Eco Building

Cover story by Daan Elffers, EMG featured in this month’s Future Constructor & Architect magazine (FC&A Magazine), to view the article online here

Sustainability, of course, is nothing new to the building industry. It’s long been known that the buildings in which we live and work every day account for around 40% of the world’s energy usage. What’s more, the waste that is generated from the creation of our built environment has, in the past, been thought to account for anything up to 80% of the waste that is incinerated or goes to landfills around the world.

It’s statistics like this that have stimulated innovative architects to evolve the principles of how buildings are designed, constructed and maintained so they use less energy, have a lower impact on the environment, are healthier to be in and ultimately, provide a better return on investment. Green building has not simply gained respect, it has become a ‘must have’ for corporations, home builders, and businesses.

And yet, while many green building principles have indeed reduced the negative effects of buildings on the planet, can we really say that being ‘less bad’ is actually ‘good’? There’s a growing movement of architects and designers that are looking way beyond this ‘traditional’ sustainability.

The Bullitt Center, which opened in Seattle, USA, in January this year, has been dubbed the greenest, most energy-efficient commercial office building in the world. The impressive six storey, 50,000 square foot building has 100% onsite energy use from solar panels; all water is provided by harvesting rainwater, there are indoor composting toilets, a system of geothermal wells for heating and a wood-framed structure made out of FSC certified wood. What’s more, it was constructed without using any potentially toxic materials such as PVC.

The Bullitt Center project is pursuing Living Building Certification, which is managed by the International Living Future Institute, requiring such ‘imperatives’ as net zero energy, net zero water, no toxics, 100% FSC and more.

Of course, innovation is an ongoing process. Let’s look at those solar panels for example, which naturally are a great step forward by anybody’s standards. But as Gunter Pauli, Initiator of ‘The Blue Economy’ points out, there’s still room for improvement: ‘Solar cells actually work on both sides, so you should be able to have solar on both sides! To prevent it from overheating, it will need to be cooled – just like the engine in a car. So why not use water to cool down the solar panels and we’ll have electricity and hot water at the same time?’

Initially a project undertaken by Pauli to find 100 of the most innovative nature inspired technologies around the world, the open source Blue Economy concept envisages a world where human technology and business activity is inspired by the natural global ecosystem, rethinking the way industry conducts business.

A more formal certification programme is Cradle to Cradle®, the circular economy concept developed by American architect William McDonough and German scientist Michael Braungart. This model too stretches far beyond just architecture.

Cradle to Cradle is an innovative approach to the design of everything we make that focuses on creating products made with safe and healthy materials that can be continuously recycled and on operations that are powered with 100% renewable energy. It regards water as a precious resource, and focuses on social fairness and the protection and enrichment of ecosystems. Similar to the Blue Economy, a Cradle to Cradle approach would be to design buildings that operate like a tree: that is, ensuring they produce positive effects – like trees producing oxygen – rather than simply minimizing their negative impact.

A great example of a building that does this is Google’s YouTube office in California, which features a 70,000 square foot ‘green’ roof that is covered in vegetation. This works to prevent water runoff, while insulating the building from heat and noise and also provides the habitat for several local bird species.

Another Cradle to Cradle project is the Ford Motor Company’s legendary River Rouge Plant in Michigan. Most notably, it has the world’s largest green roof, covering the assembly plant roof’s 100,000m² area with more than 10 acres of sedum, a low-growing ground cover plant. To date, it has resulted in more than 35 million dollars in energy savings, thanks to the natural temperature control provided by the green roof.

Architects and designers, perhaps more than any other profession in society, are in a unique position to shape the world, and design buildings in a way that will make our world a better, healthier place to live, both now and for future generations. It’s essentially about asking the right questions before starting the design process, working out what systems will perform best from the outset, rather than simply making ‘wrong’ systems more efficient. If we can preserve it, nature can be an incredible source of inspiration.

In April, EMG will be speaking and exhibiting at SustainabilityLive in Birmingham (16-18 April 2013), the UK’s premier event for sustainable business. For more information on this event, visit