Place matters: understanding the importance of place in sustainable building design

So you have assembled a great sustainable design team with the best intentions, but do they have a deep understanding of the project’s place and its ecological, social and economic context?
A few years ago, I was asked to develop the sustainability strategy for a large government precinct development in outer Melbourne. My first step was to ask permission to visit the site and talk with members of the local community. I was directed instead to read the planning reports and to study the site plan. While this was helpful, the resulting sustainability strategy was largely ignorant of the identity of the place, its ecology, natural and human history and interdependent relationships with the local area.
So, why should we care about this?
Developing our approach to sustainability from a deep understanding of place will mean that our buildings and precinct developments have a much greater chance of being well loved by the future occupants, valued by the local community, approved by local government, climate responsive and resilient, part of a thriving and biodiverse ecosystem, innovative, market leading and inspirational — or more simply put, successful.
The benefits of a place-based approach to sustainability are compelling:
More energy in the room: We are a place-based people and we love to gather around the metaphorical campfire and hear stories. When we share or hear these stories of place we are energised. On a recent project I learned about Victoria’s amazing short-finned eels and how they had historically migrated from the project site to the coral sea many thousands of kilometres away where they gave birth, died and then their offspring swam all the way back to that very site. This story brought the design team together and inspired much of the design of the landscaping and stormwater systems. Connect the project team to these stories of a place and see their eyes light up.
Positive contribution: No development is an island. Each is connected to other spaces and places, economies, communities, watersheds and ecosystems. When we understand this greater whole, then we have an opportunity to consider how a building or precinct can contribute to the health and vitality of these wider systems. When we can tell this story of positive contribution to the approving authority, to the community, to future tenants and occupants, they are more likely to support and value the project.
Learning from nature’s intelligence: The ecological systems on the Australian landscape have evolved to renew, evolve and thrive for millennia. Think of how the design team’s knowledge of sustainable design could be enriched by walking the site with an ecologist or sitting in quiet contemplation and thinking about how water, air and wildlife move across the site, or once did. Equipped with this knowledge our sustainable design can be in greater harmony with the way nature is at work in this place.
Wellspring of innovation: When you really get to know place this knowledge can be a springboard for innovative thinking. Understanding the microclimate can provide insight into the design of ventilation systems or some aspect of the history of the site could be reflected in the selection of building materials. Understanding place can be a catalyst for new thinking by the design team.
Caring for country: I’m writing this article during NAIDOC Week and had the privilege of hearing the inspiring Claire Beattie, Executive Director at the NSW Department of Education, calling us all to “take your shoes off and ground yourself in Country”. Connection and caring for Country is at the heart of Aboriginal culture and when we embrace that same understanding of our interdependence with the land, the design team will become more fully conscious of the impact of the project well beyond the end of the construction program and this will be reflected in a design that cares for Country.
Leading benchmarks: Place has become a cornerstone of highly respected building sustainability certifications such as Green Star and Living Building Challenge. Both tools encourage designs that embrace placemaking, celebrate community, contribute positively to the local area and enhance the ecology of their place.
While urban planners, architects and engineers often have to plan and assess a site and its place in detail, the same is rarely true when the sustainability lead and the project team sit down together to develop the sustainability strategy. Instead, the focus is often on checklists, regulatory requirements and plug-in technologies. But this ignores the power and influence of place to give the team new eyes in which to see the project and to integrate with the social, ecological and economic systems of which it will be a part.
So, the next time your sustainability team is kicking off a new building or precinct project, suggest that they take the time to visit, walk, contemplate, research and connect with place, its history, community, nature and future potential.
Article first published by Sustainability Matters
Associate | Sustainability Manager
Chris Buntine

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