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22 March 2019

How is sustainability transforming the built environment?

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Sustainability is the process of maintaining change in a balanced environment, in which the use of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony, and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.  

For many in the field, sustainability is defined in terms of three interconnected domains or pillars: environment, economy and society. Economy and society are constrained by environmental limits.

Sustainable building (aka green construction or green building) refers to both a structure and the application of processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient through a building’s life cycle. This extends from planning to design, construction, operation, maintenance, and renovation, including demolition.

There are several associated built environment goals. The first is to design future projects to minimise energy and water consumption, as well as wastewater production. Second is to incorporate sustainable design principles into capital investment decisions. Finally, the aim is to base capital investment decisions on life cycle cost, including the cost of known future expenditures. 

Positive impacts:

Sustainability in buildings refers to their ability to be environmentally responsible throughout their life cycle, from planning and design through to operation and maintenance. It is based on energy use, water use, indoor environmental quality, material selection and the building’s effect on the site, while also addressing the impact on human health and the environment. It does this by: 

  1. Reducing waste, pollution and degradation of the environment
  2. Efficiently using energy and water, along with other resources
  3. Protecting occupant health and productivity

Ultimately, and intuitively, a greener and more efficient design and operation has less impact on the environment, as well as minimising harmful effects on human health and the environment.

Beyond new developments, existing buildings need to be upgraded to be more energy efficient and use renewable energy sources to lower greenhouse gas emission.

The economic and social benefits associated with green building, as listed below, are also significant. 

Economic benefits:

  • Reducing operating costs
  • Improving occupants’ productivity
  • Creating market for green products

Social benefits:

  • Improving quality of life
  • Minimising strain on local environment
  • Improving occupants’ health and comfort
  • Promote a better planet
  • Sustain environment without disrupting natural habitat  

LEED and WELL certification:

LEED is the most widely used green building rating system in the world, with a LEED-certified building offering considerable cost savings to owners, in terms of maintenance costs over the building’s life cycle. LEED sustainability standards for design have now become a part of architectural design on a standard level, leading to the next level of occupant wellbeing, with the new WELL Building Standards .

WELL is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and well-being through seven concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. The below seven concepts are pillars upon which sustainability relates to the human side of a building:  

  • Air 
  • Water
  • Nourishment 
  • Light 
  • Fitness 
  • Comfort 
  • Mind

In addition, innovation is a key consideration, in terms of promoting the continuous advancement of WELL and allowing project teams to achieve higher certification levels. There are five innocation features that each count as an optimisation for any of the projects.


The Irish construction industry is facing into somewhat unknown territory in the coming years as a result of the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. Under this Directive, all new buildings constructed in member states will be near zero energy buildings (NZEB) by December 31, 2020, and new buildings owned and occupied by public authorities must be NZEB after December 31, 2018. 

This Directive has since been incorporated into the current Irish Building regulations. As the industry is still at the very early stages of NZEB, we maintain that until such time as the current projects are further progressed, analysed and completed, the true cost of construction for achieving NZEB on a variety of projects will not be fully known. It is envisaged that it will be 18-24 months before the true cost data is realised. 

One of the key design parameters that will significantly impact cost is the requirement to achieve 20% of a building’s energy requirements through renewables.The most commonly adopted renewables to achieve the NZEB requirements on projects to date are photovoltaics (PVs), air-source heat pumps (ASHPs), and combined heat and power (CHP). These renewables, combined with the utilisation of LED lighting, low specific fan power (SPF) on ventilation equipment such as air handling units (AHUS), and an efficient building envelope, seem to be the key elements that are being scrutinised and attested when endeavouring to achieve NZEB requirements. 

The industry has made significant progress prior to the roll out of NZEB. International clients now all demand their properties to be LEED Gold certified as a minimum, with many now targeting Platinum. This will significantly close the gap in achieving NZEB.

In summary, the age-old adage that the smallest changes can make a big impact rings true in the case of sustainability – the seemingly small measures implemented in green building processes are making all the difference. However, the importance of education, training, and the encouragement of occupant to implement best management practices for optimal sustainability cannot be underestimated. 


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