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From Hybrid air conditioning to the emergence of ‘plyscrapers’, Ellina Webb looks into sustainability in architecture and the built environment.

Sustainable, sustainably and sustainability are three buzzwords that I’ve heard more and more over the past few years. Is this business model sustainable? Do you shop sustainably? Does your organisation have sustainability at the forefront of their minds?

In so many situations, from micro to macro, we throw the ‘Sustain’ term into conversation to emphasis whether or not the strategy, the building, the lifestyle or the mind-set considers a vast array of factors.

In actual fact there seems to be many different ideas regarding what the three S’s encompass, for example, does it connect with the environment; does it consider economic, social cultural, technological and political factors? Does it meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future?

Just take a look at the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations in 2015…

When it comes to design, development and construction in the built environment however, these buzzwords are becoming increasingly important, so with all this in mind, I’m going to look at what the S’s specifically mean in this industry.

With sustainable development we can begin to live sustainably and end up achieving sustainability because we have improved the quality of human life without compromising our eco-system.

Ellina Webb Ellina Webb Senior Marketing Executive

Energy efficiency

Depending on the location of the building; the environment, the regulations and the client’s requirements, energy efficient systems make a massive contribution to sustainable development. Not only can it future-proof a building (if the right solution is applied), it can also lower maintenance and energy costs and make a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of the occupants.

A commercial heat pump system for example can utilise heat energy from the ground (if ground source) or heat energy from the air (if air sourced) only requiring an electrical connection. This would mean that the building was utilising one of the most energy efficient systems currently available and as the national grid gets greener, it’s a win-win.

The catch 22 in this situation however, is that as the world gets hotter, the requirement for more effective cooling systems increases. Heating and cooling systems can consume large amounts of energy in buildings, which is why it’s important to highlight to everyone in the building lifecycle what the right choices are.

With cooling and heating systems, quality and premium technology should not be overlooked because often premium brands develop the solution with the future and sustainability in mind. For example, Hybrid VRF air conditioning has been developed for large scale buildings and utilises both a lower GWP (Global Warming Potential) refrigerant and water, reducing overall system refrigeration volume and eliminating refrigeration gases inside the occupied spaces. In essence it uses water to deliver efficient, effective and comfortable indoor temperature. 

Another important element to energy efficiency in a building is the control. All HVAC and electrical systems require some form of control mechanism and in most cases they include features that allow users to adjust the systems to optimise energy efficiency and maximise performance. This includes night set back, scheduling and energy monitoring. 

Mitsubishi Electric Hybrid VRF: An Application Animation With water at the indoor units and low GWP R32 refrigerant between the outdoor unit and HBC, Hybrid VRF provides comfortable and stable air temperature control with no refrigerant in occupied spaces, meaning simple compliance to BS EN378 and reducing the need for leak detection.

The checklist to energy efficient buildings:

  • Look into renewable technologies like ground or air source heat pumps (these can be large on both large commercial or small domestic scale)

  • Get to grips with understanding low global warming potential refrigerants (there are many compatible air conditioning systems on the market)

  • Be open to new technologies (it’s not just the car market that can offer hybrid solutions)

  • Make sure the right control systems are applied (and that whoever uses them understands all the features)

Sustainable materials

This month alone I’ve read various articles about the damaging effects of concrete and its manufacturing process. These 3 articles were brought to my attention via the UK Green Building Council which is a fantastic organisation looking to improve sustainability in the built environment.

Did you know concrete is the second most widely used substance on the planet, next to water? It is also one of the world’s biggest single sources of greenhouses gas emissions. That’s just some of the scary facts listed out in this article on the Guardian, concluding that our built environmental is literally outgrowing (and seriously harming) the natural one – and we thought plastic was bad!

The next catch 22 is that as the population booms, potentially to nearly 10 billion people by 2050, the requirement for buildings increases and so the use of concrete increases too. Again this is why it’s important to highlight to everyone in the building lifecycle what the right – and alternative choices are.

One of the sustainable alternatives that have become popular in recent times is plywood, which has caused an almost sudden emergence in “plyscrapers”, as these plans in Japan show.

Unfortunately however, wood isn’t as hardy as concrete (even when treated), therefore other materials that can be used include Fly Ash a by-product of coal-burning power plants and slag, a by-product of iron-ore processing. These by-products can be mixed into concrete to make up a percentage of the mix without altering the strength. It’s a complicated story really and if these materials travel far, they might not make sense from a carbon reduction point of view.

In London, our Mitsubishi Electric office is located at Sustainable Bankside along with a vast array of other sustainability focused companies. One of these is called Biohm which develops natural, intelligent and multi-tasking materials to replace those currently used in construction. The materials are carbon neutral and are made up of mycelium which is the vegetative parts of fungus. Another one of our neighbouring companies is Envirobuild which is the UK’s leading builders merchant for sustainable building materials.

The checklist to sustainable building materials:

  • Evaluate other material options besides concrete

  • Read up on information provided by organisations like the UK Green Building Council

  • Reach out to companies that are seriously trying to make a difference when it comes to building materials

  • Look at recycled materials for insulation

Eco waste management

Waste systems should also be evaluated when sustainable architecture is being designed.

This includes reducing waste in the building process and designing a building in a way where waste in minimised. An easy way to achieve this is with the installation of onsite composting for waste food – ideal for buildings with an onsite canteen or for residential dwellings and restaurants.

Back to our friends at Sustainable Bankside, Winnow Solutions has helped restaurants all over the world reduce their kitchen waste. They do this by using meter technology on bins to record how much food is actually being wasted. This is the great way of showing how effective measuring and monitoring can be in understanding identifying problems (and even successes).

Checklist to eco-waste management:

  • Research the sustainable solutions to your waste management problems

  • Provide systems where possible that allow for analysis of waste management so successes can be recorded

  • Provide clients with ideas for further sustainable waste management strategies

Ellina Webb is a Senior Marketing Executive at Mitsubishi Electric