain’s buildings, therefore lowering the UK’s baseload electricity. Sustainable retrofitting and new builds are one of the quickest ways to achieve this.

Natural building materials that are affordable and sustainable such as local timber should be used in all new builds, whilst other materials can be used to eco-renovate homes.

Researchers and architecture students studying at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) have shown that hemp is a sustainable alternative to synthetic insulation. Hemp shiv render is proven to not suffer from moisture ingress so would be perfect as a natural insulator. There is no reason why this insulation could not be used on a wide scale.

Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) is a rapid decarbonisation scenario from CAT that demonstrates how the UK can power down energy demand by retrofitting the housing stock.

We are in a transitional period. Sustainable new builds will become increasingly cheaper as energy efficient social housing becomes the standard. All we need now is widespread retrofit policies that make eco-renovation affordable, without adding debts to properties, and a universal approach to sustainability that prioritises the use of natural materials.

This all adds up to an obvious solution for rising energy bills. Why build more power plants if we can easily cut demand?

CAT has 40 years of experience in sustainable building and is recognised as a leader in research and training for low-impact construction. The MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies offers postgraduate study with an holistic approach to sustainability and energy use in design, architecture and building.


Sustainable Architecture Blog: The green, green grass on our homes

Green roofs are growing in popularity within architecture and the building industry. They are great for the environment in a number of ways and installing one on your home can make financial sense as well!

These living roofs increase biodiversity, providing vegetation in areas that could benefit from plant species. These plants in turn attract insects and birds. Large green roofs can also act as carbon sinks that absorb CO2 and produce oxygen. The UK’s biggest green roof is in Birmingham.

Another great advantage of the soil in a green roof is that it can absorb rainwater, which slows the run-off from a downpour. This helps reduce the chance of localised flooding in built-up areas. Many more demonstrable benefits can be found here.

However, for a vegetated roof to be environmentally beneficial then the installation has to take into account the materials used. A green roof needs many layers and a strong structure below to support it, all of which could add up to a large amount of embodied energy.

But there are also great financial benefits to a green roof. If properly installed, a green roof can increase the energy efficiency of a building. The thermal mass of a soil roof makes it really effective at insulating the building below. So heating usage decreases by retrofitting a roof to be a green one. Flat un-vegetated roofs can be 20ºc hotter than living roofs!

Cities make ideal surroundings for green roofs. Vegetated roofs can provide fantastic gardens in urban areas where space is limited. There is strong evidence that these natural surroundings improve health and well-being.

Did you know, all new roofs in Copenhagen that are less than 30° steep must be a green roof? This planning obligation was introduced in 2010 as part of Copenhagen’s push to be carbon neutral. Whilst Copenhagen is a much smaller city than London or Manchester, this sustainable initiative could be perfect for improving Britain’s urban districts.

But what if your sustainable design or retrofit can not support a green roof?

Well, green concrete could soon be a feasible construction material for sustainable architects. Biological concrete has been developed by the Structural Technology Group, which could create ‘living’ buildings. The concrete supports the growth of organisms that can help to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

All of this goes to show that, while turf roofs have been around for hundreds of years, there is life in the old dog yet!

Sustainable Architecture Blog: Should we retrofit or rebuild Britain’s housing stock?


Reassessing our built environment is vital in the fight against climate change as about 45% of CO2 emissions in the UK come from energy used in our homes and buildings. It is vital that the government looks seriously at how Britain can reduce these emissions. But should we retrofit or rebuild Britain’s housing stock?

There are a host of pros and cons to both approaches, and neither is cheap in the short-term. Like most sustainable technologies, reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of a building is a long-term investment. However, the built environment accounts for over 40% of global carbon emissions so it is imperative that reducing this becomes a focus of the international agenda. With climate change looming and energy prices rising, our built environment risks being our greatest liability.


As sustainable building methods become more advanced and efficient, new housing will increasingly impact less on the environment. This is why advocates of rebuilding Britain’s housing argue it is better than retrofitting as a long-term approach to reducing housing sector emissions. On the whole it is much easier to build a passivhaus from scratch than adapt existing housing. Indeed, the cost of refurbishing and maintaining existing homes can often exceed the home’s value.

Sustainable re-building requires low embodied energy and excellent insulation. A new structure that is well insulated with low embodied energy can have a negligible carbon footprint. The environmental impact of demolishing an existing building, especially one that contains little or no wood, can be severely reduced by disposing of the materials responsibly.

However, if large amounts of wood are burnt or allowed to rot carbon is released into the atmosphere (whereas, the carbon in wood can theoretically be locked up in landfill). Architects could incorporate reclaimed timber in their designs to offset these emissions, or even re-use the materials from the original building. The carbon in wood can be stored if it is well maintained.

This technique of locking up carbon within buildings is known as carbon sequestration. This can also be achieved by using buildings materials such as hemp, other biomass and reclaimed building elements.

‘Jobs, Growth and Warmer Homes’, a report by Consumer Focus in 2012, looked at how the UK government should re-invest money raised through carbon taxes and energy efficiency. Responding to these findings, The Energy Revolution argued that the UK government must invest the money by re-building houses. The fuel poverty alliance, the biggest of its type, commented that:

This report shows that in its bid to boost UK economy, the Government is not investing in the one thing which could create more jobs and growth than anything else – re-building the UK’s housing stock. Not only does this have massive economic benefits but it is the most effective way to bring down energy bills.”


Rebuilding the housing sector might not be high on the government’s priorities (although targets have been set to make all new builds from 2016 carbon neutral), but eco-refurbishment certainly is. One of the UK government’s main strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to make homes more energy efficient. Their flagship policy to tackle home energy efficiency is called the Green Deal. Launched in January, this is a financial investment to make buildings more energy efficient, and is also designed to reduce fuel poverty.

Retrofitting involves the addition of new technologies and materials for the benefit of the property. For instance, improving insulation makes a building more energy efficient and therefore more sustainable. Energy efficient retrofitting is also a rapidly growing market because of the savings that can be made, and it is a much cheaper strategy in the short-term than demolishing and rebuilding properties.

But what should be Britain’s approach to be?

The UK has a tougher choice then developing nations because more of the built environment in newer countries is still to be constructed. This means developing economies can set the tone for sustainable development in a way that the UK cannot. British architects must also consider the cultural worth of historic buildings that already exist. Georgian townhouses may look impressive and have a great sense of heritage, but they can also have woefully inadequate insulation, ineffective heating and aging plumbing.

The Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) project, a scenario for a carbon neutral United Kingdom by rapid decarbonisation, supports retrofitting the majority of the British housing stock. The researchers propose using natural materials where possible to eco-renovate buildings. Hemp shiv would be an ideal substitute for artificial insulation because it is proven to be resistant to moisture ingress. The hemp used in this insulation could also act as a carbon sink.

But this model is not possible for every home. Writing for the Guardian, Tony Hutchinson argues that:

Looking at the total cost of a refurbishment project over its lifetime (including maintenance and eventual replacement) in both cash and carbon terms the outcome can be very different. Cost and benefit modelling should be used to compare the benefits of demolition and new build with the costs of maintenance of the retrofitted building over its useful life – and the cost of further refurbishment after 30 years or complete replacement.”

So if we are hoping to build truly sustainable communities for the future, developers must look at the long-term. Where possible, Britain should rebuild its housing stock. This will take time, however, and may not be possible by ZCB’s target date of 2030.

Modern architects must be bold during this transition. Many of Britain’s houses will be too expensive to eco-renovate. If historic buildings such as Victorian and Edwardian terraces must be protected, then why not keep the facade but demolish the living spaces behind? A sustainable structure constructed in its place can be integrated with the historic face of the building. Projects like Kings Cross10 Hills Place and others demonstrate that this is achievable. Obviously there will be instances where this is not possible, but architects and eco-builders must think outside the box to find creative ways to decarbonise Britain’s buildings.

Sustainable Architecture Blog: Should buildings be green or sustainable?

Last week the blog looked at the future of sustainable architecture, this week we explore the differences between sustainable, green and natural architecture. Sustainability appears to be a much more popular concept in professional circles than it is being green. So should architects distance their designs from being labeled as green?

In recent years, the prefix green has become increasingly unpopular, particularly in professional circles, in promoting environmentally responsible architecture.

But what does green mean? The word brings to mind a wide range of associations. It has grown to be synonymous with environmentally-friendly lifestyles. But for many, green simply means that the end product minimises effects on natural resources; producing less waste in the process.

A lot of the backlash against using the word green stems from the trend to promote businesses and brands as environmentally friendly, even when they are not. This practice is known as ‘Greenwashing‘. Fortunately many of the underhand tactics used to make businesses appear environmentally responsible, have now been curtailed by international advertising standards and regulatory bodies. However, it seems that architects prefer to promote their designs as sustainable rather than green.
In recent discussions with architecture students, both AEES postgraduates at CAT and undergraduates from other colleges, the opinion was that the phrase ‘green architecture’ has connotations with natural building. To some it lacks precision, being more issue driven than quantitative in a measurable manner. It seems that green building is not seen as being cutting edge in the same way as sustainable architecture often is.

Natural building focuses on using local resources to negate the environmental impact of a building. These resources can include geological factors and the surrounding ecology. The use of plentiful materials that have not be treated with synthetic chemicals is often key to reducing the ecological impact. In general this means that many of the building processes are informed by historic methods of building. Therefore natural building tends to rely on human labour, more so than cutting edge technology.

Popular raw materials include stone, clay, sand and locally sourced & renewable wood. These materials can be combined to create surprisingly resilient structures. For instance, earthen architecture is one of the oldest examples of built environments. Cob, rammed earth and adobe are all examples of earthen architecture building methods.

So how does natural building compare to sustainable architecture?

Sustainability as a concept can often be contradictory and muddled. To be sustainable is be aware of the long-term; the effects of what you do on your environment and the future. To sustain is not to over-reach but to endure. In this interpretation of the definition, sustainability is about so much more than just being green.

However, a building can claim to be sustainable without being truly environmentally responsible. If a building is energy efficient then it can be argued that the structure is economically sustainable. Indeed, energy efficiency has become the over-riding consideration for much of sustainable architecture. An architect may design a building that is totally energy efficient but it might not be green. As sustainable assessment methods, such as LEED and passivhaus certification, become more popular the aim of many sustainable building projects have shifted. The aim might now be to achieve a certain rating at the expense of the environment.

An example of this is the use of concrete as a building material. Concrete has a high thermal mass and therefore, can be very efficient at storing heat or insulting buildings. This can make it very energy efficient. But the production of concrete is very energy-intensive. The concrete industry emits large amounts of carbon emissions because of transport and production. A final consideration is the fact that concrete is resilient, so the building may last a long time. The materials needed for repair might be reduced. This highlights how a construction material can be seen as sustainable but not necessarily green.

The argument for and against labeling building methods as green will continue to rage. It is obvious that professionals might not want their projects defined as being green but architects should not be afraid to label their sustainable processes as green.

By designing buildings that have a holistic approach and a green ethos, architects can consider the wider impacts on climate and environment. This must be the goal of all sustainable architecture.

Further reading:


Why Sustainable Architecture is the Future

Sustainable architecture holds the key to an environmentally positive future. Only by living more economically with our resources can we hope to protect our environment and climate. So what better way to live more sustainably than by making sure the very structure of our built environment is greener?

The philosophy behind sustainable architecture is all about reducing waste. This not only means physical waste but minimising energy loss as well. By keeping the energy we consume within our buildings for as long as possible, we need less supply in the first place. Using less energy to keep us comfortable means that we can become environmentally responsible and more resource efficient, which are both vital to reducing the effects of climate change.

Governments around the globe are looking at initiatives to make new builds and retrofits more sustainable. The Green Deal was launched in the UK on the 28th of January. This policy is a government initiative designed to persuade businesses and homes to retro-fit green technologies in their buildings. There are also initiatives such as the Passivhaus standard, which sets clear requirements for certificated buildings. As the name suggests, this approach to low energy housing originated in Germany during the early nineties. To meet the standard, a ‘Passivhaus’ must meet an energy demand target. A number of these sustainable assessment methods for architecture exist including BREEAM and LEED.

But while a building might be incredibly energy efficient, the structure’s building materials could still have a huge impact on the climate.

In his book, How Bad are Bananas, Mike Berners-Lee calculates that building a new two bed cottage produces the equivalent of 80 tonnes of carbon equivalent emissions. The majority of this impact is in the walls and the materials used. Much of these emissions can be recouped by using energy efficiency methods while the house is occupied. Yet, if sustainable building practices can reduce the impact of the construction in the first place then this is preferable if we are to become more environmentally conscious.

Construction materials such as rammed earth and building techniques like turf roofs are proven to have less impact whilst holding their own when compared to established but unsustainable methods.

So there are three overriding concerns when designing buildings with better considerations towards ecological impact. The first is the materials used for construction. The second concern is the energy efficiency of the building and the last factor to consider is the location of the building itself. The building might be energy efficient and use low impact construction technologies but this would not mean anything if the ecosystem suffers as a result of the building.

A greater holistic approach to all of these design factors is becoming more prevalent in mainstream architecture.

By looking at what builders have done in the past, forgotten construction techniques that might not be as redundant as previous generations thought, as well as cutting-edge technologies we can inform a brighter future. Our built environments will have less impact on the natural surroundings. This truly is a growing industry and the future of architecture.