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Clients often ask, what can you do for the environment during a development beyond just installing LED lighting or commissioning a green wall at the entry foyer. While environmentally sustainable architectural design is characterised by site-specific responses, here are 5 medium to low hanging fruit for integrating environmentally sustainable design (ESD) into most commercial or institutional building. The principles are relatively universal, even if how they manifest themselves in a building varies with each context.

  1. Adapt, expand, or upgrade an existing building rather than building new. If you are considering building new, you may be underestimating the major upfront and residual carbon boost you gain back when reinvest in the existing building stock.  Sure, there are certain limits to building envelope performance that come with older construction techniques or difficulties that arise with hazardous materials encapsulated within older buildings. For the average medium-term occupancy of a building though, future generations will thank you for significantly limiting a project’s contribution to the 30% of the world’s natural resources that are currently being consumed by buildings. Prefabricated additions to existing buildings also allow for expansion with a fraction of the waste of a new build (just make sure the existing structure can be strengthened to support any extra weight).
  2. Keep it fresh.  Poor indoor air quality results in poor outcomes for occupant health and well-being. Paints, building products, adhesives and furnishings can all emit VOCs at various levels. Evidence suggests these emissions within buildings can have both short term and long-term side effects so setting a target for the total VOC emissions introduced within a building makes sense. Ample sources of fresh air are a must have for any occupied building. Whether fresh air is provided from openable windows that capture prevailing breezes or through a heat recovery or other mechanical system these considerations inform early design ideas.
  3. Insulate and keep the envelope airtight. Particularly in Canberra where ck architecture operates, heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer can easily account for a large portion of carbon during the use phase of a building. In cool temperate climates, an inner airtightness membrane in addition to outer vapour permeable membrane can eliminate drafts and keep condensation within walls to a minimum.
  4. Consider water flow paths. When flows are referred to in an ESD context they can include anything that passes through a site, such as a material flow or a nutrient flow. For example, for the flow of stormwater through your site, the introduction of an additional roof or paved area to a greenfield of brownfield site will cause a higher velocity and volume of stormwater to flow through the site since not all of it can penetrate into the soil. Low impact development techniques such as detaining stormwater in rain gardens or introducing permeable pavements can alleviate the potential for downstream erosion as a result of the development. Granting yourself or your organisation permission to focus on one environmental flow may provide its own payback and incentive to do address other more intangible environmental or social impacts associated with your development.
  5. Ask for more environmentally responsible products. Although many manufacturers do not always make it easy for direct comparisons on a full list of their environmental credentials. Where they exist, Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) have now made it easier to compare materials and building products based on a common functional unit (such as a square metres of material). Although voluntary, EPD’s provide the opportunity for building professionals to clearly discriminate with their specification based on measures such as Global warming potential (GWP) Acidification potential, Eutrophication potential and Photochemical ozone depletion. When restrictions on upfront carbon are targeted in Greenstar certifications or partial life cycle assessments (LCAs) frank conversations with suppliers who are provide less environmentally responsible alternatives can start occurring on a regular basis.

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