Better buildings, happy people?

Adam Selvey, Ramboll, wellbeing, zero carbon, sustainability
Adam Selvey

In the face of growing concern about our environment, sustainable buildings expert Adam Selvey considers how we can find a balance between achieving zero carbon buildings and the wellbeing of humans who are in them. 

The answer is not necessarily in rules and regulations.

The Extinction Rebellion protests have rightly called for immediate action on climate change, putting pressure on UK national and local governments to declare a ‘climate emergency’ and deliver commitments to protecting the environment. Albeit already underway, the government quickly announced earlier this year their commitment to a 2050 zero-carbon target. Following suit, Manchester and the city of Birmingham pledged their zero-carbon commitments of 2038 and 2030 respectively. But amidst all of these grand announcements, we need to be mindful that whilst striving for zero-carbon in its current form has noble intentions, it also has the potential to make our society and individuals excluded and unhappy.

We all need to change aspects of our lives and make more well-informed choices to reduce our impact on the planet and avoid the disastrous effects of climate change. However, many climate change campaigners would have you believe that we need to completely eradicate modern life as we know it and roll back the way we live. Some suggestions include:

  • Eat little or no meat
  • Buy no more than three new items of clothing a year
  • Travel less and stop flying
  • Drive electric vehicles
  • Use only renewable energy
  • Tax more to deliver the new future

Of course, we do need to consume less; shift to renewable energy sources; eat and travel more sustainably; and fund this transition, but we simply cannot ignore the benefits of modern life to society. For example, aviation has arguably been the single most important technological advancement in connecting us as a society. Enabling the world population to visit, trade, eat and socialise means we can appreciate our connection to a bigger world than that of the era we grew up in. Travel connects people from other nations, helping us understand that we have more in common than that which divides us, and supports reduction in conflicts and wars.

In the built environment, the drive to create quick, easy and code-compliant answers to generate lower carbon solutions is evident in the residential sector. Over time, government policy such as Building Regulations Approved Document Part L1, has rightly tightened standards, resulting in the building of increasingly airtight boxes with improved fabric performance. In mass production housing, this regulation, although well-intended, has resulted in smaller windows that let in less natural light, and airtight dwellings that can potentially overheat in the summer.

In high-rise residential developments, we often install either no opening windows or, on the grounds of health and safety, ones that can only open 150mm. This problem was identified as far back as 2011, when Channel 4’s documentary ‘The Secret Life of Buildings – Home’ investigated how window design, size, and our access to external views and natural light affected our physical and mental health. This provided evidence that the current mass-produced housing stock could result in a lack of natural light, that could result in residents becoming borderline diabetic.

The industry is seeking ways to quickly and cheaply solve regulations, sustainability and energy efficiency targets in the places we spend most of our time. But with 90% of our day-to-day lives spent indoors, what is the impact of this on our mental and physical wellbeing? More effort and resources in design and construction are needed to make our homes more liveable, instead of continuing the race to the bottom, whilst being mindful that, in our bid to create zero-carbon buildings, they need to be sustainable for the people that use them.

Adam Selvey, Ramboll, wellbeing, zero carbon, sustainability

In the workplace, we are further on with this journey with guidelines such as ‘The WELL Building Standard’, only these efforts do not go far enough. In some instances, people are squeezed into small desk spaces with little or no individuality. Office spaces provide the minimum amount of fresh air required for employee wellbeing, whilst creating deep plan buildings with little view of the outside world.

The focus for ’WELL’ is to boost employee performance, but what makes us truly happy? The 2019 World Happiness Report showed that the Nordics take the top spots again, and it’s no surprise given the Danish government’s focus on people. For example, their architectural policy is titled ‘Putting People First’ and regulation in Denmark usually means that employees can only be sat at most two or three desks away from a window.

There needs to be sharper focus on how a well-designed built environment can improve the happiness of individuals’ lives and society, whilst still reducing carbon footprints. As architects, designers and engineers, we need to incorporate the emotion of users into our designs. We need to engage with psychologists, social scientists and data analysts to quantify the attributes that will contribute to happiness. Happiness could become a new commodity in the future.

Whilst I believe in striving for zero-carbon, it needs to be carefully balanced with maintaining community cohesion and happiness. Both sustainability and liveability can make buildings a good place to live, learn and work, and the industry needs to spend more on efforts to design better environments and make decisions that ensure inclusivity, rather than the potentially drastic reversal of modern life. It is down to all of us to ensure this is not the case.

Adam Selvey is sustainable buildings specialist at Ramboll

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