Sustainability between architecture and design

Today, there is a lot of talk about sustainability, a word that has entered the everyday vocabulary of many people. However, despite the fact that it is increasingly popular and widespread, the word ‘sustainability’ expresses and encompasses a complexity that encompasses many aspects of architecture and design. What, then, is a sustainable project? And what are the best practices that can be adopted to design sustainably? An international event was an opportunity to gather the thoughts and experiences of six architects, from different backgrounds, who gave us their views on sustainability and design.

In recent years, are clients asking for more sustainable projects? What do they expect from an architect when they tackle a new project? Do they care about sustainability aspects, or do they consider it a secondary aspect?

In interior design projects, clients rarely spontaneously ask for sustainable projects” – explains Marzia Dainelli partner of Dainelli Studio (a studio active in interior and product design) – “on the contrary, it is the studio that usually proactively proposes itself, even on the subject of sustainability. This is because, at times, sustainability is experienced somewhat as a barrier, rather than an opportunity to improve projects. This generates a certain distrust, a legacy that associates sustainable design with something more expensive, and if making a project more sustainable, by combination, increases its price, it seems that clients do not feel the urgency to be more sustainable. In industrial design, on the other hand, we can safely say that the focus on sustainability has a lot of room for improvement. Fabrics, upholstery and some internal parts in the manufacture of upholstered furniture are made of sustainable, recyclable materials, although, in general, it seems that process design and logistics still do not pay much attention to sustainability, which, in my opinion, remains more a topic of discussion than a real factor that really affects the quality of projects“.

What practices can be adopted to improve sustainability in all processes?

I have always had a natural tendency to recycle” says Alessia Garibaldi, partner of Garibaldi Architects, an architecture studio with a strong artistic imprint, “When I was a child, for example, after reading comic books, I would leave them on the benches so that someone else could read them. The idea of wasting is always alien to my nature and, as an architect, I have a natural tendency to recover and recycle materials and objects. I think it is important to adopt the practice of reusing existing materials and furniture, giving them a new life. Our clients today, especially in the hotel sector, have obligations regarding design requirements, but not only. The possibility to save money is one of the most frequent requests, which turns into a project opportunity to put sustainability principles into practice. Wooden floors, for example, can often be salvaged rather than replaced. What I would like to emphasise, however, is that architecture used to be much more sustainable than it is today. In the past, people used to build with thick brick walls, made of materials from the area where the building was located. In recent decades, on the other hand, architecture has focused on very energy-intensive buildings that are sometimes exercises in style rather than architectural projects. I believe that we should return to a more authentic architecture, starting from the university“.

How do innovation and sustainability relate to each other?

Often the search for sustainability leads to experimentation” explains Federica De Leva of GBPA Architects. “Our clients are mostly institutions or large companies with a very strong and distinctive social and public image. Therefore, they are very sensitive to sustainability, which is almost an obligation in their projects, both for compliance with regulatory requirements and for precise communication needs, to support their public image. The habit of working with institutional clients, who are very attentive to sustainability aspects, leads the firm to have the same approach towards private clients who, in general, appreciate this attention to the sustainability of projects. Their interest also manifests itself in the way they are passionate about the project and in the timeliness of their questions, including about the characteristics of new materials, such as their durability or cost. It is a very fruitful exchange, both for the studio, which thus has the opportunity to experiment with new materials and new technologies, and for the clients, who have the opportunity to access more innovative projects“.

Alberto Lessan of Balance Architettura is also on the same wavelength. “Among our current clients are many organisations and companies” he says, “and in this period we have designed and supervised several corporate headquarters and workplaces. I would say that practically all clients have asked us for continuous and increasing compliance with sustainability requirements. Sustainability, however, must be well balanced, upstream, with effective design criteria. It is not always the case that sustainable projects are more expensive; on the contrary, if certain principles are followed, sustainable projects can even cost less. The important thing is that a project is already born sustainable, in the generative process, and is not altered in the process. For example, one must design with the use of materials in mind, for their inherent peculiarities and requirements. If one uses materials by forcing their characteristics, one is already doing something unsustainable. But the bottom line is that architecture must recover its function, and technology should not be used to correct errors that result from incorrect design. By designing correctly, one sometimes finds that one does not need particularly sophisticated systems to be truly sustainable. Of course, the location of a building plays a role; when working on an existing construction, one has to work with a constraining situation. However, some correctives can always be applied. I think it is important to start distinguishing some basic concepts: sustainable design is one thing, saving on consumption is another. Often the two go together, but not necessarily. But in order to convince customers that investing in more sustainably sourced, often more expensive materials is beneficial, it is often useful to focus on the consumption savings that will come later. And we come back to the starting point: a good initial design offers many advantages, which will be seen later“.

Are younger clients more sensitive to the topic of sustainability?

Our studio mainly develops interior design projects for private clients between 30 and 40 years of age, but the demand for sustainable projects is actually not on the agenda” says Andrea del Pedro Pera of studio Atomaa. “This, in our opinion, happens mainly because, in general, there is a tendency to associate sustainability with technology, which is perceived as an expensive ‘design solution’. In reality, in order to realise a sustainable project, it is not necessary to include who knows what technology; on the contrary, much more often, common sense and the application of the principles of good architecture contribute to making one project much more sustainable than another. As a concrete example, I can cite a recent renovation of a mountain hut, transformed into a residence!”, Andrea del Pedro Pera continues. “Instead of demolishing and rebuilding the structure with new materials, we completely dismantled the existing construction, reusing all the existing stones for the new building and adding more stones from the excavations of the foundations for the extension. In doing so, we cut down on a good deal of transport costs and reduced the production of waste and scrap, which would have had to be disposed of anyway. Admittedly, the choice turned out to be more expensive and time-consuming. Demolishing and replacing costs less and is quicker, but in addition to achieving a very aesthetically pleasing result, the client felt much more comfortable psychologically, knowing that he had not contributed to creating more pollution. Encouraged by the success of this and similar projects, we are trying to apply this approach also in smaller flats in the city centre“.

It is not easy to establish what a sustainable project is,” says Alfredo Vanotti, architect and recent winner of the Dedalo Minosse award. “Sometimes, clients ask for a sustainable house, thinking only of a building made with photovoltaic panels or an external coat. Our task, as architects, is to explain that these solutions are not mandatory to achieve a more sustainable house. Sustainability, in my opinion, implies studying the context of the project, the orientation, the weather, the use of materials, preferably typical of the place. Recently, I designed the renovation of a house in the mountains, basing the intervention on the recovery of all the existing stone and the study of orientation to make the most of natural light. Thanks to a skylight, in fact, we were able to bring light and sunshine inside, significantly improving the lighting. Of course, sometimes it is necessary to intervene with technology, but it is important to emphasise that technology cannot solve a project that was born badly. In addition, the use of more natural materials with fewer treatments, which do not alter their functionality, is more sustainable; better used materials with fewer treatments last longer. It is not easy to determine whether a project realised in this way is, in fact, more expensive, because its uniqueness does not allow for comparisons with other projects. Clients are satisfied and appreciate these solutions, knowing that the use of local, or natural, materials saves energy and disposal costs“.

Interview by Roberta Mutti for Culture Club
– Cover photo and Photo 1: Sustainable residence by Alfredo Vanotti
– Photos 2,3: Tuscan house (PT) by Studio ATOMAA
– Photos 4,5: Chromavis Headquarter, Offanengo (CR) by Garibaldi Architects
– Photos 6,7: Apartment “Tamburini” by Dainelli Studio. Photo by Carolina Gheri
– Photo 8: Amazon Headquarter by GBPA. Photo by Oskar Da Riz