Sustainable cities: Building-in positive environmental impact post-pandemic

Richard Hyams, astudio

By Richard Hyams, Founder and Director of astudio – The silver lining in an otherwise gloomy experience, has been the positive impact national lockdowns have had on the environment. Many of us have marvelled at the canals of Venice and the skies over Delhi, both clearer than they have been for years, while videos showing animals roaming boldly through locked-town cities have proliferated on social media.

However, we should not be complacent as the climate crisis remains a considerable threat which could yet intensify as we return to business as usual. In particular, we need to build sustainability into our built environment, which accounts for a staggering 40 per cent of the UK’s carbon footprint. The good news is that Covid-19 has highlighted several steps we can take to effect real change.

Healthier homes

With unprecedented numbers of people working from home in recent months, the question of our homes’ sustainability has rightly risen up the agenda. Residential construction must accommodate these new priorities with the new technology at their disposal.

We need smart homes which can manage their own environmental impact to a significant extent. Intelligent central heating units can minimise energy wastage automatically, while advanced air quality control system can keep our domestic environment healthy to live in. In cities such as London, 78 per cent of CO2 emissions come from homes and workplaces, smart building technology could generate significant environmental improvements.

Greenery can be incorporated into our urban settings, and even into buildings themselves, for example Milan’s Bosco Verticale, houses almost 1,000 trees in its two tower structures. At astudio, we have been working with Brunel University to develop living wall technology, which allows us to skin structures with algae compounds that absorb pollutants in the atmosphere and provide a sustainable biofuel source that will reduce the environmental and financial cost of powering our buildings. Moreover, using natural substances like the mushroom fungus mycelium, we can grow these structures without producing any waste.

Touchless technology 

Covid-19 has necessitated a new impetus in the development of touchless technology such as motion sensors, which have provided a valuable means of monitoring occupancy within buildings. Post-pandemic, this tech will remain useful for building managers looking to optimise the energy efficiency of their facilities.

Motion sensor technology can track footfall throughout buildings in real time, alerting managers to underused areas where heating and lighting may be wasted. Furthermore, smart facilities management systems can even address this wastage automatically, cutting costs as well as buildings’ carbon footprints.

Embracing innovative solutions is vital for improving the energy efficiency of properties. astudio’s project for St Paul’s Way Trust School, for instance, utilises low-energy design principles such as natural ventilation and high thermal mass to reduce emissions by 60 per cent compared to a typical school. And with deadlines for sustainability targets approaching, similar improvements to buildings throughout the UK are urgently needed.

Green transport

Concerns about Covid-19 have understandably prompted an increasing number of people to abandon public transport in favour of alternative means of travel such as walking and cycling. Major UK bike manufacturer Brompton, for example, saw a fivefold increase in online sales at the height of the health crisis, reflecting a sea-change in attitudes.

Urban planners should support this change in the long term, providing non-motorists with a more equitable share of our roadways, as well as improving access to public realm outdoor space for those who walk, run, and cycle recreationally. For the sake of the environment, as well as public health, those anxious about public transport must be offered an alternative to increasing their use of personal vehicles.

Solving the personal vehicle pollution problem will need more than just electric cars, as these innovations will be unsustainable without the overhaul of infrastructure required to support them. We need to meet growing demand for green electricity by exploring innovative solutions. Harnessing solar power in homes, for example, would empower individuals to become more self-sufficient – and even sell surplus energy into the grid.

Sustainable construction

Despite the government’s pledge to deliver 180,000 new, affordable homes by 2026, any progress made this year is likely to have been significantly hindered by the pandemic. Fast, flexible, and environmentally conscious offsite modern construction methods, championed and developed at astudio, can also improve efficiency by saving more than 75 per cent in building time. astudio’s Desborough Road project, for instance, is set to provide 58 units of temporary accommodation for vulnerable families in High Wycombe that have found themselves homeless. 

Modular construction has already enabled schools and hospitals increase their capacity in the wake of Covid-19, showcasing many of the benefits which make modular a sustainable means of construction. Prefabricated structures for example are produced in a factory setting, drastically reducing onsite building time and all the air and noise pollution that entails.  

Moreover, manufacture in a factory setting reduces the environmental impact of construction, either by recycling waste material into new projects, or by using more eco-friendly materials in the first place, such as FSC-approved timber and sustainably sources steel. With the UK construction sector currently consuming 400m tonnes of natural resources per year, wider adoption of modular construction would bring welcome environmental benefits. 

With progress on vaccines promising an eventual end to the health crisis, attention must shift towards the environmental one which still looms. Building on developments seen during the pandemic, we can make our homes healthier, our workplaces more energy efficient, and our travel more sustainable, addressing the urgent need for change at speed while also building a greener future that we all need.

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