With a changing climate and a growing population, it’s never been more important to reassess the way we manage the built environment. From our homes to the places we work, shop and play, we need to start taking a more holistic look at how we can create cities that are smarter, nicer to live in, and work with the environment rather than against it. Here are some interesting projects, innovations and ideas that might us help us do just that.
Working with existing buildings
While it’s become relatively simple to build a sparkling new LEED-certified green building in areas of new development, making existing structures more sustainable is just as important. Tearing down a perfectly serviceable building just for the sake of replacing it with one that has all the modern energy efficiency bells and whistles is actually not very green at all, as new raw materials have to be produced and shipped in to do so. Former industrial sites, for example, are often overlooked for new developments, even though there is huge potential for reuse and repurposing.
And new doesn’t always mean better – installing the latest LED lighting system in an old office space sounds like a sustainable option on paper, but would installing a few cleverly placed skylights or windows to let in natural light not actually be cheaper and reduce energy consumption more? Working with what we have first, and building new second, should always be given consideration.
Roads and railways that last longer, but use less material
An important cornerstone of sustainability is durability and resilience. Structures which have a limited lifespan or require constant maintenance drain both budgets and natural resources. This is especially important for those structures which experience a lot of wear and tear in the form of regular traffic, such as our roads and railways. By designing these to last longer, with improved bearing capacity and requiring less maintenance, significant environmental gains can be achieved.
One technology that is showing great promise in doing just this is Neoloy Geocells. Made from a strong, durable polymeric alloy called Neoloy, they create a three-dimensional cellular confinement system which is filled in with local aggregate materials to create a stable base layer for the roadway or railway beds. They are so effective at increasing bearing capacity and load support that their use can reduce the amount of granular infill materials required for base layers in half. On-site, low quality and poorly graded infill materials which are normally not suitable for reinforcement can be used, meaning a dramatic reduction in the hauling vehicles (and therefore fuel) necessary to complete the project.
Perhaps their biggest value in terms of sustainability, however, is the increased lifespan and durability of the projects which use them. By reducing maintenance schedules by 6 to 7 times and creating roads and railways with double the normal lifespan, this new advanced geocell technology will have an environmental benefit for decades to come.
Solar comes of age
Solar panels have never been cheaper or more efficient, and by designing our new buildings (or retrofitting existing ones) to take advantage of this free and abundant resource, a real energy revolution is possible. In May of 2017 the UK achieved a major milestone, releasing news that they had managed to generate almost a quarter of their power needs from solar installations. China is currently in the process of building the largest solar thermal farm in the world. India has set aside $3 billion to make sure their solar power capacity reaches an astounding 100 gigawatts by 2022.
And with even more innovative products to come – such as the Tesla solar roof shingles that have piqued interest the world over currently in the final phases of testing – it makes sense that every building, residential, industrial or commercial, plan to take advantage in a major way.
When people are able to live close to where they work, you don’t just cut down on (or even eliminate entirely) the need for long commutes and the associated carbon emissions, you improve quality of life too. Designing expanding cities to accommodate the people who will work in them and cater to a range of different incomes and ages, is one of the most important factors to consider in making them more sustainable. Not only does this make the option of walking or cycling to work more realistic – which in turn means less vehicle traffic within city limits – it gives older residents the chance to earn an income through letting out their additional space. This is only possible when development is planned in such a manner that residential and commercial spaces can coexist in close proximity. By carefully looking at the way we zone land in the future, we can truly create sustainable cities that benefit people, the economy, and the planet.