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