Sofie Pelsmakers, environmental architect and doctoral researcher at University College London (UCL), busts 10 common environmental design myths. This also serves as a good introduction to The Environmental Design Pocketbook.
Interview with Sofie Pelsmakers
Sofie Pelsmakers is passionate about contextual design, with the focus very much on minimising our impact on the planet. She was inspired to write The Environmental Design Pocketbook after realising there was no single resource that had summed up the arguments and also pointed to deeper reading.
Download Sofie's PDF
In this session Sofie is dispelling 10 environmental design myths. She has also put together this bonus PDF for further reading.
Myth 1: “Climate Change is in The Future”
With Met Office and NASA data showing that all of the UK’s warmest years have been in the last decade, it is evident that climate change is already here. So the notion that we’re designing for the distant future is wrong.
The job for designers is making sure that buildings in the future will still be performing to the standard they were designed for and that they’re fit for purpose. Ideally we should be designing buildings that take into account future changes in climate or that can be adapted if necessary.
How future climates may vary (copyright The Environmental Design Pocketbook)
Myth 2: “What if Global Warming is Not as Bad as Predicted?”
If we’re wrong about climate change then the worst that can happen is that we’ll have designed better buildings that function in this climate and in any in the future.
Copyright Joel Pitt
Myth 3: “Green Roofs – Are They Green?”
This depends on the kind of green roof, in which part of the country and how well shaded and protected it is. There isn’t one solution suitable for all situations in all regions.
Much of the sedum is imported which will have an environmental impact, and even more so if killed off from being used in the wrong position (perhaps being unable to survive on a thin roof in the south east of England during a drought) and needing to be replaced.
Sofie states the current fashion is of thinking if a building “looks green”, such as with green roofs, green walls, or renewables then surely it must be, however it is just not as simple as that.
An example of a biodiverse and intensive green roof (copyright bere:architects)
Myth 4: “Green Walls”
While they have aesthetically pleasing qualities, a massive amount of energy is actually used in circulating water and nutrients around the plants to keep them alive. Systems can fail because they’ve not been maintained properly, the plants are in very exposed areas, or exotic imported plants are used that are just not suited to the climate. With considerable resources and energy being used to keep them alive or replace them if they die, Sofie suggests a much more robust way of creating a green wall is to use plants from the ground up and along trellises and buildings.
A green wall at Paradise Park
Myth 5: “Micro-Renewables Such as Micro-Wind Turbines Are a Great Idea in Urban Areas”
Sofie feels that there is a danger in sustainable design of going towards gimmicky “look at me” type renewables. In fact the energy used to make and transit a wind turbine to site can actually be greater than the energy it will ever generate, particularly if erected in an urban setting where there isn’t enough consistent wind. And despite millions being spent on renewables there can be unintended consequences, for example in some cases turbines have even been switched off because of complaints about their noise.
The sustainability of wind turbines in urban areas (copyright The Environmental Design Pocketbook)
Myth 6: “Greywater and Rainwater – Is it Always Environmentally Sound?”
If your sole concern is about saving water then these systems will succeed in that objective. Depending on the system used however and when you consider the embodied energy in the extra pipework, the energy used for pumping, the chemical cleaning components etc, you could end up saving very little water for a great energy cost.
A far more effective solution would be a gravity fed system with short retention recycling which would not need the cleaning to be done mechanically.
Myth 7: “Eco-Measures Lead to Energy Savings and Reduced Bills, Right?”
Using a greywater recycling system like the example above, it is evident that bills could actually increase from the costs of energy used to pump the water around, clean it and feed it back.
An unintended consequence is that we think that eco-measures will save energy but actually in a lot of cases people then behave differently.
Myth 8: “Does a Zero-Energy Building Mean its Environmental Impact is Zero?”
While we may save carbon from energy generated onsite (and if offset with allowable solutions), a building has more environmental impacts which cannot all be measured in carbon (health, biodiversity etc.).
Also the current definition of zero carbon acknowledges that you'd have to build at low densities. This in turn makes public transport and walking to services less viable, and increases dependence on cars.
Myth 9: “If I Have Clean Renewable Energy it Doesn’t Matter How Much I Use”
There are around 27 million buildings in the UK, many of which are built to appalling standards. While a lot of people think that there’s no need to upgrade them if we can just decarbonise the grid, they neglect to consider that the high energy demand requires considerable money and finite resources for the substantial array of renewables that would be required. There would also be ridiculous amount of space required to enable those renewables to offset an energy-inefficient building.
Myth 10: “Retrofit of Existing Buildings = Unneeded and Boring”
With such a large number of buildings built to a poor standard there is a fundamental need for them to be upgraded in order to meet our 2050 carbon budgets and to address the problems of fuel poverty.
Sofie feels that many architects find retrofitting unrewarding and complicated due to limitations such as expense and existing structure. She argues that actually it brings the architect back to the base principles of insulation details, airtightness and thermal bridging that are often forgotten.
Find Out More
Find out more about The Environmental Design Pocketbook
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