Back in the day, all construction was sustainable and eco-friendly. Our ancestors used natural materials because that was all there was. Eco construction today remembers the principles of building in the deep past but also adds a bunch of modern technologies for modern times.
Traditional eco construction took a tumble in the twentieth century, with modernist design and homes that depended ever more heavily on gadgets and energy input. The problems of manymodern buildings, from the social environment of concrete tower blocks to sick building syndrome, were not immediately apparent.
It was in the 1970s, with the dawn of environmental awareness and the 1973/74 oil crisis, that people really started thinking seriously about green building, sustainable resources and the impact of the construction industry on the planet. Architects’ societies began looking at the problem from two different directions. On the one hand, people looked towards ‘passive’ solutions, like how buildings were sited. On the other, new technologies were sought out (e.g. next generation insulation) as a counter-measure to ‘correct’ the problems that new ways of building had introduced.
The energy crisis and OPEC oil embargo of the early seventies alerted people to the issues of green building, but the crisis was temporary and the urgency abated. Fortunately, the need for green construction and energy-saving design and technology did not go away, as awareness of human impact on the environment continued to grow. Issues of quality of life also came to the fore, as the flaws in modern building experiments became apparent. This was not all due to modernist ideas; some architects (including minimalist designers) had long sought to create and build homes that used easy to live with natural materials.
The 1980s saw a stepping-up of new research into the environmental impact of conventional building methods and materials and new ways of approaching construction, much of it still centered on energy savings and cost cutting. The evolution of eco-living has been to view it holistically, recognising the interconnectedness of all things. Rather than concentrating on one factor (such as energy conservation), eco construction today considers the entire life cycle of a building, from the extraction of raw materials through to the design and functioning of buildings, all the way to recycling of construction materials when a building reaches the end of its useful life.
From a holistic perspective, eco-construction issues are global, not just local. The carbon footprint that comes with using timber and other building materials shipped in from across the globe is as much in the spotlight as the issue of gas and electricity bills. Green builders and designers recognise that effective eco construction is about integrating factors such as renewable materials, energy efficient design and new technologies, such as solar or geothermal power. The evolution of eco construction has meant revisiting some of the strategies used since pre-industrial times and augmenting them with the best that modern technology can offer.