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Is concept stage the right time to kick off sustainability?

Sustainability could, and should, be integrated into every stage of a building’s life-cycle. The earlier you are thinking about sustainability in a building project, the better. The same applies to involving stakeholders; early choices are more likely to set the direction of the project than trying to retroactively consider sustainability.


In this post we will explore sustainability at the concept stage. It is an excellent opportunity for early engagement and introduction of the sustainability considerations that should go into a sustainable project. The aim is creating a building that lasts, and integrates concepts like flexibility, adaptability and future proofing.


Don’t forget the 'people factor'!

A building is designed, built, and operated by and for people. This needs to be front of mind throughout the whole of a building's life.

The active involvement of experts since the concept stage of a building project is critical to its success. Sustainability is (or should be) everyone’s vision and the means to creating long-term benefits and value to a building asset. Sustainability is now one of the main drivers for clients and end users, therefore it should be considered a prerequisite and not an afterthought.

Involving only a designer, a client or an investor is no longer adequate. Especially in complex or large scale projects, experts from different disciplines – such as low carbon design, water/waste management professionals, health and well-being experts, acousticians, lighting designers, ecologists, urban planners – are key members of the project team.

What always remains crucial is the early engagement with the current or future occupiers of the building, and sometimes even the surrounding residents/businesses. This can be done through specific consultation sessions.

The early ideas and requirements of the project can be translated into a project brief document which will guide further phases, and a sustainability brief for the project, containing the environmental objectives.

The project brief process requires a culture of inclusion, openness and transparency which will hopefully extend until the end of building lifetime.


How can you set up a process that triggers sustainability?

Triggering sustainability as early as at concept stage is fundamental. A thorough and well-structured sustainability brief document will guide the design, procurement and construction teams in the following stages.

You may argue that cost is a significant driver in a building project and one of the first considerations, nonetheless, the concept of value is wider and more comprehensive and is certainly enhanced by sustainability considerations. A sustainable building is not always more expensive in the design stage and when considering the whole lifecycle of the building, including running and maintenance, costs could be significantly lower compared to a conventional building. Together with the design team, it is advisable to make an estimate of a life cycle cost of at least 60 years of building's life.

There are various sustainability rating tools, like IGBC, BREEAM, LEED, WELL, Passivhaus, and Edge, that could be applied on new build or refurbishment projects. They have been successfully and voluntary driven for many years by the building industry and fully integrated into national and global policy plans.

If a decision needs to be made on new build vs refurbishment, we would need to understand if the total lifecycle of the new build would provide less environmental impact (and/or more benefits) than the lifecycle of the refurbished building.

The concept stage is the right time to set ambitious targets, go beyond the standards, challenge yourself and your team and define a project that is efficient, elegantly simple and sustainable.


Example of a site analysis that was performed early in the project, directly contributing to design decisions around the building massing and orientation on the site. Studying the local microclimate, sun paths in all seasons and winds contributed to early stage design decisions.


What are the sustainability elements to consider at such early stage?

Let’s talk about sustainable features now. At the concept stage, the project team develops an abstract form of the building and defines how it can be integrated to the existing built and natural environment. What features could we include at this point in time? 

We might not have a detailed idea on the building's setup and functions, but we will most likely know some factors. These could include the existing urban structure, the local climate (present and in a 50-year projection), availability of sun/wind or other renewable energy sources, the surrounding community and identity of the environment (environmental, social and economic profile), the transport network (current and future), and the water and waste management infrastructures, to name a few.

A possible inclusion of green infrastructure or setting up a green travel plan are at this point almost cost-free choices that will however have a greater impact in the following stages.

In terms of energy efficiency, one of the key issues in sustainable developments is considering not only the running energy expenditure, but the embodied carbon of the building. This is the energy included in materials, product and processes during the building lifecycle.

Engaging the community and looking beyond the building outline to the wider urban context sets the project on the right foot to providing not only less environmental impact, but possible enhancements to the social and ecological state of the site.

All of the above are key parameters to consider when planning a sustainable building with minimum environmental impact that will last for a long time and retain its value.




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