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Sustainable design

Bill Dunster

Sustainable design requires a city-wide philosophy but its success will be determined by the smallest details

Atrium at Zhangwu Tourist Centre, China
Atrium at Zhangwu Tourist Centre, China

We started the ZEDfactory to work with industry and develop new ways of designing and constructing buildings. 

Conventional architectural practice often had to work with tools and components already provided by an industrial and manufacturing base that is set up to meet the lowest common denominator. We thought the new super-insulated building physics model, and developments in building-integrated renewable energy systems, prompted a fresh look at construction component design. Add the thinking by groups like Best Foot Forward, on environmental footprinting and embodied carbon, and a hierarchy of design criteria emerges that can offer new insights on how to deliver a zero carbon lifestyle and workstyle. 

Showcasing zero energy: Shanghai Expo London Pavilion.
Showcasing zero energy: Shanghai Expo London Pavilion.

We felt endless politically correct environmental checklists raised concern but offered no practical solutions – and certainly no advice on how to reach environmental performance targets. It was increasingly clear we would have to work on a bottom up affordable supply chain to move beyond prototypes like BedZED into a roll out programme. 

We then looked at how some technologies and principles could be shared across different climates and cultures, and which countries were already moving into volume production. The need to collaborate and share an international supply chain for high investment, low bulk and higher technology components has to be balanced by the need to reduce the environmental footprint by using local labour and materials. It became apparent that if we could establish a core range of technical solutions and products that solved simple environmental challenges in a number of countries, then tools could be developed to make it easy and economic to achieve the step change reduction in environmental footprint that probably has to be achieved over the next few decades. This process also creates employment, making low carbon technologies that often have good export potential – and the possibility of providing long term income and prosperity to the communities that adopt these ideas. If a city is expanding or regenerating its housing stock with thousands of new homes, or planning a new enterprize zone, it is easy to demonstrate the benefits of this approach. 

The original 2002 BedZED.
The original 2002 BedZED.

How does a new wall tie change the urban design of a city block... Could we replace petrol stations with tradeable public batteries charged by renewable energy?

So how does a new wall tie change the ­urban design of a city block? If all building surfaces could generate electricity, how would it change architectural form? Why should gardens not be on roofs? Why can’t an urban park be placed above high density housing? How does the urban heat island affect street design? How could urban design change if solar electricity achieved grid parity? How could the latest battery technology change public transport? Would electric vehicles change the design of homes and workplaces? Could we replace petrol stations with tradeable public batteries charged by renewable energy? Would this smooth out peak demand in a smart grid without incurring a toxic nuclear waste legacy? How could organic urban waste and agricultural waste sequestrate atmospheric CO2 without combustion? Could we prevent the dioxins and health problems of incinerating household refuse and move towards a zero waste urban metabolism?

In collaboration with industrial partners, the ZEDlife programme is starting to challenge the idea that higher environmental performance is disruptive and expensive. For example our new HiminZED translucent building-integrated photovoltaic rooflight and rainscreen system is no more expensive than standard roofing and cladding products. 

ZEDlife has been running for 10 years but has only just started. However, the first industrial collaborations are ready for launch, and will hopefully make it easier to engage both in climate change adaptation and mitigation. With the components in place we can start tackling all the previous questions. Zero energy bill housing is now being built in the UK despite unsupportive legislation. It is time for architects, urbanists, engineers and funders to rethink what can be achieved with what we already have – and perhaps to change the public perception of what is both possible and affordable today. ZEDfactory believes that if solutions are demonstrably available, people will ask for them. 

Working with components from the bottom up: wall tie.
Working with components from the bottom up: wall tie.

Few clients can afford large multinational consultants on everyday projects, but a toolkit approach with quantified environmental performance could help inform decision-making. So we developed the ZEDlife supply chain to reduce construction cost, eliminate fuel poverty, create local low carbon employment, reduce air pollution, reduce traffic congestion, and maximise green open space with sky gardens. We’re moving towards a major reduction in environmental impact while increasing the quality of life. We have improved each year with feedback from our communities for nearly 20 years and now have some very powerful, density related key performance indicators that can measure both environmental performance and the quality of life likely in new urban proposals.   

Somehow, we have to collectively find viable alternative ways of living that leave fossil fuels unused in the ground. The alternative is runaway climate change. We cannot continue with business as usual until repeated ­environmental disasters force governments to take mandatory action. This challenge transcends political fashion or even economic downturns. It is vital to channel all post recession investment into low carbon jobs and infrastructure that uses the latest ideas and technologies. Let’s upgrade tired businesses with new cost-effective products that make delivering a low carbon life and workstyle really easy. We need to change our industry. 

If we leave this process too late, eco fascism is inevitable. The ZEDlife programme sets out to develop beautiful, life enhancing and commercially viable alternatives. We believe a new architectural language is emerging, and that the industrial collaborations already begun will create solutions that make higher performance possible within tight cost constraints – for any practice. 

This takes time, research and considerable investment. At present ZEDfactory concentrates on local low carbon exemplar projects that give politicians the confidence to move up a scale. We look forward to moving into large scale collaborations with local partners and other practices. 

ZEDlife won the RIBA President’s Awards for Outstanding Practice-located Research




25 June 2024, 9 - 11:30 am

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