How can we achieve sustainability through design and building efficiency?

27 October 2016

Amir Ramezani spoke at this year’s London Build Expo for the panel discussion “Achieving Sustainability Through Design – Delivering Building Efficiency”

Panellists included :

  • Avanti Architects – Amir Ramezani, Director
  • Atkins – Margot Adelle Orr, Principal – Cities and Development Innovation Hub Leader
  • The Carbon Trust – Jonathan Winston, Occupier Support Manager, Low Carbon Workplace
  • London Southbank University – Jennifer Hardi, Course Director, Architectural Technology and Architectural Engineering

See below for Amir’s transcript from the panel discussion:

“I want to make two particular points with regard to where we, as an industry may be heading and this is around efficiency of design and performance in use of buildings.

Certainly in recent years there has been a greater emphasis on efficient design and at Avanti we have never thought this constricts design.  In fact, I believe it liberates many projects which then fall into cost difficulties because the principles of sustainable design are not embedded leading to a reliance on add-ons.

In our experience efficient design has led to delivering more successful buildings, often with more compact footprints and using a host of passive measures.  They are often more efficient in area and therefore smaller, which reduces environmental impacts in construction but also in long term operation. And often these buildings are more responsive to users and the environment.

We have had to work harder to create these more efficient buildings. And they often have a more limited palette of products and materials and less complexity in detailing.  They have to rely on more traditional ways of creating good design with emphasis on good modelling or elegance of proportion.

But despite all this we are still seeing examples of where this doctrine is not followed. We are still seeing too many buildings with all glazed facades especially the spate of tall buildings we are seeing going up in London at the moment. I think this is curious especially when the design of facades has become more complex and the realisation across the industry that technology cannot solve all the problems created by all glazed facades.

We are being asked to solve an increasingly complex picture on facades – high levels of natural daylighting, reducing overheating, natural means of ventilating and cooling but with no openable windows due to pollution or security concerns. The list is endless and often requirements are fighting against one another. But what we do know is putting lots of uncontrolled glazing will cause problems.

I would also like to touch on adaptability in buildings which is not always rigorously applied by designers or clients. Long life-loose fit-low energy, a mantra that has been around for some time, is still a very useful test for the efficiency of a building.  It relies on going back to first principles of sustainable design – floor plate depth, floor to floor heights, good natural daylight etc.  If we can prevent the cycle of putting buildings up and taking them down in short periods of time, then that must be a positive outcome.  I noted with interest that the recently reincarnated and squatter version of the Paddington Pole was reported as having a floor depth in the region of 50m. And if this is true, it raises the question about whether this building could ever be sustainable

My second point is about the performance of buildings in use as opposed to how they are designed. We have known for some time now that buildings do not perform anywhere near to what they are designed to. At Avanti we have spent a number of years trying to follow up on post occupancy and to check to see how our buildings are performing.  This remains a major hurdle within our industry.

We have been using over the past few years Display Energy Certificates or DECs as a means of understanding how at the very least our public buildings perform.  These are the certificates you see at the foyers and receptions of public buildings.

Our experience shows that DECs can potentially help to bring buildings under operational control.  For example, at the Bristol Southmeads campus DECs helped the client and our design team to understand how poorly the buildings were performing. This then allowed simple adjustments to be made in systems to make substantial inroads into reducing energy consumption. No adds on, just effective management.

Yet despite this good news story further improvements are needed to allow DECs to be used more effectively. For example, we have seen inconsistencies in how buildings are benchmarked against a base building and these need updating.  With the increases in electricity loads, the certificate is not clear about how on site generation such as PVs is taken into account.  There is a general lack of awareness about DECs amongst the general public and a lack of transparency from Government and DCLG.  The central register needs to be opened up for greater scrutiny, to create healthy competition and to promote their use. And probably most worrying is that many buildings are not even inspected due to lack of resources.

So as regulations become increasing stringent through mechanisms such as building regulations or the London plan, it is the inspection regime which takes on greater importance to ensure we do design really sustainable buildings.  I think this will be the area to focus our efforts on in the near future. The desire of the government to abolish these certificates for public buildings is therefore not the right answer. Some mechanism which is annually checked will still be required and at the moment DECs are as good as anything we have.”


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