Quiet Sustainability

Solar panels and geothermal heating aren’t the only ways to incorporate sustainable architecture, and they might not even be the best ways to be sustainable. Instead quiet sustainability practices may be the easy answer environmentalists are looking for.

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Human development, habitation, and the construction activities that have facilitated them have often been injurious to the environment. This “reckless disregard” for our planet has been prevalent throughout human history, reaching a sort of apogee during the industrial revolution, and extending well into the twentieth century.

As humanity has advanced (and hopefully grown) we have all become more aware of our impact on our world, and the importance of developing and practicing techniques to protect and strengthen our environment. The design and building industry has not always been at the forefront of this issue, however, recent decades have seen a marked improvement in many areas within the built environment.

A number of the “in” strategies for sustainability are very “sexy” and often quite technological. Not to take anything away from modern sustainable technologies, I would like to focus for a time on some much more basic, intrinsic elements of design which while not “showy” or “loud” can have a profound impact on how our buildings work within the larger sustainable paradigm. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to these elements as “Quiet Sustainability”.

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As is often the case when one discusses the basis of architecture, we will begin with our old friend Vitruvius. Writing to the Emperor Augustus in the first century, one issue Vitruvius espoused upon was orientation of a building within its specific setting.
“the special purposes of different rooms require different exposures, suited to convenience and to the quarters of the sky”
Book VI, Chapter IV, Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture

Specific attention to how a building is sited can allow the designer to:
Avoid unfavorable prevailing winds and weather
Avoid harsh and damaging light exposure
Take advantage of natural ventilation and lighting opportunities
Use landscaping choices such as deciduous planting to cool in summer but allow for passive heating in the cooler months.

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In addition to orientation, another “quiet” concept is careful material selection to take advantage of passive conditions. These choices include:
Mass walls and floor elements to function as thermal “batteries”
Eaves, overhangs, soffits, and sunscreens to filter and condition the light that enters the space.
Long term (even generational) material choices such as slate and copper roofing elements (the first cost can be rather high, however, the overall impact is reduced by the extreme lifespan of such choices)

Design and Detailing can also play an important part in basic concepts of sustainability. Some of these ideas have been around for a very long time (centuries or even millenia), but they remain effective and important, including:
Location of fenestration to allow for natural cross ventilation, particularly of sleeping spaces.
Major massing decisions, such as locating unconditioned portions of the program where they can “buffer” the conditioned spaces from the harshest elements
Careful planning and limiting non-program elements such as circulation. The less you have to build, the less impact the structure will have

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architectural process pic 1.png

As indicated at the beginning of this article, none of the above is intended in any way to minimize or diminish the significance of more “active”, technological solutions to sustainability. Quite the contrary, a building that is conscious of the “quiet” or “passive” elements of sustainability is that much more effective, and positive, when the “sexier” sustainable concepts are incorporated into it.

By always looking forward, but also not losing sight of the “basics” we can, hopefully, build better, and smarter, and strive to avoid some of the wounds of the past, “do no harm” with our current constructions, and perhaps even turn a corner so future generations will be able to look forward to a bright, safe, and joy filled future.