Guide for climate sensitive architects and engineers PART I.

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2024 May 15

Key Principles And Concepts For Sustainable Construction

Embarking on the journey of designing sustainable buildings can be both exciting and daunting for architects. With a myriad of ideas and tools available, it is crucial to have a solid understanding of sustainability to navigate this complex terrain effectively. In this two-part series, we aim to provide clarity by answering essential questions and offering a roadmap through the maze of sustainability. In our first post, we delve into the foundational principles of sustainable design. We explore key concepts and terms that architects need to grasp before they begin to think about sustainability. In the second part of our series, we present practical guidelines that architects can follow to incorporate sustainability into their projects chronologically. From initial concept development to final construction, we address specific topics that arise at each stage of the design process. By understanding the core principles, architects can make informed decisions throughout the design process, ensuring that sustainability is integrated seamlessly into every aspect of their project. By offering a comprehensive guide, we hope to empower architects to embrace sustainability as an integral part of their practice. With the right knowledge and tools at their disposal, architects can play a pivotal role in shaping a more sustainable future for our planet. Join us on this journey as we explore the intersection of architecture and sustainability in these posts. Make sure to take a look at our architectural projects, where we bring together all of these insights and concepts.

Climate adaptation and climate protection

To begin with, we need to elucidate the objective behind designing sustainable buildings and precisely articulate what we mean by that. Two fundamental ideas that often intersect are climate adaptation and climate protection. Let us unpack these concepts to understand their significance. Climate adaptation primarily concerns human comfort and health within the built environment. It revolves around ensuring that both indoors and outdoors provide adequate temperature, ventilation, and overall livability for occupants. On the other hand, climate protection focuses on mitigating the impacts of global warming and reducing carbon emissions.

While some strategies may address both climate adaptation and climate protection, it is essential to recognize that they are not always synonymous. For instance, measures aimed solely at enhancing comfort may not necessarily contribute to reducing carbon footprint or mitigating climate change. In practice, clients often prioritise factors related to comfort and cost-effectiveness, such as increasing mechanical ventilation rates or minimising energy bills. However, as architects, we have a broader responsibility to consider the larger environmental implications of our designs. Our role extends beyond meeting immediate client needs to also incorporating strategies that promote climate protection.

By understanding the distinction between climate adaptation and climate protection, architects can better navigate the design process and make informed decisions that balance human comfort with environmental sustainability. As stewards of the built environment, it is imperative that we prioritise both the present and future well-being of our planet in all our endeavours.

Choosing low carbon footprint and energy-efficient solutions

As an initial step, it is crucial to define these two terms and perspectives that describe sustainable buildings, and as we will see they are closely intertwined. To be able to show their relation, it is simultaneously important to distinguish between operational and embodied carbon as well. Operational carbon emissions typically arise from the consumption of energy sources such as electricity, natural gas, and fuel for heating, cooling, lighting, and powering machinery in buildings, facilities, and industrial processes. This means it considers the same factors as building energy efficiency but is expressed in the carbon footprint of that energy (CO2e) rather than in kWh, which measures the amount of energy itself.

In contrast, embodied carbon refers to the total carbon emissions associated with the production, transportation, construction, disposal, etc. of building materials over their entire lifecycle. As the energy efficiency, and thus operational carbon, improves due to regulatory obligations, the embodied carbon footprint becomes more significant. As a rule of thumb, embodied carbon accounts for roughly half of the total whole life carbon emissions of a newly built office building. Based on the above, building regulations and certification systems are increasing their focus on embodied carbon already.

Why are these categories and concepts important? As an example, one critical dilemma faced by investors, clients, and sometimes architects is whether to demolish an existing building or refurbish it instead. This decision among other factors hinges on a delicate balance between operational and embodied carbon. While a new building may boast a somewhat higher energy efficiency, it also comes with a substantial carbon footprint from construction materials and processes. On the other hand, refurbishing an existing building may result in slightly lower energy efficiency but can significantly reduce embodied carbon by preserving materials and minimising waste. To navigate this complex terrain, architects must consider both operational and embodied carbon simultaneously. By examining the environmental impact of each option, they can make informed choices that align with sustainability goals and maximise overall carbon savings. In our next post, we will delve into concrete examples and strategies for reducing both operational and embodied carbon footprints in building design.

Analysis of the embodied carbon footprint by our projects


Circularity is another key principle, closely related to the carbon footprint, as both focus on sustainability and resource efficiency. At its core, circularity in architecture revolves around the idea of creating built environments and systems that operate within the principles of a circular economy. This entails minimising waste, maximising resource efficiency, and promoting reuse, recycling, and regeneration of materials and resources. Rather than following a linear model of "take, make, dispose," circularity advocates for a continuous loop where materials are reused and regenerated, fostering sustainability over the long term. While delving into the intricacies of circularity in architecture warrants an in-depth exploration, we have covered its fundamental principles and tools in a dedicated blog post on circularity. In that piece, we delve deeper into the strategies and methodologies for implementing circular design approaches in architectural practice.

Construction photo - earth screws and assembled structure

Systemic and data-driven approach

A journey of sustainability in architecture unveils a complex web of interconnected decisions and considerations. As one delves deeper into these issues, it becomes evident that various perspectives intertwine, often leading to nuanced dilemmas and contradictions. Consider the example of solar panels—an apparent solution for renewable energy generation. While their benefits are undeniable, questions arise regarding their embodied carbon footprint. Similarly, the choice between larger windows for daylight comfort versus potential energy losses in winter and energy gain in summer poses a conundrum for architects seeking to optimise both energy efficiency and occupant comfort.

In navigating such dilemmas, the importance of a data-driven approach becomes apparent. By leveraging simulations and analysis, architects can assess the environmental and economic implications of design decisions more accurately. Rather than relying solely on intuition or conventional wisdom, embracing data-driven methodologies enables architects to make informed choices.

At EQUINOX, we firmly believe in the power of data-driven decision making. By integrating simulations into our design process, we can evaluate the performance of our projects across various sustainability metrics, from energy efficiency to material usage and beyond. This enables us to identify optimal solutions that strike a balance between environmental impact, occupant comfort, economic viability, and architectural quality.

Now equipped with a foundation of essential terms and concepts, we are ready to navigate the landscape of sustainability tools. In our next post, we will delve into concrete examples and strategies for reducing both operational and embodied carbon footprints in building design. Don’t miss it out!

Data driven approach by a consultancy project, Solar irradiation analysis


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