Tech for good: How technology can reduce the environmental and social impact of our built environment

From Richard Hyams, founder of astudio

The built environment accounts for approximately 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint.

With the Government having announced a £3bn green investment package in its Summer Statement, there is a clear effort to improve the environmental impact of our buildings. Yet, in order to meet the 2050 net-zero carbon goals, we must consider how best to invest in designing and developing buildings that effectively and efficiently meet modern day environmental and social needs and encourage the use of innovative solutions in construction nationwide.

Genetic algorithms

As artificial intelligence (AI) continues to develop, it will enable architects to make better design decisions, while requiring less time and resources.

Genetic algorithms, in particular, which use machine learning to replicate the process of evolution for designing buildings, hold plenty of promise. These metaheuristic systems can help to identify the best parameters for success and continuously adapt the building accordingly, such as to improve energy efficiency.

However, the real benefit of these algorithms is the flexibility that they offer. They can be applied to an extremely wide variety of problems — from energy efficiency to modular construction — and perform to a high standard in every single case.

Genetic algorithms have been successfully applied to a wide range of problems of significant complexity. These algorithms are already being used in the furniture industry to constantly review production processes and ensure that schedules are met, and to optimise production by producing visual models. Following our development of its use in our work, we must encourage their wider use in architecture to create environments that meet modern day standards and allow us to design better tested outcomes rather than rely on ‘rules of thumb’.

Sustainable living walls

In this age of rapid technological advancement, sustainable building projects should no longer depend solely on traditional methods to reduce a structure’s carbon footprint through standard renewable energy solutions and green construction methods.

New solutions to consider, such as the use of natural organisms as building materials, are beginning to emerge, which can vastly improve, by offsetting, the energy consumption of our buildings and their impact on the environment.

astudio were the first UK firm to purchase an algae machine from US pioneer Sustainable Now Technologies. Using this, we were able to design a method of skinning building exteriors with algae compounds that pull CO2 from the atmosphere through carbon sequestration. As the algae grows, it can be harvested to produce sustainable biofuel, in turn delivering truly self-sufficient, eco-friendly buildings.

Algae walls could be revolutionary for sustainability in our cities, producing heat to be harnessed and distributed through buildings as needed, offsetting carbon emissions, and generating huge carbon savings for both new buildings and retrofit alike…

Social responsibility

Real-time rendering tools and VR software is making the design process more intuitive and accessible, aiding collaboration between designers and contractors at all stages of the project. At astudio, for instance, we use innovative tools such as virtual reality visualisation plugin Enscape to render, tour, and adapt designs in real-time.

However, such tools don’t just help the client and designer to make changes. These systems are also empowering communities to voice their opinions during the consultation process. Using VR walkthroughs, firms can allow local residents to immerse themselves in a building or public space before the foundations have even been laid. This way, we can seek feedback from those that know the community and surrounding area best and make necessary changes that improve the social sustainability of our projects.

As well as the environmental impact of the building, we must also think carefully about its social impact. astudio’s Desborough Road project, which will provide 70 new housing units for the homeless in High Wycombe, will use a fabric first approach to increase insulation, reduce heat loss and air infiltration, and improve efficiency. However, the building will also enhance the local area, providing vital accommodation nearby to local amenities such as healthcare and schools.

Modular construction improving impact

Due to Britain’s infamous post-war prefabricated homes, there has been a reluctance to adopt modular construction methods. However, significant advancements have made modular manufacturing far more efficient and far less wasteful than traditional building methods.

Buildings can be constructed robotically in a factory setting and transported to the build location for a speedier assembly. Using a modular approach, astudio was able to halve the estimated construction time of its Sugden Way project, due to deliver 13 new homes in Barking later this year, for instance.

With shorter construction times, the environmental impact is significantly reduced, using 67% less energy on average. Likewise, with less material waste and fewer delays due to poor weather, modular can free up funds to be invested in further environmental improvements and also future affordable housing projects. The locals will undoubtedly appreciate the reduction in noise and disruption often caused by long-winded construction projects too… and with the advancement of technologies such as VR and genetic algorithms helping to strengthen their design, the benefits will only improve with time.