Sustainability demands contextual understanding, evidence and artistic sensitivity

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The strive for sustainability requires that we develop our practice as architects. We must substantiate our knowledge about conditions, climate and materials. We need to be curious when it comes to both questioning existing methods and exploring new opportunities in an ever changing and increasingly complex world.  And to connect this, our work has to be strongly grounded in digital technologies in order to understand the prerequisites underlying our analyzes and simulations – subsequently giving us the ability to question these as conditions change. 

“We won’t find the answer to sustainability be fixating on only one solution or one particular material. Working in different landscapes, environments and cultures both nationally and internationally, we experience different conditions that calls for different solutions. Every time we begin a new project, we meticulously examine these conditions, collecting data and knowledge so we can make informed design decisions. We don’t presume to know the best solution before we have the evidence to back it, “explains Noel Wibrand, associate partner and responsible for sustainability and digital development. 

“Currently there is a strong focus on the embedded energy in materials, wood as a sustainable building material, upcycling and designing for disassembly. It is very interesting. But it is just as important that we constantly get smarter and explore the opportunities that new technologies – like Digital Twins, Generative Design, AI and other tools are offering. Streamlining and improving the entire process requires tools for data collection, analysis and simulation. Some of these technologies are already available to us, but it is crucial that we keep developing them, to strengthen our digital skills and transfer information consistently between collaborators in all phases of the process in order to reach the full potential of the project”. 

Considering art and evidence

Architects work within a field where science, technical problem solving, design and art constantly overlap. It is fundamental that we understand the natural forces at stake in the specific context we are working in – elements like biodiversity, natural resources, climate and weather. Similarly, we need to be able to relate to the existing culture in order to be successful in our architectural intervention – the norms prevalent in the particular society, cultural values and the interaction between people. Taking all these things into account is in itself a part of a sustainable mindset. 

“Our projects are often highlighted as examples of sustainable designs even though sustainability has not necessarily been the driving parameter behind the individual project. This is because sustainability has always been an integral part of how we work – thoroughly examining the context and conditions before we even begin experimenting with the design. Understanding what is at stake in that specific place whether it is sensitive climatic or environmental conditions, historic values or emotional significance. Each process begins with collecting data, processing and analyzing it. It is the foundation on which we build every project,” says Noel.

Building the scientific and technical knowledge base is essential. But as previously mentioned architects also work within a field where design and art are important parameters. And at Dorte Mandrup the process always springs from an artistic starting point. 

“It is central that our architecture creates artistic and sensory experience – that it is more than just a building or does more than fulfill a certain function. By working evidence-based with an artistic approach to each design we can infuse each project with a surplus which in turn also makes it sustainable beyond engineering-based certifications. Spaces with aesthetic qualities have a positive effect on us – stimulating our minds, appealing to our emotions and challenging our thoughts and perceptions. This is how we design for longevity. If we are to succeed in designing high quality architecture which can be sensed and experienced and at the same time be a solution to future challenges, it is therefore crucial that we maintain the dialogue between the scientific and the artistic.,” says Noel Wibrand whilst underlining:

“This may seem simple, but to stay ahead we need to continuously develop our tools and knowledge. As architects we are obligated to be curious and to evolve. We need to be technically and scientifically stronger grounded in all levels of the architectural process, if we’re not to be outrun by other professions in the building industry. 

More than green

Architecture is essentially about creating functional and aesthetically pleasing spaces for people. Spaces that have a positive effect on our well-being and our sense of being part of a community. Working within a field where nature and culture always overlap, it is also clear that sustainable architecture is about more than being green or having a minimum impact on the environment. Taking all aspects into account the importance of creating healthy social environments and weigh the socio-economic impact of our projects cannot be downgraded.

“Today we experience a growing lack of community, a rise in loneliness and people finding it more and more difficult to afford a decent place to live – especially in the big cities. These are challenges that must be taken seriously, and as professionals in the building industry we have a responsibility to be aware of the social impact of our projects. When analyzing a project’s impact, we need to include parameters like wellbeing, livability, diversity and community and again make it an integral part of our digital models. Here too, are digital tools and models essential, if we are to create more sustainable designs with artistic qualities that satisfies both economic, environmental and social parameters and communicates it well to the client,” says Noel and emphasizes: 

“Throughout the entire process – from the idea is born to the finished project – we are a lot of professions who carry the responsibility. With the skills and knowledge, we have as architects, we should take on the task of educating our audience, intervene in the public debates and challenge our clients”.

Photo: Noel Wibrand ©PREFA / Croce & Wir