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Green Building, No Longer an Afterthought


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Artist's impression of West Side Place - currently being constructed by Probuild

Trees, grass and shrubs may soon become as much a part of the materials specifications for construction projects as concrete, timber and steel are. Planning authorities, clients, and building owners are becoming increasingly more focused on the positive benefits of urban greenery.

Dr Dominique Hes, Director of the THRIVE Research Hub at Melbourne University’s School of Architecture, tells Jobsite there is a “huge engine of research” driving the trend.

For thousands of years, humankind had regarded nature as an enemy that could pose possible harm to us, so our architecture reflected the need to keep it at bay, she explains.

However, the times have changed. Nowadays, a growing body of new research has given us evidence of the physical health and psychological benefits natural elements provide.

“That is why we now need to integrate greening inside and outside a building,” Hes says.

“Being connected to nature is like having a good night’s sleep.”

Biophilia & Biomimicry

Biophilia and biomimicry are part of how the shift is being expressed. Biophilia means the innate connection to and love for nature that humans have. Biomimicry, on the other hand, refers to a design and engineering approach that uses natural processes as its inspiration.

“What we are learning to do is integrate our wisdom with nature’s wisdom."

For example, adding trees and a water feature outside a building with operable windows will deliver natural cooling and natural ventilation. The shade of the trees and the way water cools air offers a biophilic approach. The way people inside the building enjoy the leafy outlook and feel less stressed; the way their productivity and cognitive functions improve is also a result of biophilia.

“What we are learning to do is integrate our wisdom with nature’s wisdom,” Hes says.

We are bringing nature into our human systems, and by combining human know-how with nature, we can achieve outcomes in a smaller space and in less time than nature on its own might deliver, she says.

Another body of research has demonstrated that the traditional HVAC set point of around 21 degrees is not essential; our bodies actually function better with some temperature variations.

Combining this knowledge with the natural elements of shade, water and natural ventilation results in a building that will not require HVAC plant as large as those relying solely on HVAC, with the 21 degree set point.

That leads to saving on both the plant itself and operational energy use, Hes says.

“It also makes the building more resilient. This is one of the many benefits of combining nature and technology,” says Hes.”We are then creating a symphony—a harmony between nature and machinery.”

Planning Authorities Taking Notice

Planning authorities, local governments and urban planners are also recognising the importance of greening in terms of mitigating the urban heat island effect. The effect comes from the way concrete, steel, tarmac and other hard materials absorb and reflect the sun’s heat, leading to higher ambient temperatures at the street level that last well past sunset. Unfortunately, as the climate warms up, this impact is becoming more magnified.

Hes explains that there is widespread acceptance of the phenomenon. After all, it is something that can be immediately felt and experienced by anyone standing on an unshaded street on a hot day.

“It also makes the building more resilient. This is one of the many benefits of combining nature and technology,” says Hes.”We are then creating a symphony—a harmony between nature and machinery."

The difference someone feels when they enter a park with shady trees and a water feature is also obvious—wherever the greenery is, it is cooler.

Because the heat issue has implications for public health and for the productivity of workers, some local councils are developing or have implemented urban greening policies. The City of Sydney, for example, has a green roofs and walls policy. Melbourne City Council has an urban forest strategy, and Adelaide City Council has also been supporting efforts to green more of the CBD with greenery on buildings.

Hes claims there is now a substantial amount of research around the benefits of green roofs. They provide multiple advantages, including reducing the cost of keeping plant and equipment for a building that is located at roof level at the optimum operating temperature.

Research undertaken by the University of Technology Sydney also proves green roofs, green walls and other green features add to the value of a property asset.

Green Elements No Longer Expendable

Linda Corkery, President of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, tells Jobsite that there was a time when the landscaping elements of an urban project had been seen as “expendable.” They were an add-on to budgets, and often their scope was determined late in the project and constrained by the remaining budget.

Nowadays, however, planning requirements are looking at the green elements as something that needs to be embedded in the design and project scope before even construction starts, Corkery says.

The key shift stems from the fact that city planning authorities have recognised that an individual building is part of a bigger system. 

“They are no longer looking at one site in isolation; it is seen as part of a bigger picture,” says Corkery.

Trees and other green elements are understood as having benefits for cooling, wellbeing, and improving air quality through absorbing pollution, including airborne particulates.

At a site level, this emphasis on green elements has an impact on how the conventional hard, gray infrastructure of a site is designed and delivered. Rain gardens, permeable paving, green roofs, and gardens on and around a building will capture and utilise stormwater, for instance. 

Green roofs and green walls are also becoming more valued in projects, and clients are asking for them to be provided.

This means there is less concrete stormwater infrastructure required.

In some local government areas, Corkery says there are explicit requirements for the percentage of a site that must comprise landscape or permeable surfaces. In North Sydney, for example, 40 to 50 per cent of a site area must be permeable.

She says there will be more of these metrics appearing, including requirements for retaining existing trees.

Green roofs and green walls are also becoming more valued in projects, and clients are asking for them to be provided. A green roof or rooftop garden for the use of residents is now becoming business as usual for an apartment building, she explains. It adds to the property value, for a start.

On the human level, these have benefits for the occupant’s social lives and overall wellbeing. On a functional level, they provide cooling and also reduce the volume of the first flush of stormwater entering the local stormwater system.

More broadly, these green elements also have benefits for biodiversity in the urban area by providing habitat.

Corkery says designers and suppliers of greening for buildings are becoming “more sophisticated” in terms of the types of systems available. There has been a considerable development of the body of knowledge around the right types of plants to use, the types of building systems involved and how the green elements interconnect with building systems.

It could soon be standard practice to have greening that is part of recycling a building’s gray water, she says.

Green Planning Starts Early

For builders, one of the significant shifts is the stage at which greening gets planned and designed, Corkery says.

Currently, installers of these elements are generally specialist contractors, and ideally, they are brought into the project team early in the process. Where water sensitive urban design is part of a project’s planning requirements or designed scope, these elements have to be “planned in from day one,” she says. Therefore, the project architect, contractor and other key project consultants need to have the landscape architect at the table from the outset.

As vertical schools have become more of a trend, greening is also being seen as a way to ensure students have access to quality outdoor spaces and outlooks.

Many councils are making water sensitive urban design integral to site planning, as the way water is managed on an individual site has an impact right down the street.

“They are seeing the city as an integrated network of systems,” Corkery says.

Managing water more effectively on individual sites can also deliver savings in operational costs for councils and water authorities.

According to Corkery, greening is being regarded as a fundamental requirement in healthcare and aged care. The new Royal Adelaide Hospital, one of Australia’s biggest healthcare projects, integrated landscape architecture from the outset as the South Australian Health Department recognised that green elements help patients heal faster.

As vertical schools have become more of a trend, greening is also being seen as a way to ensure students have access to quality outdoor spaces and outlooks.

Green Building Trends

The use of green infrastructure, where natural elements and processes replace or augment traditional infrastructure, is also a growing trend. It is being seen in civil projects, such as roads, rail, and stormwater management. For instance, a road project might substitute landscaped swales and detention basins planted with water-loving plants for the conventional concrete culverts.

The Sydney Water Park, a major piece of landscape work that has received international acclaim, has two functions. It is both a recreational park with water play areas and flora and fauna habitat, and a functional part of the City of Sydney’s stormwater management and water recycling system.

The NSW Roads and Maritime Services department has an urban design unit staffed with landscape architects that ensures greening is a fundamental part of road projects. On the Pacific Highway upgrade, for example, the road corridor has retained and enhanced tree cover, and the design has incorporated corridors and crossings for native fauna.

“That’s the big change; we are much more aware of the applications of large-scale green infrastructure,” Corkery says.

Clients are aware of the possibilities and are starting to ask for this type of approach, she says.

Greening has also been used to turn “toxic landscapes” into “the places we go to picnic” in urban areas. Corkery says this has led the builders working on those projects to acquire new skill sets revolving around site remediation.

“That’s the big change; we are much more aware of the applications of large-scale green infrastructure."

Corkery says further research is still needed to support the uptake of urban greening; the costs and benefits for builders of green elements in projects still need to be studied.

“The main thing is to be supportive of builders willing to try these new systems,” Corkery says. “We need to build it, test it, research it, and see how it performs.”

Some of the research underway includes the growing body of work by the CRC for Low Carbon Living at the University of New South Wales. It is examining the technical aspects including the role of street trees, water sensitive urban design and how greening contributes to achieving high-performing, low-carbon urban landscapes.

“More innovation will come in as we integrate more systems,” Corkery says. And as more of the industry come onboard with the concept, we will see teams of contractors working together to deliver projects that integrate nature.”

If you liked article, here are a few eBooks and webinars you may enjoy:

The Future of Green Building

Is Green Building Worth It?

Go Lean, Get Green – Planning for More Profit with Lean Construction

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