With a growing focus on achieving a green economic recovery from the pandemic, sustainability-focused technologies present a major opportunity to reduce waste while driving cost savings for designers and occupiers, says Richard Hyams
Architects are increasingly drawing on AI and VR software to aid the progress of projects, factoring in environmental elements that affect the sustainability of a building. Across the construction sector, offsite construction and 3D printing are radically cutting waste and shrinking delivery times, but the end product – the buildings themselves – are also helping to hit sustainability targets. New measures range from incorporating innovative facades to reduce pollution to using smart technologies to monitor energy usage or potential wastage.
With the design and construction sectors rallying together to meet zero carbon goals, it’s never been more timely to leverage technology to deliver the environmentally friendly buildings of the future.
Tech-enabled immersive designs
For a long time, architects have relied on the traditional pen and paper approach to begin bringing design concepts a step closer to reality. However, the sector is increasingly moving away from this approach in favour of more immersive digital design methods, not only helping to reduce waste in the process and end product, but also enhancing the accuracy and precision of the designs themselves.
One way we can leverage more digital design techniques is through Virtual Reality (VR) software, which enables users to ‘step inside’ a design. This is not only useful for architects themselves but also their clients, who are able to walk through the design before its realisation. The value of such technology has become ever clearer in lockdown, offering opportunities to enhance collaboration between designers and improve consultation processes for existing communities in an age of social distancing.
At astudio, we have built this into our design process and discovered the many benefits of this technology, from walking our clients through our schemes to understand space quality, to optimising window positions. Meanwhile, parametric tools are increasingly becoming valuable to architects to unite design intent within the physical constraints of the space. Each of these technologies allows architects and their clients to visualise complex projects without wasting physical design or construction materials.
They can also improve the sustainability of the final building; for example, solar analysis and material analysis tools can ensure that a proposed design is making the best use of available sunlight. Mapping likely building temperature retention and durability against the elements can also help to make an end product more sustainable for the long term.
The construction industry has also been able to leverage technology to reduce its impact on the environment, streamlining the construction process, minimising project timelines and reducing the amount of waste a project produces.
Modular offsite construction, for example, uses technology to help speed up the building process, reducing completion times by as much as 70 per cent. Not only does this method reduce the time spent on site and the associated emissions, but it also has improved quality controls that reduce waste by between 70-90 per cent. Of course, with sustainability in mind, these processes are increasingly being optimised by using carbon-efficient and carbon-neutral materials.
A further technique increasingly being leveraged by the architecture and construction industry is 3D printing, enabling architects and builders to respond to requirements immediately. With the greater degree of accuracy that is possible through 3D printing, waste is minimised and only the materials needed are used, often making use of discarded materials.
At astudio we are fascinated by this concept, and have partnered with Brunel University to develop new thinking in construction, assisting students in pioneering a tool that can use waste material from limestone excavation and building it into 3D printing. With these innovations, 3D printing can deliver not only small-scale projects, but entire communities and even cities that make use of the natural resources around them.
Tech & living sustainably
Of course, if the end products themselves are not environmentally friendly, our efforts to deliver buildings sustainably risk being wasted. However, modern design has the ability to enhance the habitability of a building in a way that empowers sustainable living and working practices. For example, on new build projects, architects can leverage technologies that promote the use of renewable energy including solar power and heat pumps. This can even extend to building smart technologies into the fabric of the building to regulate and monitor temperature and the use of energy.
But there are technologies and new innovations that can take this one step further. Multi-purpose green facades are an exciting innovation that is likely to become a common feature across communities internationally, changing the face of construction for the better. We have been working with Brunel University to pioneer algae facade technology that can simultaneously absorb pollutants in the atmosphere, produce its own biofuel, and improve the insulation of a building. The benefits of biotechnology aren’t limited to the outside feature of a building. Using natural substances such as mushroom fungus mycelium, we can literally grow structures without producing any construction waste, while supplying a useful food resource to the building’s users.
Looking to the future
With the right attitude across the industry, innovations like these can become the new sustainable normal. We have some way to go, but already innovations from VR to living walls are emerging that can support us as we make those vital first steps. To truly achieve a green recovery from Covid-19, sustainability must be woven into the fabric of our designs, into our construction practices, and in the way we live and work in buildings.
Richard Hyams is director at astudio