The 4 trends
that are shaping
that are shaping
As long as construction remains responsible for a large proportion of all greenhouse gas emissions, can the architectural profession plow ahead using the same practices we did in the past? As the world faces up to the climate emergency and urban densification, we consider four fundamental trends that point to a different, more sustainable, more inclusive and more contemporary model for architectural practice.
What will tomorrow’s world look like from an architectural perspective? Given the multiple challenges that continue to put us to the test, that's a far from easy question to answer. Caught in the three-way pincer movement of climate change, galloping urbanization and the inevitability of population aging, architecture finds itself at something of a crossroads. It is, of course, impossible to go back in time to build as we used to, without worrying too much about conserving resources or the effects of greenhouse gases. It is equally impossible to ignore CO2 emissions or to sweep the issues around energy efficiency and raw material shortages under the carpet. Today's architecture calls for a renaissance in construction as the basis for envisioning the buildings of tomorrow and how they are integrated into a more frugal and restrained world. Far from being ‘fashionable’ and therefore ephemeral, a number of the new architectural trends now emerging share the same desire for a return to fundamentals, without compromising sustainability. Post-carbon architecture, local materials, care & repair buildings and the retrofit era... Welcome to the city of tomorrow!
1. Post-carbon architecture
“Could do better”... Despite the efforts made to move away from a world that has relied on fossil fuels for nearly 300 years, construction still generates around 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That proportion is far too high according to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which set the target of achieving Net Zero Carbon emissions by 2050. As this deadline fast approaches, the construction industry now has less than thirty years to move decisively towards a constructive sobriety. On every continent, the construction industry and architects have now grasped these environmental, economic and social challenges. Everyone now knows that building better by using common sense and a frugal approach is key to creating the post-carbon world. An ideal world, that would also mean high levels of environmental and energy efficiency. But where do we begin the process of transitioning towards this decarbonized architecture? The whole point of this approach is to integrate it at every link in the value chain, from choosing materials to production lines, and from building energy performance to end-of-life deconstruction. Each step can be seen from the virtuous angle of decarbonization.
Consider the choice of materials. As well as the traditional options of concrete blocks or bricks, architects now have more choice than at any time in history. Natural insulation and bio-based materials derived from plant or animal biomass are revisiting practices by offering solutions that are low carbon... but high on energy efficiency! As part of its quest to achieve a more frugal construction model, the Saint-Gobain subsidiary ISONAT is manufacturing insulation using biosourced wood fiber to limit building carbon footprints. Cement also seems to be going low carbon, with a number of new formulations. Chryso, another Saint-Gobain subsidiary, is working with cement manufacturers to design new solutions based on fly ash or recycled concrete fiber to drastically reduce production stage CO2 emissions by significantly reducing the energy intensity of the industrial process and as part of limiting environmental impacts.
In addition to a much wider choice of materials and production methods, the post-carbon architect will also be able to use digital twins, which provide extremely faithful virtual replicas of buildings, for example.
What's the benefit? Actually, there are many. On the upstream side of a project, the architect will be able to simulate alternative scenarios covering the full building life cycle to achieve optimal carbon efficiency from design and construction through to deconstruction. The same digital twin can then be used as an excellent management tool to control finished building energy performance. Combined with increasingly effective insulation materials, it will achieve high levels of energy efficiency... especially if it generates its own energy from a renewable source (or sources) in sufficient quantities to meet its annual consumption demand.
2. Locavore architecture
One of the most perfect examples of so-called ‘locavore’ architecture is surely... the igloo! It epitomizes the concept underlying this trend towards using local materials to build houses that fit seamlessly into their surroundings. Can you imagine a timber chalet in the Sahara Desert? Of course not. Vernacular architecture is updating the desire to use locally available resources as building materials, with all the associated positive economic, social and environmental impacts. Stone, wood, rock or raw earth... The choice of resources available will depend entirely on geography.
In the Yemeni city of Shiban, for example, skyscrapers are made of cob, because earth is an abundant building material here. Local artisan builders also provide income for farmers by buying soil deposited as a result of crop irrigation to maintain or renovate old houses. In France, decorative shotcreting specialist Norper recently partnered with Saint-Gobain to develop a new construction method using raw and excavated earth, which although normally treated as construction waste is a usable natural resource.
The result is a virtuous economic circle created as a result of a short construction circuit that also creates local jobs. The other advantage of locavore architecture is that it usually responds effectively to the natural and climatic constraints of the region in which it exists.
In hot countries, large expanses of glazing need to be abandoned in favor of louvers or Mashrabiya perforated screens to protect occupants from the heat... Previous generations had an innate bioclimatic awareness, and although no one is suggesting we should turn back the clock, locavore architecture is often inspired by traditional practices when finding solutions to avoid the use of air conditioning, for example.
A short stroll around the old neighborhoods of Baghdad is sufficient to show the art of this ancestral science in responding to an exceptionally stifling climate. Windcatcher towers called Bagdirs capture breezes to create a natural flow of ventilation that cools home interiors. What more could you ask for to reduce your energy footprint! With solutions like these, locavore architecture meets the three key parameters of sustainable development. It reduces economic and industrial dependence through the use of local resources. It limits the transportation of materials to site, reducing project carbon footprint. And lastly, it creates jobs and contributes to the emergence of recyclable industries, since the materials used are often recoverable for recycling.
3. Care & Repair architecture
Care & Repair architecture could equally be referred to as Care & Kindness architecture. Like a good family doctor, it looks after the health of its occupants and cares for the environment. It is also a resilient architecture whose central focus is people and the planet. Designers and architects have long focused solely on building functionality with no attention paid to the way it connects with its surroundings.
A paradigm shift is now underway, because the focus on care puts the inherent fragility of environments, urban spaces and people at the heart of its concerns. This consciousness of fragility requires us to look at - and understand - urban spaces in a new way as we seek to strike the right balance. In other words, this architecture kindness encourages us to envision sustainable and adaptive solutions that interweave the best interests of ecology, economy and urban planning. Other examples of taking care include encouraging soft mobility in urban spaces, making an active contribution to communal life within a neighborhood, and conserving biodiversity in urban spaces.
The logical follow-on from this care philosophy is that of repair and reuse. This means considering the durability of a particular material or structure with the ultimate aim of reducing waste and/or programmed obsolescence. When designing such buildings, architects will pay close attention to opportunities for building restoration as an integral part of reducing its carbon footprint. It may run contrary to popular belief, but renovation is often more cost-effective - both financially and environmentally - than demolition and rebuilding. The truth is that we often neglect to incorporate into our calculations the ‘gray energy’ capital inherent in any construction project, which ranges from raw material extraction to manufacture, delivery, transportation, the construction and demolition processes, landfill, etc. When you come to add it all up, you soon realize that demolition comes with a significant cost...
Lastly, the architecture of repair would be incomplete without taking full account of the recovery and recycling processes essential to conserving raw materials and avoiding construction waste going to landfill. For a major office renovation project in Sweden, Saint-Gobain not only supplied the new glass, but also recovered the old glass for re-injection into one of its production lines in Germany. Another example, this time in the United Kingdom, is the 2001 launch of plasterboard recycling by British Gypsum (Saint-Gobain group), since when this initiative has spread to other countries including France, where Placo® has set up its own plasterboard recycling system, and Isover France has developed a system for recovering its mineral wools for recycling and reuse.
Going forward, it is hoped that more construction waste will be recycled to conserve resources and ensure security of supply.
4. The retrofit era
Many voices are now being raised against the demolition/reconstruction culture on the basis of its large carbon footprint. Beginning with a clean sheet is no longer as popular as it was, and it is now seen as preferable to re-purpose the existing built environment, in other words transforming it without destroying it. Given that construction is responsible for generating 40% of the world's solid waste, what can we do to stop all that material going to landfill? One serious way forward is emerging in the world of contemporary construction: quite simply, reusing the buildings we already have. So new architectural projects are seeking to make buildings adaptable and ultimately easily dismantlable to facilitate their reuse.
From renovation to reuse, the unifying idea is to give existing buildings a new life, holding out the promise of a more successful form of architectural practice. To promote these new uses, manufacturers like Saint-Gobain are developing new prefabricated solutions. These lightweight, flexible prefabricated modules can be assembled like Lego® and be easily adapted to suit changing needs or environments. The Isover F4 facade system is an excellent illustration of this move to modularity.
Pre-cut in the factory, this facade is entirely recyclable and makes expansion projects easier. It can be very quickly disassembled, and just as easily recycled.
Thinking modularity means taming the future by imagining chameleon-like buildings that can be transformed, expanded or repurposed. Take the example of urban parking structures. In the past, they were indispensable for parking autos. But will they really have any use in tomorrow’s post-automobile city? And if not, what can we do with these empty shells? Renovate them? Demolish them? Architects have found a solution by designing scalable parking structures that can be subsequently converted to provide homes or office space by reconfiguring their modular elements. In doing so, designers have reversed the previous logic by no longer focusing solely on today’s uses, but thinking ahead about how useful the structure could be in a future life. This then is the secret of retrofit: designing a reversible, transformist building that can be repurposed for new functions.
So whether post-carbon, locavore, resilient or retrofit, contemporary architecture is an integral part of today’s global movement of climate and demographic transition. Architects right around the world are now thinking about how they can reduce the carbon impact of their projects by taking account of the full building life cycle, conserving resources and repurposing. Most importantly of all, they no longer lock buildings into a predefined use, but design them to be easily transformed into offices, homes or business spaces... for the benefit of future generations!
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