There is no shortage of people looking to design with sustainability in mind, but often it's difficult to agree on exactly what sustainability means in this context.
For Margo Coppus, an Associate and Senior Architectural Technologist with BKDI, sustainability means a number of things, including incorporating design into the environment, minimizing resources, and designing with a long-term vision in mind.
“It's saving the planet, but for me it's also about creating a healthy environment for the people. You have to look at the big picture to qualify as sustainable and consider the whole environment,” said Margo. You want to minimize the impact that designs have on the environment.
Often, the first thing to look at in the big picture is the site selected for a building, and where the building will sit on it.
“For one thing you don't want to build in a sensitive natural area if possible. It makes more sense to choose an urban site where the infrastructure is already in place,” said Margo.
The positioning of the building on the site is also important, as buildings that are positioned to maximize solar exposure and minimize wind exposure can achieve massive energy savings.
The materials chosen for a building are also a large part of what goes into making a building sustainable, but they needn't be expensive, high-technology materials – simply procuring locally is often enough, not just saving on transport, but giving the building a look that matches the area.
After that, choosing recyclable and recycled materials is a good way to be sustainable in design, though again those materials are not necessarily exotic. Steel and aluminum are among the most recycled materials in the world today.
“A lot of steel is used over and over again and has 60 to 70 per cent recycled material, so you don't have to keep mining ore,” said Margo.
As well, things like aluminum curtain walls can be specified to exacting recyclable material contents, though recycled aluminum isn't always suitable for every purpose, and the availability isn't always consistent.
These factors are only the beginning of sustainability, however, as we have to consider its lifetime. One of the biggest challenges with keeping a building green over its life are the mechanical aspects – the heating, air conditioning and other utilities. Particularly in smaller buildings, these aspects can make or break a building with regard to sustainability.
The problem often comes down to cost and to who will own the building in the long term.
Many developers are starting to realize that buildings are easier to sell if they're designed with sustainability in mind. A 2008 study by the Canadian Green Building Council showed that buildings designed to the standards of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) sold for $171 more per sq. ft. As well, sustainable buildings can rent for higher rates and rent faster.