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Designing with and for the environment

Architect Richard Dalman considers how we might build more sustainably.

According to the US Green Building Council, buildings worldwide account for 33% of all carbon dioxide emissions and 40% of material and energy use.

I believe it is incumbent upon architects and everyone else in the construction industry to lift our games and design and build more sustainably. Here are my top ten tips to achieve this.


  1. Consider site ecology and design with the environment, not against it. Take time to really understand the local culture, climate and geography of the area you are designing for, and take account of these things before you draw the first line.
  2. Good passive design can save on potential energy costs. By passive design I mean how we can detail the built-in structure and building fabric that doesn’t require energy to ‘operate’ during a building’s life. For example, overhanging eaves can keep out sun that overheats a building during the summer, but allow sun in during the winter when it is needed. Exposed thermal mass such as concrete and stone within a building can absorb heat during the day and release it at night as temperatures cool down. Above-code insulation along with double and triple glazing and thermally bridged window joinery can help keep the heat in. Position the building to maximise sunshine and shade when needed, and shelter from or access to cooling breezes as required.
  3. Carefully select your materials. These can be fully recycled or made from reconstructed materials, and/or can be selected because they can be recycled again. Minimise high embodied energy materials such as steel and concrete, and try to use fully renewable materials such as timber.
  4. Think carefully about occupant health. Provide good access to sunlight and natural ventilation. Select materials with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and look out for certification from the New Zealand independent environmental certification system “Environmental Choice”. For example, select environmental certified paints that have low off-gassing.
  5. If you purchase locally made furniture and fittings then not only will your building interiors have an authentic local feel, but you will eliminate pollution created by shipping and other forms of transport.
  6. Energy efficiency is a key aspect in saving power, saving money, and making your building more sustainable. Use LED lighting that draws very little power, and better still, use as much natural light as possible during the day so you don’t need artificial lighting. Use Building Management Systems (BMS) to control and refine the amount of energy used for air conditioning, heating and lighting throughout different times of day and year to ensure no power is wasted.
  7. While water is a relatively abundant resource in our part of the country, it is starting to become more of a precious commodity. Lately in Christchurch we are being asked to conserve water. We should be looking at ways to use water wisely with low-flow tapware and showerheads.
  8. Take advantage of appropriate technology to save energy and reduce overheating. Some examples of this are electronic louvres that adjust depending upon internal temperatures and the need for shade and sunlight, or high level windows that open and close depending upon the need for ventilation and cooling. These can be controlled from an internal thermostat. Photovoltaic energy cells are becoming more efficient and affordable, and are a great way to generate your own electricity from the sun.
  9. During construction we should look to reduce wastage through good planning and clever construction techniques. Look to recycle offcuts, and separate out other recyclable waste materials. Also consider how we can create the minimum impact on the site and surrounding areas through the construction process.
  10. Finally, these days we tend to build too big, using up more space and energy than is actually needed. There is a trend worldwide to build smaller, not only saving on materials, but also energy during construction and the life of the building.


While all of these ways to build more sustainably obviously go a long way to saving energy and our Earth’s resources, many of them also cost nothing or very little to implement, but more importantly, save money in the long run. They stack up both environmentally and financially.

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