When many people hear the phrase ‘green building’ they immediately think high-tech features and high-spec finishes. They picture advanced low-e glass, blinds that automatically adjust to shield the sun’s rays, blackwater recycling systems, geothermal heating and smart meters that track energy usage.
While green building does embrace and encourage new technologies, new designs and new approaches, many new green buildings are emulating the old designs, the old approaches, the old techniques and nature’s ‘technologies’ to get better, greener outcomes.
Take a simple concept like solar orientation. We have archaeological evidence that the ancient Greeks were building their homes in grid patterns to best access the heat and light of the sun in the fifth century BC. “In houses that look toward the south, the sun penetrates the portico in winter, while in summer the path of the sun is right over our heads and above the roof so that there is shade,” the philosopher Socrates observed, talking about the Northern Hemisphere’s early green buildings.
Greek playwright Aeschylus took his admiration of passive solar design a step further, noting that only primitives “lacked knowledge of houses turned to face the winter sun, dwelling beneath the ground like swarming ants in sunless caves.”
The Ancient Romans developed the first solar-heated bath-houses and access to the sun was made a legal right under the Justinian Code of Law adopted in the sixth century AD. The earliest green roofs, such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in what is now Iraq, date back to biblical times.
Sustainable design is not just a feature of the classics, however. Many cultures followed simple principles of sustainable design that remain as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. Nepalese homes, with their passive solar orientation and shading, high-insulation roofing and rock walls with high thermal mass, have changed little for centuries. The Cappadoccians in Turkey built thermally-efficient homes by hollowing out soft volcanic rock, in much the way the people of Coober Pedy do today. In America, the Pueblo Indians built their dwellings with south-facing adobe walls which absorbed the sun’s heat during the day and then warmed the home’s interior at night.
Indigenous Australians used simple, passive design principles to ensure they gained shelter from our nation’s blazing sun while still allowing air flow, while early colonial buildings integrated elements of passive design. The magnetic termite mounds of the Northern Territory are miniature ‘termite cities’ aligned north to south to minimise exposure to the heat of the sun, with structures that keep temperatures stable within the mound, allow air flow, and help shed excess rainwater without being washed away. Recall the old Queenslanders perched on stilts to improve air flow, inner-Sydney terrace houses pushed up against each other to provide good thermal mass, and the shade and shelter gained from the ubiquitous verandah.
As these examples demonstrate, until fairly recently human beings were adept at living in harmony with our climate and our environment. Where did it all go wrong? The post-war boom required as many homes to be built as quickly as possible. Later, a focus on minimising costs resulted in suburb-upon-suburb of sealed brick boxes – each designed in a way that ensured they would trap the heat in summer and block out the sun in winter, requiring mechanical air conditioning to assure thermal comfort. In fact, the invention and commercialisation of air-conditioning led us to lose touch with the concept of building our shelter around the seasons. When the same building design could be applied everywhere from the Top End to Tasmania, little thought was given to the local climate and ecosystem, not to mention the aesthetics of the suburban landscape. Air conditioning remains a valuable part of indoor environment quality, but should be used to complement good passive design, rather than the starting point of architecture.
So, the shift to sustainable building is not really a progression – more a return to simple, common sense methods of good, green passive design.
Take Australia’s first Green Star-rated residential development, The Summer in Perth, as an example. The Summer has integrated simple design features that use the ocean breeze and regulate the heat generated by the sun. The result is a development that has eliminated the need for mechanical air-conditioning, and is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 88 per cent.
Through passive design strategies, over 90 per cent of units have open floor plans and provide dual aspects to allow for natural cross-ventilation, recirculating air throughout the units and common spaces. The building also incorporates moveable screens on balconies to provide solar shading in the warmer months.
The design principles applied at The Summer evoke the Queenslanders of yesteryear – demonstrating that everything old can be new again.
The buildings that we construct may be able to stand the test of time, but are they necessarily suitable for a lifetime?
I was raised in a house in South East England that is now about 410 years old. It was built centuries before Captain Cook sailed to Australia or before the American War of Independence; before either of the World Wars, the Crimean War, or the Battle of Waterloo; before human beings had seen skyscrapers, railways or even iron bridges.
With a simple timber frame, plaster walls and a tiled roof, it has remained standing through frost, snow, storms and blizzards, despite blinding sun, heatwaves and water shortages. To me, this represents true resilience.
410 year old home in South East England
And yet, while my family home has stood the test of time, its narrow hallways and steep stairs, uneven floors and tiny bathroom now make it unliveable for my mother as she gets older. In this house, ‘ageing in place’ is not an option.
Robin Mellon's old home does not support 'ageing in place'
In Australia, the number of people aged 75 years and over is expected to increase by about four million between 2012 and 2060 — an increase roughly equivalent to the current population of Melbourne.
An even more startling illustration of the ageing population is the number of people who will survive past 100 years of age. The Productivity Commission’s An Ageing Australia: Preparing for the Future (November 2013) states that in 2012 there was roughly one person aged 100 years old or more to every 100 babies.
By 2060, there will be around 25 centenarians for every 100 babies, and with continued small increases in longevity, by 2100, there will be more people aged 100 or more years than babies born in that year.
So will the homes we are building now be suitable to house this growing group of centenarians?
The nature of our ageing population will also have many policy implications – from how governments manage age pensions and health budgets to how we plan, design and build our homes, our communities and our cities. As National Seniors Australia has observed, “the residential environment is closely linked to an older person’s capacity to remain independent, participate in community activities and feel secure and in control of their daily activities.”
Livable Housing Australia is driving a paradigm shift in the way the residential development industry designs and builds modern homes. The Livable Housing Design Guidelines support the design and construction of homes that can adapt as people age. And in turn, the Green Star – Communities rating tool’s ‘Accessibility and Adaptability’ credit awards points based on the percentage of dwellings compliant with LHA’s Guidelines. Other GBCA members are committed to creating residential communities that deliver sustainable solutions that save money and ensure good quality of life.
I’ve been inspired by Whiddon Group’s clever idea to install trickling showerheads with aerators. The water-saving showerheads use just nine litres of water a minute, but the aerators create lots of air bubbles so residents feel they’re not missing out on a hot shower. The feeling of luxury is there, but it is balanced by efficiency – and retrofits of their properties provide a long-term solution rather than a short-term ‘fix’. Stockland achieved the first Green Star rating for a retirement village last year, for Selandra Rise in Victoria, and has two more projects registered to achieve ratings.
The Green Building Council of Australia worked with Stockland to assess the design, construction and ongoing sustainability of 202 homes, 12 apartments and the community centre, as well as the practical and effective use of open space and residents’ proximity to shops, medical facilities and public transport. Stockland has estimated that the sustainability features will save residents at Selandra Rise an average of $700 each year on their water and energy bills.
These savings are another measure of resilience, and one which will become increasingly important as energy bills rise and pensions remain static. Financial resilience is an essential part of the overall resilience conversation – our ability to withstand climate extremes is vital but must be considered around long-term economic and social planning. While an ageing population presents challenges, it’s also a blessing.
After all, it’s the result of people living longer. It’s up to us to ensure we create built environments that are resilient in retirement.
Article first published on http://sourceable.net
28 November 2014
From Leonardo da Vinci’s bird-like flying machine to biomorphic Art Nouveau designs, for centuries people have been inspired by nature and applied it to their designs.
Nowadays, 21st century scientific knowledge together with cutting-edge technology and design tools enable us to examine nature and apply its genius in new and exciting ways.
This discipline, known as biomimicry, represents a rich and under-explored territory that can provide solutions to design challenges and deliver radical increases in resource efficiency. Biomimicry can inspire imaginative and beautiful architecture and provide solutions to complex issues such as water shortages and waste management.
While people of the past built domes over ecclesiastic structures that mimicked the concentric circles of sea shells, scientists today can examine the composition of these shells to make materials that are tougher and structures that are more enduring, argues British architect and biomimicry specialist, Michael Pawlyn.
The author of Biomimicry in Architecture, Pawlyn will be a keynote speaker at the Green Cities 2015 conference, and will explore his work on projects that take their cues from nature – from roof structures based on giant amazon water lilies to whole buildings inspired by abalone shells.
Pawlyn points to the work of professor Julian Vincent, a member of his design team, who is currently collaborating with company Swedish Biomimetics on a new form of bio sprinkler inspired by the bombardier beetle. This six-legged tank-like beetle fires a fine, high-pressure spray of hot, acrid gas that repels predators.
“Professor Vincent is looking to adapt this to create a fine-spray fire sprinkler that uses far less water, as water damage can far exceed fire damage in offices. And using less water means buildings don’t need massive water tanks in their basements,” Pawlyn said.
The work with the bombardier beetle also has the potential to help engineers develop more efficient fuel injection systems and medical researchers create super-fine needles.
So, how do we address the fact that many species have different drivers to human beings – such as tiny energy and water requirements or no desire for personal wealth or possessions?
And how do we build on the common sense ideas that we’ve heard at previous Green Cities conferences, including Gunther Pauli’s talk of creating 100 innovations based around materials, structures and resources that we already have – such as recycling coffee waste for mushroom farming or using maggots for wound treatment or animal fodder.
Pawlyn agrees that there are “some things that work in biology, but not in architecture,” pointing to work recently undertaken with world experts on termite mounds.
“We were looking to extract new ideas from the mounds, but found that they weren’t applicable to office buildings because the air quality that termites will tolerate isn’t acceptable to humans,” he said. “Biomimcry is not about slavishly imitating nature, but about looking at how things work in nature, and developing new solutions.”
“Looking at how we mimic entire ecosystems offers huge potential for rethinking the metabolism of our cities. Nature’s examples provide a guide to help us transform our cities from wasteful linear to resource-efficient, closed loop systems. This will help us make the shift from the industrial to the ecological age.”
See more at: http://sourceable.net/design-inspired-by-nature/#sthash.R54ZR1c9.dpuf
Robin Mellon is one of Australia’s experts on sustainability in the built environment and is determined to leave the planet in a better shape than it was when he found it. Robin believes in a Better Sydney – better buildings, better communities and a better quality of life.