As design professionals, every day we are provided with the opportunity to pursue more sustainable practices that can not only preserve the environment, but improve it.
Across the U.S., commercial buildings account for an estimated 38% of carbon dioxide emissions and 39% of total energy due to the large amount of energy required to heat, cool and power a building with electricity, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
New construction also greatly impacts our air quality and water consumption. Plus, producing and transporting materials puts a major strain on natural resources such as wood and minerals while adding additional greenhouse gases to the air.
With an increasing need to address these challenges and become more sensitive to preserving our natural resources, our team of architects and engineers strive to utilize various eco-friendly methods and materials throughout the design process.
As a result of an extensive collaborative design efforts, we have developed several noteworthy building features that can also be implemented into your next project to make every day an earth day.
Lighting is an important feature of spatial design. By ensuring that spaces are laid out to take advantage of natural day light and views provides maximum amount of sunlight and minimal need for artificial light. For example, rooms that will be most commonly used and occupied during the daytime should be placed along south-facing walls. Without having to turn on lights during the day you will cut energy consumption from lighting anywhere from 50% to 80%.
Proper spatial design also has a number of benefits such as reducing glare on principal visual tasks. Indirect lighting solutions should also be implemented with proper window placement, light shelves, and shading devices.
FIXTURES AND FINISHES
Natural daylight can be supplemented by efficient LED fixtures with direct and indirect lighting. Occupancy and daylight sensors can be used to respond to available daylight and the presence of occupants in the room.
Reflective finishes such as mirrors located in critical areas are also a great tool when placed in shadowed areas because they will bounce and redirect natural light to darker areas of a building.
Additionally, bright colors and finishes can be used in the interior to reflect the sunlight. It’s also important to avoid obstructing sunlight along south-facing walls and windows.
HEATING AND VENTILATION
Natural ventilation through operable windows can be an effective and energy-efficient way to supplement HVAC systems to provide outside air ventilation, cooling and thermal comfort when conditions permit, and promote cross ventilation in conjunction with highly efficient equipment. When considering if and where to provide operable windows, it’s also important to take things like outdoor sources of pollutants (including building exhausts and vehicle traffic) and noise into account.
Electric only systems can also be installed along with on-site power generation. This is not only a cost effective way to produce electricity and heat at your facility, but a much greener solution, as it can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30%. Many distributed power generation systems are based on environmentally friendly power sources, such as wind, solar, or biofuels. These are less polluting than fossil fuels such as oil, gas or coal.
However, even if fossil fuels are required to power the system selected, a distributed generator is more efficient than traditional power systems because less energy is lost in transmission. This great efficiency means less fuel must be used, reducing pollution and improving environmental protection.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the United States uses more than 400 billion gallons of water per day. The operation of buildings, including landscaping, accounts for approximately 47 billion gallons per day. This is 12% of total water use.
As residential, commercial, industrial, and other development expands, so does the use of the limited potable water supply.
To combat this, some of our recommended water-saving strategies that we’ve implemented include automated and low flow water fixtures, rain water catchment, grey water re-use, xeriscaping use of native plant species, and incorporating efficient irrigation technologies.
Specifying low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the paint, carpet, wall coverings, and floor mastics are a great way to improve the overall environmental performance of your next project.
However, when evaluating materials and finishes, it’s also important to consider the environmental impacts generated by each phase of production, use, and disposal.
Products made from natural, renewable materials and those that include recycled content are a great place to start when selecting eco-friendly materials. Recycled building components are often used during adaptive reuse as well, one of the most environmentally-conscious methods of construction.
Bamboo is another material that’s both energy-efficient and sustainable to harvest. It can grow by up to four feet per day, making it a highly sustainable piece of material and it is at least twice as strong as steel. Bamboo also releases 35% more oxygen when it is growing and absorbs approximately 35% more carbon dioxide than trees, Architectural Digest reports. It also reduces transportation costs due to its light weight, but does require treatment for building use.
It’s also important to become educated on which materials are most detrimental to the environment. For example, the production of concrete is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. Concrete can also not be salvaged like other natural materials and it is left where it is demolished.
Created by the Materials Council, the “In the Scale of Carbon” infographic below shows visual representations of materials according to the amount of carbon dioxide that is produced during their manufacture. Each square illustrates the volume of material that can be produced for one ton of CO² emissions, relative to other materials commonly used for architectural constructions. The infographic highlights the high impact of manufacturing metals like steel and aluminum, while illuminating less impactful raw materials such as clay, sandstone and wood.
While not a comprehensive list, these are just some eco-friendly features to consider incorporating into your next project. By doing so, we can collectively elevate our stewardship of the environment. Working together, we can move towards a more sustainable paradigm for the A/E/C industry.