The Building Blocks of our World: Living and Designing Sustainably

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Michelle Cheng, who is a Creative Strategist & Healthcare Interior Designer at Robarts Spaces.


A few months ago, I found myself captivated by an intricate piece of granite held on a pedestal in the Natural History Museum. It was not its delicate pattern that drew me in, but the dawning realisation that I recognised it. This piece of granite that was cordoned off and celebrated for its geological marvel was the exact, same piece of granite that I threw my chopping board onto as my kitchen counter top.


It takes our earth millions of years to produce granite that we use merely days to install into counter tops all around the country. This is just one tiny example of the basic building blocks for our homes and workplaces that all come from raw materials that we take from the earth beneath us.


For the majority of us who have grown up in urban environments, we have become conditioned to see the world around us as a given. We are born in hospital buildings, drive down cemented roads and walk up paved footpaths into our sturdy, brick homes. As a testament to the ingenuity of humankind, we have crafted whole new, unfamiliar worlds from the natural resources around us. But what have we taken from in order to create this?


As the urban population continues to grow in the coming decades, the world’s building stock is expected to double by 2060—the equivalent of adding another New York City monthly between now and then. That is a lot of raw materials and we need to find a way to make it all without causing more damage to our environment.


In 2008, the UK became the first country to introduce the Climate Change Act, a legally binding framework that commits the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 compared with 1990 levels. While as a country we are on track, progress has varied significantly by sector, with emissions from buildings having remained almost unchanged.


It is not realistic to halt construction and the growth of our cities. While policies and the green building movement has made tremendous progress in building efficiencies related to energy, water and waste, there has not been a strong enough economic case for materials. Since 2002, the Cradle to Cradle® philosophy has provided a galvanising platform for consideration of the environmental and human impacts of materials in the built environment. However, a holistic knowledge of the specification of and recycling of such materials remains limited among consumers and in the industry.

Illustration credit: Michelle Cheng

While there are shifts in industry towards more sustainable practices and responsible sourcing, as individuals, we play a part in building the world around us. From renovating our own homes to shaping our workplaces and communities, here are a few things to keep in mind:


1. Advocate for natural and low-impact building materials

The future must be sustainable. Many of our existing buildings are built on non-renewable, non-recyclable materials that are cheap and ready available, but we need to break the cycle in order to move forward.


2. Government standards and industry regulations aren’t enough

We need to take initiative and responsibility for the construction materials we use. Certain benchmarks such as LEED certification are a good start, however we also need to consider local companies and products to save on wasteful transportation and packaging costs.


3. Recycling and “upcycling” the old

Not everything needs to be built from scratch. This goes for careful consideration of refurbishment as oppose to new build, to even small interventions such as reusing existing office furniture instead of repurchasing complete sets with materials shipped half way across the world.


4. Design for longevity and versatility

Having a truly sustainable impact starts way before the hammer hits the wall. Co-create and work together with designers, architects and builders to think not just of the immediate concerns of the spaces we need, but how they may adapt and be future-proofed for any changes that may come.


5. Finally, make your voice heard.

Industries will respond faster when they see there is greater demand and priority for sustainable materials and methods of construction. The moment we take greater responsibility to the world being built around us is the moment we begin to shape a better future for our world.

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