Dezeen Magazine

The Macallan Distillery by RSHP

"By focusing so much on carbon reduction we are neglecting other areas where our industry causes harm"

Architects must start placing greater emphasis on protecting biodiversity in their projects, writes RSHP sustainability lead Michelle Sanchez.

It's time to make peace with nature. Architects should add strong biodiversity mitigation principles to their projects no matter the scale and constraints.

Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, some organisations in the construction industry have advocated deploying all our efforts into implementing guidance, targets, and calculation tools to allow us to achieve net zero by 2050.

Sustainability as a concept goes beyond environmental impact

No doubt there is much to do in terms of carbon reduction in the industry, but by focusing all our energies and resources down that road we are forgetting two major things.

First, sustainability as a concept goes beyond environmental impact. Sustainability was defined back in 1987 by the UN as the balance of the environmental, economic, and social impact of any project – this is the Sustainability Triple Bottom Line. We are forgetting that sustainability engages with a far greater range of issues than carbon emissions alone.

Secondly, our industry has a much wider negative impact beyond the 38 per cent contribution to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. Now that we have a way forward to reducing operational and embodied carbon, we need to look at sustainability as a whole and see other areas where our industry is causing harm.

Biodiversity comes out as one of the big-ticket items that we need to tackle next. Infrastructure and the built environment are responsible for 29 per cent of threatened species, according to the World Economic Forum.

And biodiversity is more crucial to our way of life and our economy than we realise. Forty-four per cent of global GDP in cities is estimated to be at risk of disruption from nature loss. Business as usual is no longer an option – we as an industry need to do better.

It will benefit people, too. To return to the Sustainable Triple Bottom Line concept, having nature-based solutions embedded into our designs has a positive social impact on the local communities and building users. The enhancement of biodiversity is directly linked to the improvement of health and well-being, especially with respect to mental health. There is a direct correlation between having access to external, green spaces and the well-being of the user of that space.

Adding a 10 per cent net-gain is not enough

Politicians are slowly waking up to the issue. The COP15 summit has started work towards a new global pact on nature protection. In the UK, the government's 25-year Environment Plan will require all new development in England to provide a biodiversity uplift of at least 10 per cent according to a habitat-based metric.

This legislation is expected to come into force in November and will need to be considered by all stakeholders in the built environment – from designers and architects to financial institutions and property consultants. But adding a 10 per cent net-gain is not enough to be able to reduce the negative impact that our way of life has had on biodiversity.

We need to be creative and innovative. We need to find clever ways to provide green spaces, wildlife corridors and shelter for different kinds of animals. We need to encourage pollination and generate green infrastructure at scale whenever we can.

I am calling all architects and building-industry stakeholders to review their current projects against the BiodiverCities report from the WEF, where experts have listed a series of five key strategies that we can add to all construction projects to enhance biodiversity.

First, we must make the built environment more compact. Higher-density urban development will free up land for agriculture and nature. It can also reduce urban sprawl, which destroys wildlife habitats and flora and fauna. Existing cities and settlements should be considered for strategic densification. Just like we are starting to review existing buildings and their possibility to be retained or fully retrofitted before making the decision to demolish, we should have a similar approach with any land that does not have an existing structure that could be used for other purposes than urbanising the environment.

Second, we must design with nature-positive approaches by having buildings that share space with nature and are less human-centric. Nature-positive strategies should not be an afterthought or a tick-box exercise to comply with a planning requirement. All developments must include nature-friendly spaces and eco-bridges to connect habitats for urban wildlife. Should we start placing biodiversity at the core of project design I am sure that we will end up generating greener and more appealing places.

It's time to rethink what we are doing as an industry

We also need planet-compatible urban utilities. To stall biodiversity loss, we need utilities that effectively manage air, water, and solid waste pollution in urban environments. In addition to benefiting nature, this will provide universal human access to clean air and water. We can implement new technologies that could transform urban utilities and make them planet-compatible.

Nature as infrastructure involves incorporating natural ecosystems into built-up areas. Instead of developments destroying floodplains, wetlands, and forests, they would form an essential part of the new built environment. This approach to development can also help deliver clean air, natural water purification and reduce the risk from extreme climate events.

Finally, we need nature-positive connecting infrastructure such as roads, railways, pipelines, and ports. Transitions in these areas mean a change in our approach to planning to reduce biodiversity impacts, with a willingness to accept compromises to enhance biodiversity. Building in wildlife corridors and switching to renewable energy in transport are key elements of nature-positive connecting infrastructure.

It's time to rethink what we are doing as an industry and realise that by focusing so much on carbon reduction we are neglecting other areas where our industry causes much harm. We need to tackle climate change and sustainability from all fronts. We need to design in a holistic way that considers the Sustainability Triple Bottom Line and every impact related to it.

I would like to start a call for action and to encourage architects, developers, contractors and consultants to rethink the way we design buildings and public spaces, to find strategies to add biodiversity enhancement, and to truly assess the impact that our projects have on biodiversity.

Michelle Sanchez is sustainability lead at RSHP.

The photo, by Joas Souza, shows the green roof of the Macallan Distillery in Scotland, designed by RSHP.

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