Going with the grain

From homes to historic buildings, architects are reducing carbon and adding communal facilities in sustainable new construction projects. Julian Moss casts his eye over an international assembly of better buildings.   

Published:

04.04.2021

Writer:

Julian Moss

Consumers increasingly choose what to buy and who from with an eye on ethics: is it sustainably manufactured? Does this company behave ethically? Is it local? But with property – where we work and, especially, where we live – and where we are often making our most significant financial commitment – it can be tough to make ethical and sustainable choices.

In part this is because buildings persist. Over three quarters of the homes that we’ll inhabit in 2050 are already standing now. Building standards and approaches from previous decades shape the design of today’s homes and offices, and with the carbon embedded in their construction it makes sense to keep using them.

"Trees are brilliant in cities – they absorb carbon, reduce flood risk, shield us from in-tense sun and improve mental health. And we can build with them."

This means adapting and reconfiguring what we’ve inherited, making it fit for our own purposes and maybe handing it on in a better shape. And of course, this happens: Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn book and TV series shows how ‘high road’ high-status, prestigious buildings (think cathedrals, universities, palaces) tend to be recognisable over centuries with changes subtle and ‘in keeping’ with the original design, while the ‘low road’ is for utilitarian structures which preservation societies tend not to notice. They evolve more rapidly in form and function – and are easily swept away to make room for something new. There are plenty of both types now serving as anchors for ethical and sustainable redevelopment – from old brick warehouses repurposed for cafes, maker spaces and loft living, to disused churches and school buildings converted to homes. Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm is a well-known example – and one of many Olympic bids to catalyse regeneration – with its acres of parks, cycling and walking links, solar power and even a district-wide vacuum system for keeping your home clean.

It’s all too easy find unethical and non-sustainable practice in the construction industry. Vancouver’s ‘leaky condo crisis’ saw many apartment blocks, office buildings and schools rendered unusable due to poorly fitted and failed weatherproof cladding, damaging residents’ possessions and needing expensive retrofit repairs. And for a small minority of developers and local politicians the seeking and granting of planning consents, building permits and construction contracts present an irresistible opportunity to take a little extra for themselves.

The answer for some lies in self-sufficiency, living and working close to the earth, in self-built homes made to live in, not for profit, from locally sourced materials – timber in Scandinavia, wattle and daub in England, adobe in New Mexico and Arizona. But with more than half of the world’s population now city-dwellers, we don’t have the skills or the land to rely on age-old building techniques. So instead, we should expect and demand that new urban and suburban developments are built in sensible places using sustainable materials by developers who take their ethical responsibilities seriously, working with the communities who will use them for decades to come.

Let’s start with trees. Trees are brilliant in cities – they absorb carbon, reduce flood risk, shield us from intense sun and improve mental health. And we can build with them. While concrete is ubiquitous and apparently essential to our cities, it causes around 8% of all global carbon emissions – and we can build tall without it. Timber skyscrapers are safe and sound, with an 18-storey tower in Vancouver completed in 2017, and taller towers planned there, in Tokyo (up to 70 storeys), Norway and elsewhere. The largest mass timber building in America was completed in 2019 on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, using cross-laminated timber, an engineered wood material which is lightweight and strong, reducing the need for heavy foundations. And whole developments of timber buildings are growing – 7,000 new homes in Fælledby, Copenhagen, and all the communal facilities you need, will be built entirely out of wood, locking in carbon.

 

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British architect Bill Dunster has devoted his career to sustainable building. His ZedFactory practice (zed = zero fossil energy developments) designed the pioneering BedZed development in Beddington, south London 20 years ago: 82 apartments in timber framed, highly insulated blocks with triple glazing, solar panels and sun-trap winter gardens, served by a district heating network, with most bulk materials sourced within 50 miles. Later ZedFactory developments have refined the approach and shown that detached and terraced houses for private sale, shared ownership and social housing can be delivered at similar costs to traditional building methods.

ZedFactory favours off-site prefabrication, which helps deliver consistent quality and efficient use of materials, and prefers to train local people to assemble their own homes, learning marketable skills along the way. Urban Splash, a developer headquartered in Manchester, combines a similar approach to new-builds with the imaginative reuse of disused industrial buildings – some unloved on the ‘low road’, some iconic and ‘high road’ – creating colourful new neighbourhoods with engaged communities. Joseph Homes and Igloo Regeneration – both registered as B Corps – are on the same path.

One Planet Living principles also inform the development of SOMO Village (Sonoma Mountain Village), 40 miles north of San Francisco. It is easier to power homes and offices with solar power in California than in some other parts of the world, but the ambition here is impressive: office and retail space, a school and nearly 2,000 homes, all within a five-minute walk of the commercial centre – trumping Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s vision of making Paris a 15-minute city.

And there are public sector developers working in the same space, too. Architectural practice Mikhail Riches designed the award-winning Goldsmith Street development for Norwich City Council: elegant and welcoming homes, roofs deliberately angled so as not to block sunlight from neighbours, and more generous room sizes than many private sector developments.

York City Council has now hired them with a more ambitious agenda. While the Norwich homes meet German passivhaus standards of energy efficiency – bringing much lower energy bills for tenants as well as reduced carbon emissions – the York developments will go further, aiming for level six – the top level of the UK Code for Sustainable Homes – where buildings are carbon neutral over their lifetime. Or, even better, take more carbon out of the atmosphere than they will create. And while Goldsmith Street has 100 homes, York City Council is building 600, to be car-free but with lots of secure bike storage, enjoying community orchards and allotments, solar panels and air source heat pumps – homes with climate and community resilience built in as standard.

A smaller development elsewhere in York takes the idea of community involvement to another level. Yorspace will build 19 sustainable homes, essentially crowd-funded by small investors who receive a low but steady 2.5% return, with residents paying affordable rent. Set up as a community benefit society and community land trust and planned by members who will becomes residents, the homes will be built in line with One Planet Living principles – developed by the team behind BedZed – including local and sustainable food, equity and local economy, and zero carbon energy.

One Planet Living principles also inform the development of SOMO Village (Sonoma Mountain Village), 40 miles north of San Francisco. It is easier to power homes and offices with solar power in California than in some other parts of the world, but the ambition here is impressive: office and retail space, a school and nearly 2,000 homes, all within a five-minute walk of the commercial centre – trumping Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s vision of making Paris a 15-minute city.

Images of Goldsmith Street by ©Tim Crocker

An important aspect of SOMO Village is the inclusion of water-efficiency measures. When more than half the global population is projected to be living in water-stressed regions by 2050, water efficiency is perhaps more important than energy efficiency. The village is a creative reuse of a disused edge-of-town office campus, previously occupied by an offshoot from tech giant HP. It combines rehabilitated ‘low road’ sheds for retail and community facilities, surrounding with new-build homes. Such campuses were typically built around large parking lots with unsustainable car dependency and long commutes hard-baked in. But even these car-centred campuses can become ‘high road’ buildings, worthy of protection as heritage assets. One example is the Weyerhaeuser timber company’s disused headquarters in Federal Way, Washington State, which intertwines a long, low concrete office building amongst carefully-landscaped lakes and forest, and is now the subject of ongoing battles over its redevelopment.

Communities can learn to love modern architecture – but involving them from the start of development planning is becoming more common. The Zibi development in downtown Ottawa – formerly the site of a paper mill, now being repurposed with commercial, retail and residential property and parkland, with some historic buildings retained and upgraded – is another development put together in line with the One Planet Living framework. As with other developments we have seen, housing is designed for a range of buyers and renters, and some commercial space will be offered preferentially to local socially-responsible businesses. What’s particularly notable here is that the developers are working with the Algonquin-Anishinabe community, seeking to respect First Nations culture, heritage and social traditions.

"When more than half the global population is projected to be living in water-stressed regions by 2050, water efficiency is perhaps more important than energy efficiency"

The inclusion of excluded voices generally leads to better design for everyone – and it’s particularly important in the male-dominated architecture and building world that women’s voices are heard. Vienna’s pioneering Frauenburo(Women’s Office) was set up in 1992 to help reshape the urban realm. Its first built output was the Frauen-Werk-Stadt(Women-Work-City) development of 350 apartments, featuring pram storage, wide stairwells and flexible layouts to accommodate changing families. Its work is now so well embedded in Vienna that the new neighbourhood of Aspern incorporates female-led design (and all the streets are named after prominent women) as the norm – as well as featuring an artificial lake, large green spaces, communal gardens and energy efficient homes.

Yet there is a risk that sustainable and ethical development comes at a price and remains the preserve of the wealthy. We’ve touched on mixed-tenure developments, where units sold on the open-market are mixed with rental property, including through social housing providers (typically at below-market rent) – and in the developments we’ve discussed there is no discrimination in access to communal facilities depending on tenure.

Reaching out further, Hope Rise, a ZedFactory development completed in 2020, looks to support people struggling to access housing. Prefabricated pods – zedpods – provide small housing units at low cost while achieving very high energy efficiency and the dignity of a front door; that they have been erected above a small car park in Bristol, next to a playground and skate park, says much about the high cost and low availability of land and housing in some notionally wealthy parts of England.

Options to deliver rapid housing for homeless people can fit with serious environmental credentials. Los Angeles developer Aedis develops housing for homeless people, and works with local health and social services to set up wrap-around support for residents. In looking to make construction faster and more efficient, Aedis explored using shipping containers as the basis for housing units. But working with architects Mark Oberholzer they settled on factory-built steel-framed units instead, fabricated from scratch to ensure consistent standards. Once a concrete base is laid on site, with utility connections, it takes just four weeks to put up an 84-unit block.

While off-site fabrication can be more efficient and faster, a new technological twist shows even quicker results for a community of formerly homeless people near Austin, Texas, mostly living in RVs, with a community market and communal outdoor kitchen. Aiming to provide more permanence and better protection from wind and cold, Icon Technology poured a standard concrete foundation slab then 3D-printed the walls of six small houses, topping them off with a timber/shingle roof. The automated 3D printer reduces labour costs and ensures a high-quality finish at pace – the walls go up in just 24 hours – and the proprietary material squirted out like thick pale brown toothpaste gives the homes an appearance that echoes the traditional adobe houses of the region. And so we’ve come full circle, with new technology reinterpreting age-old ‘low road’ building styles.

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