Green architecture & design is the wave of the future

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren (The Philippine Star) - August 16, 2014 - 12:00am

The key to modern lifestyles today is being green. In a recent feature on the STAR’s new television show Modern Living TV (every Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on ANC and TFC) I outlined the essentials of green architecture, its history, and its impacts on contemporary life.

Green architecture is a way of building that fulfills the functional and aesthetic requirements of a project with the least impact on the environment and ensures sustainability in terms of access to, and enjoyment of, the natural and cultural resources of a place, region, and country.

Green design is important not only in the scale and context of architecture — singular buildings — but also in the context of the design of entire communities, towns, cities and regions. It is a way of building and development from the singular structure, to a cluster of homes, to districts, whole towns and cities, all the way upward to provincial areas and even regional development. Green design, architecture, and planning aims to conserve our natural and manmade resources, and ensure that we can provide for generations of Filipinos to come.

Why do we need to “green” the way we’ve been building? Well, development in the last 100 years or so has been mostly at a smaller scale and within a limited physical context. Projects have been either singular buildings or a group of buildings with little regard to surrounding structures or settings. Building materials in the recent decades have also been mostly brought in from overseas or from areas far from where the structure of the building or the building cluster is going to be built. So in terms of the carbon footprints of the buildings and designs, these eat up more energy compared to the effort of sourcing sustainable materials from closer to the project sites.

The problem, of course, is that we have only now started to manufacture building materials using sustainable sources or processes that ensure minimal environmental impact. We have been amiss in our conservation of our own natural resources, which are being depleted at an alarming rate. We need to establish sustainable forests as a source for our lumber, manage quarries for building stone and aggregates, and ensure that our cement factories follow strict environmental guidelines. Thankfully most of our major cement plants are following that green route. Concrete is actually a good material to use since we make our own cement and don’t have to import this primary material from overseas. Reinforced concrete structures do last longer than the current fashionable trend for steel, glass and other metal cladding, especially for commercial towers.

The movement for green architecture and design in this country has progressed in the last decade. The Green Architecture Movement (GAM) and BERDE are two organized efforts in the Philippines that are modeled after similar initiatives overseas, of which the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) architects initiated GAM and affiliated professionals like interior designers, landscape architects and environmental planners, while BERDE is more identified with the general building industry.

The green architecture or green building movement actually started much earlier. In the ’50s and ’60s, there was a small movement to try and build within the capabilities of the construction technology and materials at the time. Dollars for importing building materials were scarce, so we were forced to start manufacturing our own materials like plywood. We even made hybrid boards from coconut called Lawanit (which was also a popular material for artists as canvas for paintings was also hard to come by). We also started to manufacture steel, and plants for extruding and forming metal were put up. The ’60s and ’70s saw government ease up on financial restrictions and a flood of imported materials led to competition that killed the rise of our own fully integrated construction materials industry.

The first real impetus for the green building movement was the Oil Crisis of the 1970s. Gasoline prices went sky-high and there was even rationing. Everyone became sensitive to the requirements of power and energy. In the architectural schools, our professors taught us how to build with nature and not against it to lower energy costs. We were taught how to properly orient buildings, how to make sure that natural light comes in, how to look for alternative forms of energy that could be used for buildings and building complexes.

As early as the ’70s we looked at solar cells, wind-generated electricity along with biomass or methane as alternative fuels. In the ’80s and ’90s oil prices stabilized and the world went back to its normal fuel-burning ways. Building design reverted to default reliance on air-conditioning and artificial light and no one was remotely interested in landscape architecture except for decorative purposes.

Today, however, we are in the age of “peak” or “post” oil. Climate change is an accepted fact and we are becoming sensitive to the depletion of carbon fuels, and the great load on electrical requirements that a growing population and economy has. We also have the same country, the same square footage or square hectarage in it, but now we have 100 million Filipinos to house — the majority in several cities that are now beyond the million-population level. Metro Manila is about 12 million.

A handful of Philippine cities have taken the initiative to establish green protocols in their building ordinances. Quezon City and Makati City are examples or early adopters of these and buildings in their jurisdictions are now complying. Private developers are engaging the protocols such as LEED in their projects, and it is now not uncommon for LEED certifications to be highlighted when marketing new condominiums, housing or mixed-use complexes. A number of Makati and Bonifacio Global City skyscrapers have also been erected to high LEED standards and many more are in the pipeline. Developers like Ayala Land Inc. are taking green protocols to the next level in designing large estate projects of tens to hundreds of hectares.

On the individual building level, the basic consideration for green design is to look at greenness from the outside going in. First is the orientation of the building. You orient the building so that it gets the least amount of impact from the sun and the rain. Now, the best orientation, of course, in a tropical country is east-west so that the long side is facing north and south, and therefore you gain the least amount of solar energy and your air-conditioning requirement is minimized. So the best orientation is east-west, especially for rectangular buildings.

Now the other consideration in orientation is the amount of natural light that it gets, so this impacts the configuration groups the windows are facing. Again, you don’t want to bring in too much sun, so a northern and southern intention from most of your windows is the best way to do it.

If you look at the way we used to build in the 1900s and earlier, vernacular architecture made a lot of use of natural light, and with light that is diffused. Capiz windows were a way of modulating the fierce tropical sun, yet it allowed light to go in. The way we constructed our bahay-na-batos with insulating spaces between the outside and the inside also led to cooler insides. The allowance of ventilation with the ventanillas on the second floor of our bahay-na-batos has its equivalent in modern architecture if we use louvers and open-able windows. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from vernacular architecture.

We can also learn from more contemporary historic buildings from the 1920s and 1930s. Before the war buildings were naturally ventilated, because air-conditioning was expensive or was non-existent. We had to have high ceilings. We had to allow natural light to come in. We had to make sure that the orientations of our buildings were proper. We did not have tall, 50-story buildings then; even in the 1940s the tallest building was the six-story Insular Life building in Binondo.

There are the basics we can rediscover from older building designs. There are also aspects of green building that have to be rethought and this is where new technology in green building comes in. There is the use of low e-class or low emission glass, where the heat from the outside does not go in yet the lighting is still maintained. There are alternative methods of electrical generation. Photovoltaic cells (solar cells) are improving in efficiency and coming down in price. You can now get some small PV systems at the mall! There are now entire facades of the buildings and entire roofs that can be made of PV cells. Wind turbines have also evolved to more compact sizes and on vertical axes (unlike the ordinary rotary vanes we know) — easily mounted on building tops.

A lot of modern technology will address modern functions, but a lot of the old technology can be adapted especially for smaller-scale buildings. Now the other aspect of sustainability or green building comes from being able to take advantage of the rain, especially in tropical countries, and so you have rainwater harvesting. All the water that falls onto roofs and other surfaces of buildings and even on the grounds of your complex can be harvested or collected, and channeled into a system of tanks. This can then be cleaned, recycled and brought back for use in the building.

There are several buildings and complexes in the Philippines now that use rainwater-harvesting systems and double-piping, which means the water that comes from this gray water source and is used for flushing the toilets, cleaning, and landscape irrigation. The water that comes from your sewerage treatment plants, especially in large complexes, can also be used and brought back into the system.

Green architecture and design of buildings and settings, landscapes and both private and public spaces should change our behavior and the experience of our surroundings. Our appreciation of the fragile state of our environment must mean we change our old ways of dependency on fossil fuels. We need to walk more, bike more, take public transport more (so long as the queues are not kilometers long).

With greener buildings, cities and regions, we can look forward to increasing our quality of life and lifestyles. We will live better lives in the knowledge that we can pass on our communities and our world to our children hopefully in a better state than when we inherited it. Building green, therefore, is the wave of the future, because if we don’t go green, we won’t have a future.

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