We have been called to reimagine the future. The need to move to a zero-carbon, regenerative economy is indisputable, and climate change is descending upon us. But, happy people are sustainable people – and we can't forget this in the current industry rush to reach net zero.
As a society we often look at things in a very simplistic way, forgetting life is nuanced and interconnected. When we make a one-dimensional choice, it will often take years for the reality of the consequences to come to fruition: Europe rushed to buy diesel cars to tackle climate change, only to realise some years later we had created a major public health crisis through increased NOx emissions in our cities.
We have to look at the bigger picture. We have to look at happiness.
We currently stand in the face of another well-intended call to action for us all to work together for a more sustainable future and zero carbon economy. The UKGBC states that the "UK Built Environment is currently responsible for 25 pre cent of total UK greenhouse gas emissions", so the collective industry assumption has been to make that 25 per cent of UK emissions net zero – it would be our fair share.
The simplistic solution of net zero buildings, however, is a rushed silver bullet. We have to look at the bigger picture. We have to look at happiness.
Over the past 10 years, there has been increased public interest in happiness, and since the Covid-19 pandemic, society's interest in happiness has intensified. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) encourages its member countries to use happiness as a policy development indicator, and Nordic countries have attracted international attention for consistently ranking at the top of various happiness indices.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises urbanisation as a preeminent influence on health in the 21st century, with housing a key driver. For our overwhelmed health systems the only way to ease this pressure is prevention.
Our singular focus on reducing energy and carbon does not necessarily deliver real sustainable outcomes
One of the top priorities for the WHO is to give architects and planners clear guidelines on how to translate health policies into urban planning. In the UK, Lord Crisp recently put forward a Healthy Homes Bill in the House of Lords, recognising building regulations alone are not enough to ensure outcomes focused on health and happiness, and which would establish the office of a Healthy Homes Commissioner.
We support the idea of such an office but the key to its success will depend on how well systems thinking is applied to ensure that at least three of our 21st-century challenges are tackled: climate change, biodiversity loss, health and happiness. Clearly, we need to move away from the current one-dimensional way of thinking for the sake of our wellbeing, mental health and carbon emissions – and for this we need an ecosystems philosophy.
Our current singular focus on reducing energy and carbon within buildings does not necessarily deliver real sustainable outcomes. As urbanists and engineers we believe that building neighbourhoods and homes that are sustainable and more resilient to climate change does not have to be a completely utilitarian, engineered process.
Cities should be functional, beautiful, and culturally important to people living there and should inspire a sense of wonder and belonging. Happy people are also more likely to be sustainable, relying less on health systems and reducing their carbon emissions in walkable neighbourhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services, places to work and access to nature.
The current focus on operational energy and embodied carbon in the built environment is fundamentally flawed because it ignores how we can achieve an equitable sustainable society. Take a simple window size reduction to save energy.
A lack of daylight affects our serotonin levels, reduces immunity, and has the potential to increase the likelihood of becoming type 2 diabetic. These illnesses often require drugs and chemicals for treatment, with their own carbon emissions.
Overengineering isn't the way forward
To find a simple solution the built environment industry drew a redline around the net zero building, conveniently ignoring Scope 3 emissions. Stakeholders can claim a net zero badge for a building ignoring its location, how much land it takes and how people travel to it. Such a response will not tackle the biggest crisis facing the planet, but an ecosystems philosophy will.
Overengineering isn't the way forward. Systems thinking is. While engineers are innovative problem solvers, the profession is frequently narrowly focused. Minimum regulations and codes meet only the most basic of our human needs.
By understanding that humans and nature are symbiotic with each other, we can engineer environments where both nature and people flourish and people choose sustainable behaviours like travelling actively and eating a local, more plant-based diet.
Built environment professions must work hand in hand to reimagine a sustainable, happy future
This systems thinking is currently lacking in the design of cities, homes and neighbourhoods, but is necessary to solve our complex urban issues – WHO and Save the Children are calling for the systems-based approach in response to climate change, health and equity. This kind of thinking is necessary when designing both on the building and neighbourhood scale.
All built environment professions must work hand in hand to reimagine a sustainable, happy future. If we set design outcomes that seek to improve the happiness of everyone, we could go much further to achieving a truly sustainable place.
In the UK we are less comfortable with the use of the word "happy". We prefer "wellbeing", or to discuss mental and physical health. And to be fair to us, we are at the forefront of research on some of these topics. However, conducting the Happy Home report research at Ramboll with our Danish colleagues, we have grown accustomed to "happy", relishing its ambition, whilst still encompassing fundamentals of health and wellbeing.
If we set design outcomes that seek to improve the happiness of everyone, in addition to net zero, we could go much further to achieving true sustainability.
Gorana Shepherd is a chartered architect, specialising in city and regional development who is a director in Ramboll’s Cities and Regeneration practice, leading large-scale regeneration projects, where she and her team are championing a life-centred approach.
Adam Selvey is director for building services and design excellence at Ramboll. He is responsible for the design and technical strategy for Ramboll's UK building services team.