While sustainability has been a dominant influencer for many years in design, building management and business operation, it has almost exclusively been focussed on environmental concerns such as energy efficient and the use of construction materials and techniques that have a low environmental or social impact. This is all well and good, but is this a somewhat limiting definition of what is needed to be truly sustainable?

The problem is; that as new challenges emerge, they risk undermining previous efforts made in the pursuit of sustainability. Can a ‘sustainable design’ that is completed today be considered sustainable if it needs to be further adapted somewhere down the line because it is not truly future-proof? Subsequent rectification will come at a great financial cost to the owner, and added environmental cost to society.

So the secret of sustainable building design is to recognise the emerging challenges, while attempting to visualise future challenges, and to develop strategies and techniques that will negate the need for future rectification.

One of the biggest challenges facing society, and therefore one of the biggest future-proofing challenges, is the rapidly increasing age of the population. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently warned that within the next 15 years, 24 countries will become ‘super-aged’, having more than 21% of the population aged 65 or over. This will put an increasing strain on society, particularly the care and health services. The care industry is already warning that it has reached the stage where it can no longer cope.

It is also the case that a great many people are choosing to stay in employment later in life. It’s been three years since the end of the default retirement age of 65, yet more than a million people in the UK over that age are in work, according to figures from the Department of Work and Pensions, and that figure is set to grow considerably.

“A part of the solution to this problem is to make sure environments – both for living and work – are better suited to an ageing population.” explains ergonomics consultant, Dr David Usher of InterAction of Bath. “It is very likely that the challenge becomes so pressing that future legislation forces architects, designers and owners of buildings to deliver environments that are better suited to elderly living, in much the same way that the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 first required the needs of disabled people to be considered in the design of public buildings. That Act, and subsequent legislation, saw a protracted and expensive programme of building alteration to incorporate access ramps and other infrastructure to enable disabled access. Not only was this process costly, it also compromised many existing designs, and of course came with a huge environmental cost.

“Today, architects design-in disabled access, which is more cost effective, efficient, and sustainable. But they should really start thinking about designing all environments so they are better suited to older people. To do this they need a better understanding of older people and aged living. Surprisingly, data has historically been thin. However, ergonomists are now developing databases of anthropometry – the sizes and shapes of people – using new technology such as 3D scanners, as well as using ‘link analysis’ to observe tasks within environments. The result is an emerging knowledge base that can and should inform all building design.”

Award winning architect Nick Stubbs points out that, at the more enlightened end of the industry, there is already a consciousness to consider issues such as age, but that more will need to be done. “The skills are there to design inclusive facilities for all manner of abilities, however, the magnitude of change needed for an increasingly ageing population may need to increase. It’s reasonable to assume we may have to make more adaptations to suit.

“Adaptations for people of lessened ability, such as toilets, walk-in showers, and stair lifts typically feature fairly ugly, institutionalised design and shoddy workmanship. As well as not adding value to a property, there is a dignity question which needs to be asked. People who use them may feel undervalued. It would be lovely to see a move towards a more sophisticated design approach in this respect.”

Aside from a rapidly changing population, questions also need to be asked with regards to issues of functionality and whether we are doing enough to deliver future-proof design and therefore sustainability.

Security, both ‘real world’ and cyber, is increasingly important to the modern business, yet on both fronts legislation to deliver higher standards is considerably weaker than it is for issues such as energy efficiency. There is guidance, such as Secured By Design, but is it all too easy to underplay the idea of integrated design when there is no legislation to act as a driver?

“It’s very hard to predict the future with regards to how buildings should be in the future,” says Simon Coles of Keep Architecture. “Issues such as security are as important as accessibility and energy efficiency if we are talking about true sustainability. A good design will deliver all of those, and designing-in natural surveillance, just like accessibility and energy efficiency, does not have to compromise a design.”

Within modern architecture and design, IT infrastructure is considered at the earliest stages, which is why trunking and cabling is now ‘designed-in’ and discrete, and therefore far more efficient. However, physical security does not enjoy the same early-stage focus, as Kevin Ward, managing director of Ward Security explains. “Security has traditionally been an afterthought, and rarely do we provide services to buildings, premises or sites that have been designed with security in mind. This makes our job more complicated and it is often the case that the technology for security – CCTV, remote sensors etc. – needs to be added, which not only compromises design, it can also be less effective than if it were considered when the site was originally designed.

“Thinking about security at an early stage is not difficult, and it does not have to compromise design. Indeed, the earlier the thinking; the more discrete and effective the security function. It’s as simple as architects and designers simply speaking to security companies. Or ideally for people commissioning new build projects to stipulate security as a fundamental design consideration.”

When it comes to discrete modern security infrastructure, there are options that not only deliver high levels of protection, but which also deliver environmental benefits, as Paul Garlick, National Business Manager at Mobilane UK knows only too well. “The perimeter fence around a site does not have to be simply a wire or brick structure. There are equally secure options, such as the Green Screen which consists of a 5mm weldmesh galvanised high carbon steel security fence upon which ivy has been cultivated to provide a low maintenance instant privacy and security solution, but which also delivers considerable environmental and biodiversity benefits. Plus, they deter against antisocial behaviour such as graffiti. Green Screens are proving increasingly popular as sustainable and secure boundaries around gardens, schools, colleges, hospitals and other sites.”

An ageing population and security are just two areas where the pursuit of sustainability is being betrayed, and there will certainly be environmental and financial costs in rectifying buildings in the future. There will undoubtedly be other issues that are being currently overlooked, or which have yet to become widely recognised. Suffice to say, just because a building is thermally efficient and carbon neutral does not mean it is necessarily sustainable. Because true sustainability is about whether that building is suitable for tomorrow, not just today.

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