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Build Better: The Role of Building Codes in Sustainable & Resilient Design

Written By Christian Marshall, BSc., ArE, BIA

Images Supplied By GSA Architecture + Interior Design

The art of building grew through the ages out of humankind’s desire for shelter from the elements.  Different architectural solutions developed in response to particular climatic and environmental challenges, utilising technology and methods available at the time.  This produced a wide variety of building forms from the igloo in the frigid north to the hacienda in arid regions and everything in between.  These structures remain both resilient and sustainable in their climatic context, as they were born out of their particular environment and the local resources available. 

The issue of how to build sustainably is largely a self-inflicted problem: global travel helped design influences spread, and they were sometimes successfully adapted to different climates, but often introduced significant problems. For example, early European settlers to Barbados brought building designs and methods suited to temperate climatic conditions.  Transplanting these buildings into our tropical climate proved to be both unsustainable and non-resilient.  The ravages of hurricanes in the 1600’s, 1700’s and 1800’s severely damaged or destroyed many of these buildings, providing the driving force to amend the local design criteria.  Each time the buildings were rebuilt experience improved both sustainability and resilience given the demands of the tropical environment.  Larger windows and sacrificial verandas were added to improve comfort conditions by providing light, natural ventilation, and shade.  Hoods and shutters were incorporated for security, privacy, and functionality in both sun and rain conditions.  Roof shapes were revised and roof parapets incorporated to mitigate the destructive impacts of hurricanes.  This progressive development of tropical design criteria was driven by necessity and was reflected throughout society’s architecture from the plantation home to the chattel house. 

In more recent decades, improved communication, accessible travel, and the relatively recent introduction of the Internet have created an explosion of information, and with it a vast uncontrolled assault on building design.  It is not uncommon to see building forms developed out of foreign climatic and environmental conditions yet again transplanted into our harsh tropical environment.  These buildings largely depend on advances in both engineering and technology: they require advanced structural solutions to mitigate the impact of hurricanes, mechanical comfort control, and photovoltaic and other renewable energy sources to alleviate high energy demands.  Whilst these buildings can be engineered to be resilient, the sustainability is questionable regardless of renewable energy sources and they still impose issues that more thoughtful design would avoid and remain unsympathetic to Barbadian history and culture. 

The explosion of information is matched, or even exceeded, by the explosion of misinformation available to the public and designers alike.  Whilst engineering and technology gives us the tools to build almost anything we can dream of, it is prudent to set minimum design codes that both educate and regulate the design and implementation of future building development.  This goal is reflected in the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Certification Program, and other design certification programs aimed at energy efficiency and sustainability for a better planet. 

In 2013, the Barbados Government introduced a new building design code, replacing an earlier code from 1997.  In the interest of economy and practicality, the new code was adapted from temperate country building codes suited to climatic and cultural conditions foreign to Barbados.  Much time, effort, and good intent was invested in adapting the foreign code to local needs, and whilst many provisions in the code are applicable worldwide, it presents significant climatic and cultural challenges.  Much like the introduction of foreign building design to Barbados in the 1600’s and 1700’s, the code was developed out of climatic and environmental conditions that are irrelevant to sustainability and resilience in the tropical context.  Whilst specific references to climatic issues such as snow or freezing temperatures can be easily excluded, the underlying premise of the original foreign code is born out of a culture and tradition in spatial planning for combating temperate conditions; not tropical conditions where natural ventilation and shade provision are paramount. 

The integration of sustainability and resilience into our local building codes is intended to promote positive results, but to be effective they must speak to the tropical context and employ passive design solutions over heavy reliance on engineering and technology developed for foreign climates and lifestyles. 

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