The aesthetics of going green
Until quite recently, if you pictured an “eco-house” you might be forgiven for conjuring up images of a subterranean lair covered by grass, or else a ramshackle potting shed surrounded by an allotment bursting with root vegetables and powered by burning old socks.
While examples of both are still easy to find, the latest generation of environmentally friendly properties are less off-grid and more hybrid: often they might look little different to a Georgian townhouse, or the sort of swish country retreat beloved of tech entrepreneurs or financial whizz kids, fusing elegant lines with ultra-green construction. And that’s largely thanks to a revolution in materials and some clever engineering.
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Can buildings save the planet?
“Eco” is a term that’s thrown around as liberally as champagne at a grand prix, but the key criterion in any green project is the carbon footprint – the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere as the result of the construction and use of a building. Given that the built environment accounts for 40% of global carbon emissions1, and cement production for 8%2 on its own, architects have been looking for sustainable solutions for some time.
But at the cost of luxury? Not necessarily.
Hugh Petter, of Adam Architecture, has been working on a West Country home with a spectacular brief. He was tasked with replacing an old, derelict cottage on the site of a Doomsday manor with a contemporary house that won’t startle the sheep. And, of course, he had to ensure it had as low a carbon footprint as possible. As he puts it: “Younger clients are prepared to go the extra mile but it’s actually something most people want now.”
Sourcing local stone and Welsh slate had two benefits: it gave the property a traditional appearance and it removed most of the carbon from transportation. A ground-source heat pump, which extracts warmth from the earth, is paired with triple glazing and serious insulation to make the house truly energy-efficient. And elsewhere in southern England the firm is experimenting with hemp for insulation, along with quarrying bricks and tiles from local clay deposits and firing them on site. It’s a fabric-first approach that is earning international attention.
Any colour as long as it’s green
“As the technology gets better, we can do more and more,” Petter adds. “It’s an interesting time: over the past five years standards have been improving quickly and everyone’s having to raise their game when it comes to sustainability.”
Fiona McLean, of McLean Quinlan, no longer sees it as a “nice to have” option. She is working on a home for a local family near Nottingham that probably wouldn’t have got planning permission without its obsessive focus on sustainability. “It’s written into the code now that sustainability is looked at positively,” she says. “That’s good: people come to us because they want to push the boundaries of how green it can be.”
For that project, the key is the clever selection of materials again. It’s not a cheap commission, at about £5,000 per square metre, but features bricks made from recycled waste whilst concrete and steel have been replaced with wood where possible. It is triple-glazed, of course, but keeps windows to a minimum on the sides where there is no view to savour. And it is designed to last: the lifespan of a building is also a key factor in determining how damaging it is to the environment, and rebuilding every 50 years is obviously more wasteful than every hundred or two hundred.
Don’t rebuild – recycle
McLean is also in a position to draw comparisons with the United States, where she is working on another residence in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a well-heeled resort made famous by its annual economic symposium – think Davos with beavers. An earlier project there – a home for a young family – used a palette of hemlock and pine, shingle and stone, to help it nestle discreetly into the wild landscape above the Snake River.
“It’s almost universal that well-off people want eco-friendly buildings,” she says. “People know the zeitgeist is not for ostentation. They want something that’s beautiful but understated, not flashy. They’re prioritising what it’s like to live in, not what it says to passers-by.”
One trend she has noticed is that her clients are taking more and more interest in the materials she specifies: things like plaster and textiles. And that’s because of VOCs, or volatile organic compounds - the chemicals found in many home products, from carpets to paints.
“It came from health-conscious clients,” she says. “Why not save yourself as well as the planet? So now we make sure that all the paints and plaster and internal surfaces are free from noxious substances. It takes more effort but we want people to really enjoy living in our buildings.”
Wood is good for the soul
And, of course, it’s not just homes that are increasingly eco-friendly these days: London’s first wooden skyscraper, a six-storey edifice of structural timber and tulipwood louvres, was unveiled last month in Shoreditch. Designed by Waugh Thistleton, the office block relies on the enormous strength of cross-laminated timber – made from gluing layers of lumber together – but is so eco-friendly that should it ever fall out of favour, it is easily disassembled and can be recycled - which just might be a first for a high-rise. In the meantime, according to the architects, it has saved significant amounts of CO2. Best of all, it’s rather beautiful.
As Andrew Waugh, the architect, puts it: “It's good for the soul to be surrounded by natural materials.”
Perhaps the most radical high-rise in recent years, though, is the Bosco Verticale in Milan, a pair of residential towers in the Porta Nuova district which are covered in 21,000 trees and shrubs, and which suck 30 tons of CO2 from the surrounding atmosphere each year, while filtering out other toxins and dust and providing a habitat for birds, insects and 300 humans. After the success of his prototype, completed in 2014 and where the penthouse recently sold for £14.5 million, the architect Stefano Boeri has constructed further ‘vertical forests’ in Eindhoven, Tirana and Cairo, and is working on plans for a pair of tree-clad skyscrapers in Dubai and a whole urban district in Liuzhou, a city of about one and a half million people, which will feature offices, hotels and schools as well as homes, all thickly covered in 40,000 trees and a million plants from 100 different species.
The future is here
If that sounds ambitious, it’s nothing compared to one of the most hotly-debated construction projects in the world: the trillion-dollar Neom development in Saudi Arabia, where work began last year. Consisting of ten distinct areas, such as an octagonal floating port and a ski resort in the Sarwat mountains to the north, the most eye-catching element is undoubtedly The Line – a 170km-long city for nine million people consisting of two parallel 500-metre-high mirrored glass walls, set 200 metres apart3, that was reportedly designed by the American firm of Morphosis. Between the two parallel groundscrapers, according to the renderings, will be a verdant valley of foliage not unlike a giant Bosco Verticale, and the intention is for the city to be entirely powered by renewable energy, using a mix of solar, wind and hydrogen extracted from seawater – the first time this has been attempted on such a vast scale.
Questions have already been raised about the feasibility of the project, as well as the environmental and human impact of the build process, such is the size of the venture and the extremity of the climate. While controversy rages in some parts, there’s no doubt the Saudi Arabian ambition marks a new chapter for global sustainable architecture.
Certainly, it seems a corner is being turned in the construction sector, which, with its traditional emphasis on heavy machinery and concrete-pouring, has seemingly lagged when it comes to tackling the global climate emergency. Nowadays you can get hydrogen-fuelled aero-engines, stylish electric cars, seaweed-derived wrapping and upcycled wool – so isn’t it time we all had access to an eco-friendly home as well?
As Boeri says, “We know that the CO2 from cities is a major contributor to global warming, so we urgently need to make them the protagonists of a radical change - and the key to that will be to demonstrate that it’s possible to make green architecture affordable, without necessarily scrimping on luxury.”
In next month’s ‘Inspired’ article, we’re back on the road with a must-read article called “Heaven’s kitchen”. Join us as we explore the mouth-watering and luxurious world of food-based travel.
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