In a predominately urban world that constantly has to deal with complex problems such as waste generation, water scarcity, natural disasters, air pollution, and even the spread of disease, it is impossible to ignore the impact of human activity on the environment. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and it is urgent that we find ways to slow down the process, at the very least. Toward this end, our production, consumption, and construction habits will have to change, or climate change and environmental degradation will continue to diminish the quality and duration of our lives and that of future generations.
Although they seem intangible and distant, these various energy inefficiencies and waste issues are much closer than we can imagine, present in the buildings we use on a daily basis. As architects, this problem is further amplified as we deal daily with design decisions and material specifications. In other words, our decisions really do have a global impact. How can we use design to create a healthier future for our world?
In industrialized countries, buildings account for 40% of total energy consumption, with the majority providing heating or cooling services. Much of this energy is wasted due to inefficiencies in construction projects that are not well-adapted to their environment, climate, or local reality. Demographic projections show that in 2050, 70% of the world population will live in cities. Megacities are expected to develop and multiply, mainly in Africa and Asia, which will lead to strong territorial transformations, new forms of construction, and shifting expectations for cities and inhabitants. At the same time, already consolidated urban areas should focus on urban planning reforms and revitalization.
The biggest challenge will be ensuring that these new buildings and renovations, from the smallest houses to the largest public facilities and infrastructure, are leaving less of an environmental impact, using less energy and resources, and generating less pollution and waste while simultaneously remaining as safe and comfortable as before. Thus, they must ensure the well-being of their occupants to meet thermal, visual, acoustic and indoor air requirements. As we have all heard and read, 'acting locally but thinking globally' is increasingly essential for everyone to do their part in mitigating the effects of climate change. As architects, what might be the main principles of action to combat these important problems facing humanity?
Principle 1: Offer Well-Being to Users
We spend most of our lives indoors, and comfort conditions heavily influence our health and mood when they are not adequate. It is impossible to concentrate when there is a flickering lamp, or sleep with a constant noise running all night. Developed by Saint-Gobain, the Multi Comfort concept is a comprehensive program encompassing all aspects that contribute to comfort of life in residential and tertiary buildings. As basic as it may seem, space must allow its occupants to feel, see, hear, and breathe without major problems. For that, it is essential that certain comfort conditions are well-resolved, implicating design and material decisions as important factors of consideration.
- Feel: Not too hot or too cold. For us to function comfortably and perform our daily activities, the environment must maintain thermal comfort regardless of the temperature outside. This comfort is determined by factors such as temperature, humidity, and the absence of drafts. Knowing the climatic behavior of the environment will be essential to determine the balance between solar gain (glass and openings), sealing and ventilation, insulation and thermal inertia. Understanding of the climate is also necessary to determine if the building needs to avoid heat loss or gain to maintain the adequate energy efficiency of its cooling or heating systems.
- See: The concept of visual comfort depends on our ability to control the light levels around us. The human eye is constantly adapting to light levels. Therefore, too little or too much light can cause visual discomfort, just as sudden changes or large contrasts can cause stress and fatigue. Natural light is the light source to which our eyes adapt more naturally, which is why we are almost always more comfortable with it than artificial lighting. We have already seen in some articles that artificial lights can be more or less kind to our health, imitating levels and temperatures of natural light. Everything from the colors of the walls to the technologies of everyday products can positively impact spaces.
- Hear: Research has shown that well-designed acoustic environments in offices or schools help improve concentration and enable better communication. Acoustic comfort means reducing internal and external noise and achieving the appropriate acoustic conditions for each space. This feat can occur through the use of materials that isolate us from external noise and that have a calculated balance between absorbent and reflective surfaces, reducing internal reverberations.
- Breathe: Indoor air quality refers to the correct amount of fresh air supplied in relation to the occupancy rate and the type of activity. Historically, good air quality has been associated with the absence of pollutants that could affect people's health. However, today there are other parameters that appear in the evaluation of indoor air quality, such as the absence of bad odors, sensory irritations, and congestion (headache and fatigue). Specifying correct products to create good indoor air quality means taking into account materials that do not emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, specifying high-performance membranes, windows, and doors that provide superior tightness, and using products that contribute to the performance of ventilation systems making the air recycle properly.
Principle 2: Become an Environment-Friendly Actor
Keep in mind that all decisions involving a project, whether they involve implementation, dimensions, orientation, facilities, or materials, have a total impact on the environmental footprint of a building, not only in its construction but throughout its useful life. These specifications will be different for each type of building, climate, program, or budget. They also include the environmental cost of material transport. It is essential to ensure that a coherent and credible message is taken to the end users of the spaces, who will have more of a voice in the future decision-making processes in large and small projects. There are no universal magic or material formulas to reach sustainability - only good solutions particular to certain places, moments, and realities.
Principle 3: Increase Professional and Constructive Productivity
The civil construction sector is considered low-tech, tending to produce an enormous amount of waste. Gradually, technology has begun to provide greater control, precision, and automation of repetitive processes, with the goal of improving productivity on construction sites.
The development of modular and precast solutions tends to make buildings faster and smarter. These solutions can also represent an increase in rationality and adaptability over the life of the building. A house, for example, can be easily expanded or reduced if standardized and modular construction systems are used, following the demand of the life cycle of its occupants. Also, work on the construction site begins to be more of an assembly than a construction itself. This solution is even more important in developed countries, where prefabrication and offsite manufacturing are an effective response to labor shortages. Planning controls, perception of modular or precast solutions and articulating the benefits to developers, where the gains are not necessarily reflected in monetary values during the tender process, are some of the challenges that needs to be overcome in order to increase penetration of newer ways of construction to increase productivity. The incorporation of new technologies into the building, such as home automation, is something additional to consider.
3D printing is also gaining traction in architectural production and will become increasingly important for creative or complex projects with low environmental cost. BIM (Building Information Modeling) is already a common acronym in the field of architecture. Through different BIM software, it is possible to digitally create one or more precise virtual models of a construction, with greater control over the costs and energy efficiency of the materials. This technology represents increased support for a project throughout its phases, even after its construction or in its demolition.
Principle 4: Embrace Design and Construction Automation
Linking virtual architectural projects to the reality of the construction site, increasing efficiency and accuracy, reducing the occurrence of errors, and saving time, money, and resources, are the main objectives of bringing more technology to a field so resistant to change.
For example, while Virtual Reality creates a totally new environment independent of the real world, Augmented Reality includes virtual elements that interact with what already exists. Terms and technologies such as big data, robots and drones, home automation, and repetitive design processes will soon be integrated into our daily lives, improving architectural processes and the quality of projects and construction. The so-called Industry 4.0 is more than just the incorporation of technologies. Communication sensors, the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), and smart data should all make production processes smarter and more agile, using machines that constantly communicate and exchange information in real-time and learn during these processes.
This impending transformation forces us to reconsider the way we work and the way we organize work: moving to and learning about the BIM methodology may be the best first step. The benefits of doing so include fewer resources used, lower costs, and better product quality. Better yet, manufacturers can now leverage their data to meet customer expectations and adapt to meet their needs in real-time.
Balance and common sense in acts and decisions seem to be the most appropriate way to face the great challenges and changes that the world imposes. And, like riding a bike, it's easier to keep your balance when you're on the go. This means being vigilant and understanding how the profession, the industry, and all the technologies involved change at every minute. The identification and ideal combination of factors to achieve total comfort ('feel, see, hear, breathe') already puts us in the right direction to help combat the great challenges of the coming decades. If all architects were aware of this opportunity and embraced the tools offered by new technologies, the sum of our individual efforts could have a genuine impact globally.