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In the brief for these articles, one of the things Sannah challenged me to think about was how people could take action in their personal lives to tackle the climate emergency, through the lens of architecture. What is interesting is I have spent a lot of time with colleagues and tutors considering how architects can operate more sustainably, but I have really no idea how someone outside of the industry could also engage and have an impact.

Although architecture is something that everyone experiences in their day-to-day life, the process of producing architecture is largely shielded from the public eye. Entry to the industry is gated by many levels of education and professional qualifications. These can take the best part of a decade to obtain, before you can even start thinking about what your contribution to the industry might be. The result of this is that, other than possibly some community engagement sessions that might happen for urban projects, there is really no way for the public to contribute directly to or critique how architecture is produced.

In my view, there are a few key ways that it is possible to make an impact on the built environment, even if you are not directly working in the field as a professional.

Firstly, many people are opting to be self-builders, which essentially refers to the process of acquiring land and building a new-build home. Anyone looking to build their own home has a fantastic opportunity to create a sustainable, regenerative space that uses low impact materials, high thermal efficiency, passive design or efficient mechanical ventilation systems, and off-grid energy possibilities.

Building standards such as Passivhaus are brilliant, as it acts as a guarantee for the homeowner that the house will perform as promised (the key with Passivhaus is that the building needs to pass an inspection after completion). Unfortunately, self-build is an option open to very few - those with the time, money and willpower to see through several years of chaos. Not to mention the process of finding a plot, which in the U.K. is a project in itself. For many, renovation, home upgrades, and interior design are the most effective way to directly influence the environmental impact of their inhabited environment.

Homeowners (and in some cases renters) can consider retrofit upgrades that could reduce the energy demand of the house such as adding insulation, upgrading to double or triple glazing, swapping to low energy appliances and lightbulbs. In addition to this, smart tech is a fascinating growing industry which enables features such as smart metering and automation of lighting, heating and other electronic fixtures. Learning to use smart tech effectively will inevitably empower us to understand and monitor the energy consumed in the spaces we inhabit.

Finally, the most effective way that anyone can make a direct impact on the built environment is through activism and backing legislation or policy change. System change and government scale investment in subsidies are some of the most effective ways to shift trends to a more resilient future.

A fantastic example of a campaign in the U.K., which is being run by ACAN (Architects Climate Action Network), is seeking to introduce embodied carbon legislation in the U.K. that would allow the planning process and building regulations to assess, report and reduce embodied carbon emissions of construction projects. Embodied carbon is the total carbon emissions as a result of the construction of a building, including in the mining, transportation and processing of the building materials, the assembly of the building and on-site construction activities. Although embodied carbon calculations can be complex, this legislation would bring a much higher level of environmental accountability to projects, which is currently too easily ignored.

Another example of an ongoing campaign is ‘RetroFirst’. This campaign is looking to achieve VAT cuts for retrofit projects that improve the energy efficiency of a building. Currently, the VAT system is biased towards new builds, which do not incur the tax. Under the proposed changes, new builds would be subject to the full VAT rate, unless the building can be shown to meet a rigorous energy efficiency standard. It’s essential to look to improve the existing building we have first, before incentivising new construction, which ultimately depletes our raw materials and natural resources, and increases the amount of embodied carbon in our building stock.

Much of this change will need to happen within the industry, with sustainable agendas being driven by built environment professionals who are familiar with the challenges at hand. However, involvement and engagement by non-architects will also be crucial in developing a wider culture that views the environmental impact of buildings and cities as urgent and fundamental in achieving a more sustainable future.

- Maria Henshall

Human and planetary health are so closely connected and more and more we are realising that design that is good for planetary health is in fact better for human health too.

When it comes to thinking about the spaces we inhabit, understanding health from a human and planetary perspective is a great lens for developing sustainable design. So often, design choices that lead to more energy-efficient, environmentally positive outcomes will also benefit human health.

Integral design strategies such as natural ventilation and natural lighting should be the first port of call on any design project, if the external conditions allow. Access to natural light and fresh air is deeply connected to our mental wellbeing and also reduces our reliance on artificial light and mechanical ventilation, reducing our reliance on energy.

Design for natural ventilation and shading can reduce reliance on air conditioning or mechanical ventilation systems in hot summer months or warmer climates. Rotating shading fins have been used in this project by MGF Arkitekten.

Design for natural light in this project by FMD Architects reduces the need for artificial lighting with high level windows for overall brightness but also low levels windows for task light and views when sitting.

In addition to this, one of the best ways to move towards sustainable design strategies is to look at less energy-intensive materials. Problematic materials include concrete or plastics-based products. Concrete is particularly worrying, as the cement industry is the most energy-intensive industry in the world, also contributing to huge amounts of pollution. Plastics-based products are also an issue due to the petrochemicals required in manufacturing. Examples of this are things like vinyl or acrylic-based wall paints and anything using glue (as a side note, glue is an issue in all construction materials as it makes end-of-life recycling and deconstruction almost impossible).

Lime paints have a much smaller environmental impact as they avoid the use of petrochemicals, but also don't contribute to off-gassing which can cause interior pollution, resulting in health issues.

Low impact design should instead focus on finishes that require low-energy processes and use less natural resources to create the finished product. These could include materials such as stone, terracotta, and wood. Another interesting example here is using mineral or lime paints. Rather than being applied as a plastic film, these paints bond with the surface of the wall. As well as being less harmful in the production process, these paints have the added win-win that they do not result in off-gassing of VOCs and ammonia. Off-gassing results in higher levels of indoor pollution, causing a range of both short and long-term health issues.

Terracotta is comparatively low in embodied energy, and when used as an interior finish can be long lasting. The material brings in natural texture and tones which contributes to a greater sense of connection to nature, which has been shown to improve mood and overall wellbeing, as shown in this project by Mas-aqui.

Designing elegant structure that can be visually expressed reduces the need for additional interior finishes, as shown in this project by Grey Griffiths Architects. Adding finishes to conceal structure would not only demand more material to be used on the project but could lead to sheet materials or paints being used that could result in harmful off-gassing.

Taking the idea of low-impact materials a step further, there is an amazing amount of innovation happening in the development of materials manufactured from waste products. Products as sheet material from recycled plastics, bricks made from construction waste, and vegan leather made from fruit waste. These products divert material from landfill, but often also demonstrate an interesting finish that acts as a way of telling a sustainability ‘story’, which can capture people’s attention.

These glass sheets are made entirely using waste glass bottles, which are reformed into panels at low temperatures to reduce energy demand, resulting in this marbles glass pattern.

‘Fruit leather’ is an innovate leather alternative being developed by an ingenious pair in Rotterdam, using fruit waste to create an animal friendly textile.

For a company, this could help to communicate a sustainability ethos or to inspire building users to take a more environmentally conscious approach. We shouldn’t underestimate our emotional response to tactile or visual cues and how powerful this is in connecting us to the story behind something.

It is important to consider how we can encourage building users to feel emotionally invested in understanding and promoting sustainability. One key way this can be brought into a project is through the inclusion of nature or natural materials in design. The more connected with nature we are in our day-to-day lives and the deeper an understanding we have of our environment, the more empowered we are to make positive changes towards protecting it.

Stone Cycling has created these ‘waste based bricks’, making use of waste products to save it from landfill.

Creating a relationship to nature within buildings has proven benefits to human health, with various studies showing direct benefits for mental wellbeing, mood, productivity, and reduction in long-term health issues. For sustainable design projects, this relationship should always be central to our thinking. By delivering design that is better for humans, this is often achieved by pursuing more sustainable design practices.

- Maria Henshall

Mineral or lime paints are an alternative to plastics based wall paints, avoiding the use of petrochemicals and offgassing of chemicals and VOCs.

Bathrooms using natural timber finishes can smell amazing, reducing the need for artificial air fresheners that are detrimental to lung health.

References to companies:

Growing up with a Finnish mother and grandmother, respect for nature was something that was always a deep part of our upbringing. We are not necessarily an ‘outdoorsy’ family but I never realised until I was an adult that being told to listen quietly to the forest or to stop and smell the air was something unusual.

Having a strong respect for nature has to be a fundamental part of developing a sustainable mindset. The truth is that our planet will eventually be just fine without us and what we need to figure out is how to inhabit it without creating environmental problems that we as humans can't overcome.

As an architect working with an international design firm, it is both fascinating and terrifying to see the scale of the work we have to do to create a sustainable environment that not only mitigates damage but is also regenerative. However, I am a strong believer in making small steps as often as you can and using your own niche effectively to make progress.

I am lucky to have worked at companies that pursue a strong sustainability agenda and to have been surrounded by people who take sustainable design seriously and are committed to making it part of our design process.

My first job after my bachelor's degree was with a medium-sized practice and we were based in their beautiful rural barn office in Herefordshire. The practice was very focused on Passivhaus design, which a building standard aimed at achieving very low energy demand. I learned a lot in this role, particularly about the basics of environmental design. Design principles such as building orientation, good thermal envelope and design for natural ventilation and good daylighting were actively taught and integrated into every design. This has embedded a few key rules of thumb that I still aim to implement in my work.

Maria's sketch showing environmentally responsive design strategies

Sustainable thinking was also something that was strongly encouraged as part of both my undergraduate and master's degrees and as a result, it has become an inherent part of my understanding of the subject. At university, I took a strong interest in circular design principles through my design projects and thesis. My thesis project focused on the issue of construction waste and the linear life cycle thinking that leads to extreme amounts of material going to landfill. I was shocked by data that showed that 32% of landfill waste in the UK comes from the construction and demolition of buildings and 13% of products delivered to construction sites being sent directly to landfill without being used.

It is clear that as designers we need to take a critical look at our industry and understand how we can use our role as creative problem-solvers to develop innovative solutions to reduce our impact on the environment. In my experience, architects have two key moments during the design process to make fundamental sustainable design choices. This is in the very first design moves, where elements such as orientation and building form are determined. The second is in the material specification process, where the building ‘shopping list’ is created. This is the opportunity to think more closely about material sourcing and embodied energy, which can have a significant effect on the carbon footprint of the building as well as longevity and effect on human health.

Visual for a passivhaus home planning application Maria worked on back in 2014

The major challenge for architects is that the majority of projects are driven by cost and time pressures, which means that innovative sustainable design is really only a focus for a minority of projects. However, sustainability is certainly not always an additional cost and when designed intelligently, sustainable buildings should in fact reduce energy demand, minimise the quantity of natural resources used and promote human health and wellbeing.

Despite the challenges facing the architecture industry, it is a fascinating space to work in and is filled with highly aspirational people who have a strong desire to push forward a sustainable agenda. In these articles, I will explore some of the sustainability observations and ideas that I am currently percolating, based on both my experience within the architecture industry and as part of my personal design interests.

- Maria Henshall

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