Designing the city’s hidden infrastructure

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27 April 2016


To many, the first thought that ‘design’ brings to mind is designer labels, or product design. To add to this, a visit to design festivals or museums can reinforce the belief that design is predominantly the domain of clothing, furniture, accessories & ornaments, and maybe also pushing into graphics & fabrics. Some will also envisage ‘design’ as stretching to architecture. Certainly that was how I perceived it when I was choosing my degree, and deciding between Mechanical Engineering & Product Design. I genuinely believed that by choosing to become an engineer, I was losing out on opportunities to design.

I, like many others, had forgotten that design is not just about aesthetics. Whilst an architect may create a design icon when they plan an eye-catching building, without a team of engineers designing the systems within the building, it can fast become a white elephant.

As a mechanical engineer, I mainly design the heating and ventilation systems for buildings. These, like the blood in your veins and the air in your lungs keeping you alive, are what make a building function. Our designs are hidden, but critical; unseen, they are the lifeblood of operational, comfortable buildings. However, they are also what cause the majority of a building’s environmental impact. In the developed world, buildings are causing 20-40% of the energy consumption, and around half of this is due to heating, ventilation and air conditioning. As such, it is my responsibility to make my building designs more energy efficient.

In addition to a building’s energy impact, we also know that a poor quality building has a negative impact on its occupants. Poor ventilation, lighting and heating have a demonstrable effect; the so-called ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ causes staff productivity to decrease, and the number of days taken off sick to increase. To combat this, standards and regulations have enforced higher minimum standards; however as proactive, sustainable consultants, we at Cundall look for ways to push the bar further. As a company, we are investing in upgrades to our London office, to make it the first in Europe to meet the ‘WELL’ standard. This involves everything from installing water filtration and ‘living walls’, to changing the chemicals the cleaners use, highlighting that minimising our environmental impact whilst caring for building occupants requires excellent building services design, even when it is invisible.

From using computer modelling to calculate the heat energy from the sun, and even a building’s occupants, to reviewing the architectural and structural layouts of a building and finding energy efficient routes for ductwork, many areas of building design are highly technical.

But design is not just about looking at predictable factors such as temperature and building materials on which we have data. Good building design, and the resulting energy efficiency, is also about considering how the end inhabitants will engage with it.

In some situations, a purely reactive system may be best. For example, using CO2 and temperature sensors can detect how much fresh air and heating is needed to create a comfortable environment, using the smallest possible amount of energy. In other situations, where you are designing for more engaged occupants, for example an office full of sustainably minded people who want to put a jumper on rather than turn the heating up when it gets cold, then you may choose to give users the ability to control these systems themselves. The location of the building must also be taken into account; while natural ventilation is good for low energy consumption, it is not necessarily the best solution in a city centre location with poor air quality, high external noise and deep plan offices!

So, whilst design is still about making something beautiful, beauty to me means healthy, happy occupants, and zero environmental impact.

Cathedral Court Martin Cleveland

Photo: Cathedral Court - ® Martin Cleveland

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