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Values of excellence and the narrative of built environment sustainability

There is an increasing interest in conceptualising and materialising sustainable design principles in architecture and urbanism; these involve employing a set of strategies, components, and technologies. Various terms have been used to describe this interest: sustainable architecture, green building, and ecological design; however, these have come to mean different things to different people. Nevertheless, the key objective goes far beyond minimising the environmental impact of the built environment on natural resources. In essence, it involves redefining the way in which the built environment is designed, built, occupied, and operated. It requires providing design solutions that integrate environmental and economic imperatives while invigorating and maintaining the quality of life.

According to Jason McLennan (2004), sustainable design implies responsibility and respect for natural systems and resources, for humans and for the lifecycle (McLennan, 2004:6). This involves reducing the use of nonrenewable resources and reusing and recycling natural resources as much as possible during the complete lifecycle of the building, which includes the construction process as well as occupancy. It also considers the impact of a building on the environment; this includes site selection and sensible design concepts that respect the natural conditions of the site, integrate the building with its surrounding, and preserve the existing vegetation and wildlife.

Moreover, sustainability stewardship is not a mono-faceted concept that is solely limited to energy and environmental preservation. It also involves responsibility and respect for humans, by aiming at enhancing the health, comfort, and well-being of the users of the designed environments. This important goal is sometimes overlooked in the quest for energy and environmental conservation. Since 70% of an individual’s lifespan is said to be spent indoors, creating spaces that sustain the health, physiological comfort, and psychological well-being of users is increasingly becoming an indispensable objective of sustainable architecture (Kim, 1998). Access to quality daylight and natural ventilation through permitting seasonal and daylight variations not only reduces energy consumption, but also enables occupants/users to integrate with their natural environment and enjoy natural light (McLennan, 2004).

The cases presented in this chapter demonstrate how various design concepts and approaches were utilised to respond to environmental challenges to achieve architectural excellence. Some projects relied primarily on economy of resources, whereas others focused more on incorporating modern materials with traditional techniques. Some adopted simple design concepts while others opted for more complex design and planning strategies. Certain of these examples demonstrated architectural excellence through design solutions that respond to environmental concerns at various levels. This narrative exemplifies key projects that have been internationally recognised for demonstrating outstanding architectural excellence in terms of environmental sustainability.

Three of these projects, the Green School, the Post-Tsunami Housing, and the Datai Hotel, adopted simple design concepts and primarily focused on using natural materials, traditional techniques, and environmental assimilation. The heart of the Green School project is the main activities building, which is entirely made of bamboo joints and 18-meter bamboo columns that support its three storeys. The main objectives were to use 90%-100% natural materials in the construction, to recycle as many materials as possible, and to manage the school’s waste in a sensible manner. In addition to using local natural and recycled materials, the simple construction techniques addressed the prevailing climatic conditions of the site. Ample and defused daylight permeates the innovative open perimeter walls and central skylight in the main building.

The school design has received an overwhelmingly positive response due to its interwoven visionary approach to education and sustainability (Shim, 2010). According to the master jury of the Award, the project is significant mainly for its holistic stewardship role in educating young people about the challenges that earth will be confronting in 2025. This important environmental lesson was realised by using local materials and devising a programme to prepare raw material (bamboo) for future demands. Accordingly, this project demonstrated the precept that wealth is generated where it is most needed - in the local community (Bambu, 2010). Therefore, the excellence of this project is further reinforced by producing hands-on human expertise in biological or organic farming and by utilising renewable energy as well as locally available materials.

The Sri Lankan Post-Tsunami Housing project was an effective answer to facilitate the return of displaced families by the 2004 tsunami. Both the speed of construction and the minimisation of cost were fundamental to the project. To reduce the cost, the architect used both the locally compressed earth blocks as the main material for the construction and coconut wood as a central pillar for roof support. Locally affordable materials, including rubber trees, were also used for furniture. In addition, the architect, in his design concept, used minimal components and simplified construction methods. The housing units were prefabricated in local workshops. The simplicity of the design and the utilisation of local materials and traditional techniques offered excellent opportunities for the villagers to be directly involved in the construction of their homes. The Post-Tsunami Housing scheme was fundamentally successful in enabling the return of the displaced families to their pre-disaster living environment within a short amount of time. It was also effective in maintaining economic efficiency by using local material, simple design, and traditional techniques. However, the project was not as successful in fulfilling the particular needs and preferences of the people. According to the master jury, stakeholders were frustrated about both the lack of engagement opportunities in making design decisions and the poor quality of materials used in their houses. In essence, [t]he fact that many of the beneficiaries have made adaptations to their homes reflects a certain level of dissatisfaction with the design (Barakat, 2013).

The Datai Hotel is another example of a project that utilised local materials and construction techniques; however, its goal was also to achieve sustainable measures. The main challenge was creating a design solution that met the client’s requirements in an intact tropical rainforest. The design concept was inspired by the Malaysian village kampong’s traditional clustered typology (Mohamed and Sirat, 2009). It was based on various guest blocks arranged around a swimming pool and linked by open walkways. Locally available materials were primarily used for construction, mainly stone and timber, while the construction method combined traditional techniques with contemporary approaches. Notably, the response to environmental issues in the design of the Datai Hotel went beyond the use of materials and traditional techniques. The Australian architect, Kerry Hill, adroitly adopted various measures to minimise the building’s impact on the tropical rainforest by limiting the felling of trees.

Cutting trees to make way for construction causes what is known as a festering wound effect, whereby species that are not resistant to harmful ultraviolet rays on the perimeter of the wooded site may suffer UV radiation and burn. In order to avoid this, the architect carefully positioned the various buildings of the project in such a way that the festering wound effect was eliminated; this was done by planting fast-growing canopy species, which block the UV rays from the adjoining trees and allow existing species to survive (Baker, 2001). In order to avoid cutting trees and further reduce the impact of construction, trained elephants were used instead of bulldozers to move through the site. The few cut trees were recycled and reused within the structures of the hotel or as localised soak pits and septic tanks to prevent the effluents going out into the sea or the jungle. Also, the supply of water was generated from wells and harvested rainwater. The natural topography and storm water drainage system of the site was maintained to the extent that certain structures were designed as a bridge when building over a creek was unavoidable.

The Datai Hotel is seen as an excellent example of how much and how far the developer and architect can collaborate to achieve a healthy symbiosis between a rich terrain and built form, between tradition and tourism, as well as between vernacular styles and modernism (Baker, 2001). In providing users with an elegant and sophisticated architectural statement while experiencing the natural tropical forest, the various buildings of the hotel were well appointed within their context in terms of style and use of material (Mehrotra, 2001). According to the master jury, achieving such sophistication with minimal impact on the tropical rainforest is a testament to the responsible and sensitive approach adopted by the architect (Spring, 2018).

Unlike the previous examples, which relied primarily on natural materials in their construction process, the Moulmein Rise Residential Tower incorporated modern materials with traditional techniques. The residential building’s most outstanding feature is the monsoon window faqade - this allows horizontal penetration for wind during rain. As climate control was the most important goal for the architect, the building axis was oriented north-south to optimise its environmental performance. Shaded windows and deep overhangs on the facades provided shade to the internal spaces and helped to keep out direct sunlight and driving rain. The building used a reinforced concrete structure system, while the environmentally responsive curtain walls incorporated aluminium, wood, tempered glass, and steel. The project was recognised for adopting traditional features that contribute to climate control in a contemporary and innovative way while improving the quality of urban life. According to the master jury, the design concept of the Moulmein Rise Residential Tower perfectly addresses the challenges of the tropical climate by reinterpreting the traditional elements of the monsoon window, which established a spatial linkage of different volumes to maximise air circulation (Johnston, 2007). The project is considered an elegant example of how an innovative, yet entirely practical, concept can offer an ingenious response to a standard brief.

Similarly, the Kantana Film and Animation Institute integrated modern materials, namely concrete and steel, with an extraordinary use of Thailand’s traditional brick. The design concept is based on five main functional areas arranged around two prominent intersecting, open-air, cobbled walkways. Integrating architecture with nature, these walkways, which were called ‘inserted forests,’ included 10- to 20-meter-high peep trees. It is noted that the amount of greenery planted within and around the building exceeded the one removed by the building’s footprint (Ali, 2013). Rippling brick walls with irregularly placed square openings enclosed the whole complex. The hallmark of the institute was its monumental walls, which contained more than 600,000 locally produced handmade bricks. Although internally supported by a steel frame, the double-layer brick walls created an air space that provided natural insulation from the tropical heat without the need for mechanical cooling systems. In this way, by using traditional bricks, the project not only revived a traditional building material and construction technique, but also triggered a renewed interest in traditional brickwork. The materials selected for the project are durable against adverse weather conditions and would last for at least 50 years without any major problem. According to the master jury, the simplicity of the technique of materials used in the Kantana Film and Animation Institute represented modesty, tenderness, elaboration, and patience (Premthada, 2013). Consequently, this building has become a source of inspiration to the students by stimulating their sensitivity, passion, challenge, and innovation. It also created an immense interest among architects and architecture students and attracted many visitors.

In contrast, the Menara Mesiniaga/IBM Headquarters was quite different from these structures in many aspects; for example, it did not use natural materials or traditional techniques and cannot be described as a simple design. Known by its architect as the bioclimatic tall building due to its practical energy-saving climatic control, many measures had been considered in order to respond to key sustainability challenges. On the one hand, the client wanted a building that would be a high-tech corporate showcase to demonstrate the quality of IBM products as well as to provide comfortable environment for employees. The architect, on the other hand, wanted his design to offer its users the opportunity to reconnect with nature through access to green spaces, natural lighting, fresh air and air movement, and good views of the surroundings; these are aspects that effectively enhance productivity in the workplace. The result was a tripartite structure, comprising a spiralling vertical landscaping that climbs up the faqade of the building. The design included horizontal green terraces and external louvres that shade the offices, and a penthouse floor that contains recreational facilities, a swimming pool, and a sunroof. The design of the building emerged from the architect’s lengthy research into ecological and environmental principles. With these principles and the tropical climate in mind, minimal energy consumption was achieved in the internal spaces that are connected to nature through greenery, natural sunlight, and natural ventilation. As a completely exposed concrete and steel structure, the tower is noted as a model for environmentally responsible tropical modernism that responds to local conditions without restoring traditional forms (Pearson, 1993). According to the master jury, the selected materials were excellent in terms of expressing the concept and the corporate image of technological products. However, the building was criticised for using some inappropriate materials, such as glass, steel, and aluminium, as these do not respond appropriately to climate and local technologies (Safamanesh, 1995). Taking into consideration climate as a priority, the design features of the tower are intended to be bold and not blend in with the immediate physical environment (Davidson and Serageldin, 1995). Nevertheless, the building was described by one of the jurors as an organitecb building.

Similarly, the design of the Ceuta Public Library did not incorporate natural materials or traditional techniques. Unlike the Menara Mesiniaga/IBM Headquarters, where climatic and environmental issues were a priority, here the priority was the preservation of the archaeological remains on the site and incorporating them into the building. Initially, the architects wanted to use local construction materials from Morocco. However, due to the high custom duties, it was cheaper to import similar materials from Portugal. The Cemex cement was brought from Mexico, while a mixture of sand and cement was used to resemble local stone (Rashidi, 2016). Being located in an urban city centre, the library does not have much connection to nature except that of the rocky landscape and Mediterranean views that can be seen from the library windows. In fact, on a clear day the shaded terrace on the roof provides views over the sea and across to Europe (Howarth, 2013). However, the building’s uniqueness lies in its connection with the archaeological site, rather than its surroundings. The design concept preserved the archaeological site by locating it at the library’s core; the structure was further enhanced by sloped terraces, which embrace the remains of the Marinid past. The Ceuta Public Library attracts a wide variety of users and it has been recognised as an outstanding project, winning several awards (Rashidi, 2016).

An example of excellence in developing responsive ecological infrastructure is Riyadh’s Wadi Hanifa development, which is an urban project that places emphasis on developing a larger scale ecological system. The project involved transforming a wadi, which had been previously used as an illegal dumping ground, into an environmental, recreational, and tourist resource. This was effectively accomplished by designing various architectural and landscaping elements. The programme included the clean-up of the wadi, which had for years suffered environmental degradation, loss of natural functionality, and a decline in its ecosystem productivity. The rehabilitation of the wadi not only improved the environmental and ecological quality, but also contributed to enhancing the public perception and usage of the wadi and its surroundings. According to the master jury, the project of Wadi Hanifa demonstrates an alternative ecological way of urban development of a public space that generally suffers from negligence in the Muslim world (Mostafavi, 201 la). It also showed how a major natural phenomenon could be negatively affected by the course of urbanisation and transformed into a litter-strewn and dangerous place. Yet, through sensitive planning and imaginative infrastructure-driven landscape solutions, the wadi was restored as a natural system and rehabilitated to provide multiple services, including recycling and treating contaminated water, reintroducing natural vegetation, and creating opportunities for recreational, educational, and aesthetic experiences (Mostafavi, 2011a).

By and large, these projects underscore various approaches and methods adopted to respond to sustainability concerns. Some of the projects utilised natural materials and traditional techniques to achieve their objectives, some incorporated modern materials with traditional techniques or vice versa, while others relied on modern materials, high technologies, and sophisticated design solutions. Moreover, some cases effectively demonstrated innovative design solutions to environmental problems while providing comfort and aesthetics to its users. Excellence in developing sustainable built environments can be achieved when ecological footprints are minimised; this results in making a positive and appropriate contribution to the social environment through addressing practical needs as well as psychological and physical well-being. A building can become a waste of resources if it fails to satisfy its users, regardless of its minimal environmental impact. At various levels, while the focus of these projects was chiefly on environmental sustainability, they were, for the most part, highly effective in addressing the aesthetic and psychological needs of the people they were intended to serve.

Current practices suggest that sustainable architecture should not be looked at as a product but a process that involves every phase of a building’s lifecycle. Buildings should not be classified as sustainable just because they contain a few features that, to some extent, lower their environmental impact or incorporate a few recycled materials in their construction. Indeed, the values of excellence in built environment sustainability are clearly evident in the projects here discussed; however, some structures were more responsive than others with regard to environmental principles in the design, construction, and operation phases of the built environment. Indeed, projects that leverage natural systems and resources, address human well-being and comfort, and respond to the particularities of place are necessarily projects that demonstrate excellence and thus deserve professional recognition.

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