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Getting Connected With Sustainable Architecture

Getting the most out of an existing site requires blending design, technology and resources in more holistic ways, working together across disciplines to ensure that no single design tweak exists in a vacuum. Images Courtesy SAVe

When it comes to architecture, sustainability can quickly become a complicated topic. After all, we’re talking about entire buildings, and actually, entire cities. That adds a lot of variables.

But there is a way to simplify it. Consider it the way Russell Fortmeyer, Global Sustainability Leader with Woods Bagot, presents one of the main tenets of sustainable architecture: “Most of the buildings that we will have in the year 2050 are already built. That’s the way to look at it — we actually have to reuse what we have.”

Starting from that baseline, the next moves require ingenuity, especially for those tasked with making existing infrastructure work for evolving needs. “That’s where technology enables us to make a sustainable solution,” Fortmeyer elaborates. “Instead of tearing a building down and replacing it, we could repurpose it.”

This will require some reframing. In so many aspects of architecture, design and installation of mechanical, electrical and communications systems, the knee-jerk reaction to any need is, “Let’s build something new.” But maybe the question we need to start with now is, “Can you redesign the space you have?”

Then take it a step further and make choices that balance sustainability’s “triple bottom line” of Planet, People and Profit. That sounds like a tough equation. Fortunately, we’re living in a moment when new technological options can conserve energy and resources at every phase of design, implementation and the actual day-to-day operation of a structure.

The Future is Interdisciplinary

In trying to use what’s inherent to the site as much as possible, it becomes necessary to blend design, technology and resources in more holistic ways. Which means working together across disciplines to ensure that no single design tweak exists in a vacuum.

Let’s say you’re increasing the natural lighting in a space. That might require additional energy consumption in the form of desktop monitors or video displays that have to compensate with additional brightness. So we need to meet somewhere in the middle through dialogues between departments.

“There is a lot of interaction between different types of technologies that need to coexist in a building, and if the people that are looking at the design are working in silos, that’s where the problem might potentially be,” observes Güvenç Özel, who has brought his cyberphysical architecture ideas into practice through his firm, Özel Office. He also shares this interdisciplinary vision as a founding member of the IDEAS program at UCLA.

Collaboration between different parties to ensure everything works well together sounds a lot like what we’ve been saying in sound, video, lighting, control and acoustics for decades, right? Work together with all the trades, architects and interior designers early and often. But now there is an even more compelling shift in the direction of technology to help balance everything. Far from an afterthought, the media infrastructure of a building is vital to making things more green.

Less Construction, More Media

In an increasingly wireless — and yet networked — world, where hardware takes up a lot less physical and energetic space, management of all the “invisible” elements of a building takes more precedence. Managing the flow of wireless data, and the ever-present element of air, is more of a concern. And beyond that, there is another invisibility factor. That of the remote workforce. With fewer people working in centralized offices at any one time, there is more opportunity to redesign those spaces with less machines and more types of use.

Flexible working requires flexible infrastructure, and flexible infrastructure supports sustainability efforts. If an existing space can do more, you’re building less and reusing more.
Özel describes a new design mode where we might electronically extend the layout or operations of an office instead of building anew: “Teams contract and expand, people travel, it’s always aspirational for architects to propose flexible spaces, but the reality of converting spaces from one purpose to another is always a challenge operationally. You can do that much more easily digitally.”

By integrating media throughout the built environment, you can change the aesthetic and purpose as easily as you might cue up a new playlist. “It allows you to create a kind of framework or physical superstructure where different kinds of architectural styles, different kinds of information could be embedded graphically into that environment, and it could still work with that physical environment, but not necessarily be dependent on it,” Özel describes. “I feel like that’s going to happen in the next 20 years, where we will think about augmented reality as an integrated component of building design, so that the virtual system and the physical system would have to be designed simultaneously in order for them to operate synchronously.”

Conservation Calculations

There’s a lot of talk about digital twins lately, and in a way, that’s what we’re imagining here. But these BIM doppelgängers have a role in today’s sustainable practices as well. Using those BIM twins not only adds efficiency in the design and construction of spaces, but they can boost the business case too.
Just one possibility is in the analysis of existing infrastructure versus the new imagined purpose of a space. The simulation might help cut costs. “You can model the energy intensities of the new use versus the current capacity,” explains Fortmeyer. And in some cases, instead of upgrading everything at significant financial and environmental cost, the answer might already exist in the walls.

“If I can tell my client that we don’t have to upgrade the electrical service because we’re actually going from commercial office to residential,” he continues, “that would shift down to lower energy demand in their building. So that retrofit could be done on the back of existing infrastructure.”

The role for designers in the repurposing of architecture is all about balancing things from every angle of the Planet, People and Profit triangle. “It’s just a different way of looking at an asset or a building,” Fortmeyer suggests. “Rather than just always thinking, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to just erase the mistakes of the past and build something new.’”

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