Sustainable by design: Innovative practices contribute to carbon-neutral building

As the construction industry redefines its priorities to ensure sustainability, there is increasing recognition of the benefits of regenerative architecture as a means of lowering emissions. According to the “2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction” published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the construction sector accounts for nearly 40% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. In light of this, a greater emphasis has been placed on sustainable architecture.

The principle generally seeks to minimise the negative environmental impact of buildings by using sustainable, low-emission materials and sitespecific designs that utilise the natural environment to improve efficiency and lower costs related to areas such as lighting and heating. It challenges stakeholders to develop innovative methods to ensure that structures have minimal harmful effects on the ecosystem and community.

While much progress has been made on sustainable architecture in recent years, there is still significant room for improvement. According to modelling by the UNEP’s International Resource Panel, emissions from the material cycle of residential buildings in the G7 and China could be reduced by at least 80% by 2050 through the implementation of efficiency strategies such as building with fewer components or better recycling of materials.

Emerging Markets

Cities across the developing world are expanding rapidly to keep up with high population growth. Some cities are meeting demand for new buildings through green construction. Diébédo Francis Kéré, an architect from Burkina Faso, became the first African to be awarded the Pritzker Prize – widely considered to be the world’s most prestigious architecture award – for his work designing sustainable buildings in Africa. By revising and modernising traditional building techniques, Kéré integrates his buildings into the natural environment to improve their lighting, heating and cooling effectiveness, making them more energy-efficient in the process.

His first significant project, a single-storey schoolhouse in his home village of Gando in Burkina Faso, features a filtered light system that allows natural light in while keeping the interior cool. He has since designed schools, health centres, assembly halls and other public buildings in various countries including Benin, Mali, Togo, Kenya, Mozambique and Sudan. Kéré works in close partnership with local builders that use indigenous, low-tech construction methods and locally available materials.

Elsewhere on the continent, Hand Over, a design and building company based in Egypt, has emerged as a forerunner in sustainable construction. Using a technique known as rammed earth construction that deploys eco-friendly materials such as gravel, mud and sand, plus a small amount of cement, the company has constructed several sustainable housing and building projects. The technique reduces heat and dampness, leading to an estimated 30% reduction in carbon emissions due to lower energy usage.

New Standards

Qatar, for its part, plans to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in November as a carbon-neutral event, setting an example for the rest of the world. All infrastructure will meet sustainability benchmarks by using recycled materials during construction, and implementing water- and energy-saving solutions, among other innovations. The goal is to offset greenhouse gas emissions and deploy low-carbon solutions wherever possible.

The country has also constructed the first fully demountable stadium in World Cup history: Stadium 974 in Ras Abu Aboud. It was made with modular shipping containers that will later be repurposed as parts of other sporting facilities post-tournament. According to the government, the tournament’s venues will use 30% less energy than international benchmarks due to energy-efficient features such as thick insulation, efficient cooling and ventilation, LED lighting and building-control systems. The event is also expected to use 40% less water than international benchmarks. For example, water vapour collected from the cooling system will be used for irrigation, while water-efficient fixtures have been installed for sinks, showers and toilets.

Sporting infrastructure for the World Cup has been built per the Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS), developed by the Doha-based Gulf Organisation for Research and Development in collaboration with international partners. The GSAS is the first integrated and performance-based green building framework for the MENA region. It draws on lessons from 40 global ratings systems but has been adapted to address the region’s specific social, cultural and environmental needs.

The GSAS was reviewed and approved by FIFA as the green building system for the construction of all stadia to be used in the 2022 tournament. On-site sustainability teams were deployed at project sites to ensure the standards were embedded in all phases of design and construction, and that each stadium’s individual sustainability plan was followed throughout. Lessons and best practices were documented to influence the development of future sustainable sporting projects worldwide and further enhance the GSAS framework.

Beyond 2022 FIFA World Cup infrastructure, Qatar has other prominent examples of public buildings designed and developed according to high international sustainability standards. One such project is the Jean Nouvel-designed National Museum of Qatar, which became the first museum in the world to achieve both the LEED Gold and the four-star GSAS rating when it opened its doors in 2019.

The museum has a number of architectural features that serve to enhance its sustainability credentials. The desert rose design helps to insulate the building’s facade, with the upper facade providing shade that reduces the need for power to cool the facility. The building’s interior is supplemented by thermal mass, which reduces energy consumption during the hottest months of the year.

Regenerative Architecture

There has also been discussion around the benefits of regenerative architecture in recent times. The term refers to the design of buildings that reverse damage and have a net-positive impact on the environment.

One such building is the Ilima Primary School in Tshuapa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Located between farmland and jungle, the school was designed to act as a bridge between the two landscapes. Comprising custom shingles, mud bricks and beams made from local materials harvested on and around the site, the school also features woven and dyed vines that grow around the building to keep the interior cool. The construction of the school emitted 307 fewer tonnes of carbon than the global average for building schools of the same size.

The Sahara Forest Project Pilot Facility in Qatar is another example of regenerative architecture. Since construction started in 2012, the saltwater-cooled greenhouse has attracted many birds, grasshoppers, butterflies and rodents to the area that was once a barren desert. Michael Pawlyn, an architect from the UK who specialises in biomimicry and regenerative design, is one of the founders of the project.

Biomimicry is nature-inspired innovation, whereby architects attempt to emulate natural models and systems to address complex human problems. The Sahara Forest Project aims to replicate the physiology of a Namibian fog-basking beetle to create freshwater and grow crops in harsh climatic conditions to make deserts productive.

Net-zero Cities

Sustainable architecture principles are set to grow in prominence as urban planners increasingly focus on supporting net-zero targets. According to the website Net Zero Tracker, some 235 cities have pledged to meet net-zero carbon emissions goals over the medium to long term. To achieve these goals, efforts are under way to re-imagine ways in which urban communities can be better integrated into the natural environment. To this end, C40 – a network of mayors from nearly 100 cities around the world who collaborate to address climate challenges – launched the third edition of its Reinventing Cities initiative in May 2022.

A dozen cities from emerging and developed economies will participate in the initiative in 2022, with the goal of demonstrating how municipal governments and private enterprises can collaborate on low-carbon development and community empowerment in pursuit of climate goals. Architects, urban planners, designers and developers are invited to collaborate with civic groups, NGOs, startups and entrepreneurs to find innovative ways to transform underutilised urban spaces into projects that become sustainable city landmarks.