SPECIFYING FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Architects are well placed to help effect change in the built environment, and specifications are on the way of subtly moving practices towards sustainability outcomes. Lorina Neregna, Manager Sustainability at the RAIA, outlines the issues.
Architects, with their unique relationship to the built environment, are suitably equipped to meet the challenges of sustainability in the built environment. As great “change agents” of design culture, they regularly resolve specific and complex requirements of space and light, sound and comfort, and are particularly skilled in the recondite integration of multilayered concerns in a multidisciplined context. There appears to be no tangible barrier to using these same skills to develop sustainable building practices. In reality, however, significant and urgent paradigm shifts are necessary before such adaptation can occur, and current paradigms appear stolid and impenetrable.
Specifying for sustainability is not beyond the efficacy of architects. Nevertheless, the potential to lead and guide in sustainability of the built environment requires ongoing commitment and continuing education. It should not be relinquished to the perceived comfort zone of regulation. A plethora of information is available for the committed practitioner. Although, as Ceridwen Owen points out, “information is not knowledge, and knowledge does not necessarily instigate action.”1 ›› Specification writing has the potential to subtly effect change and it could become one of the greatest tools for developing sustainable concepts in project development and documentation. Starting to implement such a practice is a formidable step, one that is not without considerable research, trial and error, and seemingly unrelated time-consuming activities in the midst of pressing deadlines. These are all familiar and regular aspects of the general course of an architect’s work.
Preparing a specification is an ideal starting point for addressing sustainability and, at the very least, instigating positive measures for the building programme. The basic outline and set categories of the specification mean architects can analyze elements in a logical sequence. Much work has already been undertaken by Natspec with the “Greening of Natspec” project, which addresses some aspects of the specification process. Nevertheless, architects must resist the temptation to defer all decisions relating to sustainability to a set template without the application of thought and consideration.
In the architectural profession the tenacious persistence required to drive a point or issue home is part of the design process. Architects are often referred to, with eyes rolling, as the prima donnas of the building process – obstinately hanging on to an ideal or vision in the absence of client or team support. This characteristic is perhaps the defining difference between architects and other building professionals and it means that the profession has the potential to play a leading role in developing sustainable approaches.
Architects should by now be reasonably au fait with the major concepts and themes relating to sustainability in the built environment. Key environmental concerns such as climate change and water/salinity management are no longer seen as “future mitigation objectives”, they are current design and operational concerns. Issues such as life cycle, indoor air ecology, waste and water management, to name a few, can inform the design and documentation stages of projects. But, it is not enough to simply meet current regulatory requirements of energy efficiency, more thought and creativity is required to undertake a bone fide analysis. Sustainability is much broader in scope and depth than regulations currently express, and the five stars required for statutory compliance should be seen as minimum practice, not best practice.
Many architects are capable of, and indeed succeed in, achieving a higher star rating for energy efficiency in their built work. Many have been doing so for many years, and the evolving knowledge and data sources of sustainability mean that creativity is a key component of its integration. Nonetheless, “energy efficient” does not equal “sustainable” – energy efficiency is probably best understood as the first generation of a top-down method of implementing change towards sustainability.
The bottom-up approach can, then, best be described as putting basic strategies to work. For the specification writer an appropriate starting point is as follows – question everything. Where does it come from? How is it made? How is it transported? What are the characteristics of its performance over the life cycle of the building? Is it suitable for reuse? Does it emit toxic chemicals when placed? What are the alternatives? The independent appraisal of products, materials and building systems is best sought from a variety of sources including, but not limited to, the suppliers, manufacturers and representative industry associations. This questioning is a step away from the “do nothing” approach and a step towards sustainability for the uninitiated. Architects should remind themselves that they are capable of much more.
If architects are to consolidate their position as one of the key decision makers in their industry – a role which, in the future, will be inextricably linked to executing sustainable outcomes – then it would seem prudent for architects to inform themselves of pertinent themes relating to their livelihood. If we don’t, we may simply become the irrelevant window-dressers of the future built environment.
To begin with, architects should take a close and unbiased look at some of the most common materials specified in a project – timber, concrete, glass, steel. This will raise many issues for the conscientious designer. One respected resource for such information is the BDP Environment Design Guide. This tome, which has been some ten years in the making, covers salient themes relating to sustainability in the built environment and takes a multidisciplinary approach to addressing sensitive topics such as product and material appraisal, case studies, and general notes on policy papers, directories and bibliographies. Guidance is offered on water and waste management strategies, renewable energy sources, passive design, indoor air ecology and greenhouse gas mitigation.
Great buildings are inextricably linked to the often-great architects who created them. The great buildings of the future will not be judged by the paradigms of a past era, when fossil fuel consumption permitted building types and architectural dogma to evolve that were unresponsive to climatic concerns. Indeed, in the not too distant future many of today’s great buildings may only be suitable for human occupation with the retrofitting of major passive design elements. The evolving implications of climate change on architecture, and the extensive use of the two most consumed substances on earth, water and cement, lie within the domain of architectural decision making.
Ceasing to use either water or concrete are not realistic options, but architects can do a lot to ensure that all building materials are used judiciously and knowledgeably. At least one tonne of greenhouse gas is emitted for every tonne of cement produced, but cements can be blended with by-products from other extractive industries to produce eco-cements – resulting in up to a forty percent reduction in the embodied energy.2 Eco-cements are currently available in Australia. High mass construction is a significant element of passive design, so reducing concrete consumption is not the answer. Instead, if, from today, every architect familiarized themselves with the application and specification of eco-cements powerful positive changes could and would follow.
Timber is as indispensable as concrete in our built environment and compelling arguments from this industry in Australia assure consumers that we need not abandon our penchant for polished floorboards and conventional construction methods. But what of the exotic timbers sourced from threatened reserves in Third World rainforests?3 Mahogany, for example, is listed in the appendix of the United Nations Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES).4 Can the designers who specify exclusive mahogany rooms verify that the timber used is sourced from sustainable forestry operations?
Plastic consumption in building, and in everyday life for that matter, provides an important example of how architects could raise issues such as site waste management and product stewardship. Anyone in doubt of the dire consequences of reckless plastic disposal (of which we are all guilty) should refer to Charles Moore’s disturbing account of coming across a literal sea of plastic trapped in the Pacific Gulf Stream while sailing from Los Angeles to Hawaii in 2003.5 However, as William McDonough points out, plastics can also be understood as a technical nutrient (as opposed to a biological nutrient) endlessly available for recycling and reuse.6 This is contingent on diligent waste management practice.
Citing these examples and highlighting these issues is not a finger-pointing exercise. Rather, these are the types of questions all architects should be asking from now. Past sins forgiven, we have the ability to effect change and to make a significant positive contribution from this point on. This article – not unlike our efforts to date regarding sustainability in the buildings we have designed – merely scrapes the surface. The challenges of sustainability should not be seen as extra appendages to how we have designed in the past, instead architects have the inherent ability to go back to the drawing board and to reinvent the design process to reflect the buildings we need from now. This should not than hamper our creativity – it could be a meaningful way for us all to address the true dilemma of our age: climate change. The built environment we help to create will define our position for generations to come. LORINA NERVENGA IS MANAGER SUSTAINABILITY AT THE RAIA.
NOTES1. Ceridwen Owen, “Sustaining Edg(e)”, Architecture Australia vol 94 no 4 (July/August 2005) p. 32. 2. Sourced from the Concrete Centre www.concretecentre.com 3. See “Illegally Logged Timber Imports Make it to Australia” news report regarding the Overview of Illegal Logging report, commissioned by the government. ABC News Online Saturday 28 January, 2006.
www.abc.net.au/news/ newsitems/200601/s1557 009.htm4. United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Planet Ark, www.planetark.org. 5. Charles Moore, “Trashed: Across the Pacific Ocean, Plastics, Plastics Everywhere” Natural History vol 112, no 9 (November 2003).
Online at http://www.
mindfully.org/Plastic/ Ocean/Moore-Trashed- PacificNov03.htm6. William McDonough and Michael Braungart Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things (New York: Northpoint Press, 2002).