Today, terms such as “sustainable” or “LEED Certified” are often used to signify that a development is ecologically friendly and employing cutting edge technology. However, many consumers do not fully understand the term “sustainable construction” or its importance to the preservation of our planet.
As cities continue to grow, our buildings are beginning to play an increasingly important role in sustaining the environment. In 2014, the World Health Organization reported that the urban population accounted for 54% of the total global population and that by 2017 it is estimated that the majority of the population will reside in urban areas. Toronto’s population alone is projected to reach 3,000,000 by the year 2020. The OECD also estimates that buildings in developed countries will account for over 40% of energy consumption over their lifetime, and that the building sector alone is responsible for 30% of primary energy use. As cities continue to grow, we need to think about how our buildings can meet the needs of our growing populations while also reducing the strain on our environment and finite resources.
Sustainable construction therefore “aims to meet present day needs for housing, working environments and infrastructure without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Green buildings implement resource-efficient technologies to preserve natural resources (such as energy and water) and use materials and processes that protect the health of building occupants, while also reducing the amount of waste and pollution created during and after construction.
The sold out Benchmark community in downtown Markham - via Remington Homes
In Canada, several developers are beginning to place a greater emphasis on building “healthy” residential and commercial projects that help us reduce our ecological footprint. Granite Homes has been installing high performance windows and improving insulation systems and draft-proofing. Similarly, TIMES GROUP has set their sights on becoming a candidate for Toronto Green Standard TIER 2, which is the highest green building standard in the industry. Remington Homes was also recently recognized by The Globe and Mail for its mixed-use neighbourhood in Markham, which emphasizes the pedestrian over the automobile.
Innovative designs for a sustainable future
Internationally, there are a number of exciting projects in the works that are paving the way for greater sustainability in home construction and design. Several companies are exploring the use of new construction materials to minimize waste, reduce carbon emissions, and improve everyday life in the city. For example, the Hy-Fi is a temporary outdoor structure planned for the courtyard at the MoMA PS1 in Brooklyn, New York. Hi-Fy’s materials would be composed of discarded low-cost crops (such as corn stalks and mushrooms) which means the structure is completely biodegradable and produces no energy or carbon emissions throughout the construction process. In Spain, Iker Luna has been researching moss-grafted clay tiles to improve green roofs. The porous clay material allows moss to grow on the roof tiling, improving air quality and reducing the urban heat island effect in metropolitan areas. Several companies are also focusing attention on the materials we use to construct furniture and items inside the home. Ekla Home recently introduced a line of organic sofas and chairs that do not use any chemical flame retardants, maintaining their goal to produce the least toxic furniture possible. Similarly, KI is developing a furniture line made from petroleum-free plastics called AirCarbon. This furniture line uses agriculturally sourced methane rather than petroleum during the manufacturing process making them carbon-negative.
Hy-Fi from David Benjamin on Vimeo.
Energy-efficient technologies that reduce unnecessary waste are also receiving significant attention from developers. Rising energy prices mean homeowners can see the effects of these technologies not only in the environment, but also in their pockets. Cooling is currently one of the biggest energy consumers globally and will continue to grow with the expansion of urban centres. Nikola Znaor’s Air-Shade is a responsible shading system that can vary in size, scale, material, and form, making it adaptable to any apartment window, mid-size home, or office building. Znaor’s design is sensitive to solar exposure, powered by air, and does not require an external energy source.
Water is another finite resource that has received a lot of attention from sustainability-oriented developers. For example, the FocalPoint Bioretention system takes untreated rainwater leaving developed sites and filters it through a high-flow-rate biofiltration system. This design helps process the pollutants that flow off of our properties and into local stormwater systems, reducing the ecological impact of our homes. On a larger scale, The Waternet Building in Amsterdam works to offset the environmental cost of the building by providing 100% of the city’s water needs. The building purifies rainwater, surface water, and groundwater for both the building’s own use as well as all of the residents of Amsterdam. Developing and adapting these technologies to our homes will help us to reduce the ecological impact of our ever-growing cities.
Waternet building - via Inhabitat
Rewarding sustainable construction
With the growing need for sustainable cities, a number of awards have emerged to promote and reward leaders in sustainable construction. For thirteen years, Building Green has conducted the Top 10 Green Building Products Awards. The awards distinguish building products that make fundamental changes in the design and construction industry. This year the awards highlighted innovations such as the Clean Energy Collective, which makes PV facilities (solar panels) available to people across the US, as well as the Multistack Magnetic Levitation Chillers, which can cool homes, offices, and schools more efficiently. This system is more energy efficient, requires less space and maintenance, and avoids the use of lubricating oils.
The Holcim Foundation also recognizes “innovative projects and future-oriented concepts” through the International Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction. Every three years, the Holcim Foundation looks for projects that “demonstrate an ability to stretch conventional notions of sustainable building and also balance environmental, social and economic performance,” and awards them a total of $2 million (US) in prize money. In 2014, the Foundation announced the 2014 North America winners in Toronto. The city’s University building renovation and extension was even awarded an acknowledgement prize for its use of existing urban architecture, state-of-the-art construction materials, and energy system.
Proposed extension for the John H Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape & Design - via holcimfoundation.org
Does the future of sustainable construction lie in the past?
The University of Toronto’s renovation illustrates another point often absent in discussions of sustainable construction technology - the role that existing architecture can play in the future of sustainable development. Older buildings are often perceived to be inefficient and demolished to make room for a wave of technologically sophisticated, environmentally friendly architecture. However, in many cases reusing old buildings may actually have less of an impact on the environment than tearing down an entire building and starting construction from scratch. Demolition, waste removal, and manufacturing new materials all put a strain on the environment, and even brand new buildings that integrate sustainable technology still take 80 years to have a better environmental impact. Preservation Green Lab, a sustainability think tank, recently published a study which reveals that retrofitting an existing building is better for the environment than creating a new building with the same energy-efficient features.
That is not to say that every building must be saved, warns director of sustainability for the National Trust for Historic Preservation Patrice Frey, just that the environmental impacts of demolition must also be considered. Whether we retrofit our old buildings with sustainable elements or choose to implement sustainable technology in new construction projects, it is clear that this economically efficient and environmentally responsible approach has taken root. Though many of these innovations are still in the early stages of development, consumers should expect and demand more environmentally responsible homes and communities to ensure future generations will be able to enjoy the planet.