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In Northern Europe, people spend over 90% of their time inside and in the winter months, this can rise to almost 100%. If they are not inside, people are usually travelling from one building to another, using civil infrastructure facilities such as roads, bridges and railways. This should not be terribly surprising: apart from a few months (or sometimes days) in the summer, much of the temperate zone could not support human life were it not for the technology we have developed which allows us to survive in this hostile environment. For most of the developed world, most of the time, the built environment is their environment. Statistically speaking, the built environment has a far greater and more immediate impact on our quality of life than does the wider environment of trees, rivers and the rest of the biosphere. All this other stuff has an effect, for sure but it is usually at a distance from everyday experience, in the same way that the fetor of an abattoir is at a distance from a delicious hamburger.

People in the developed world consume around 8-10 times as much per head as people in the developing world, partly because of the energy and resource requirements of living in a difficult climate and partly because we like it and we can. Since the biggest consumers (and therefore polluters) on the planet spend almost all their time in an artificial environment, the performance of this environment in terms of its sustainability is a major concern for the preservation of the planet.

Construction is also a major sector of the national economy. It accounts for some 8% of Gross Domestic Product and has an annual output in the UK of 58 billion, providing employment for some 1.4 million people.

As well as these environmental and economic effects, the ubiquity of the built environment means that it has an enormous effect on the quality of life in the communities which use it. Most people now agree that the tower blocks which were thrown up with such abandon in the ‘60s were maybe not such a brilliant idea. Similarly, the practice of building town bypasses to address traffic congestion is now politically difficult as it damages the environment without solving the problem. These examples show where construction projects have not properly addressed the requirements of the communities involved, either as users of the development or as neighbours. Analysis of these requirements is still not a precise art, as perceptions and requirements are constantly changing. However, one thing we can all do is learn from the mistakes of the past and use this knowledge to improve matters for the future.

Some excellent examples of improving the quality of the built environment are contained in the Norton Park refurbishment project and others. These include:

Improving the internal environment, in terms of:

Increasing floor area per person
Better (and more affordable) heating
Improved atmospheric quality (sick building syndrome)
Daylighting
Control of moisture and condensation

Improving the built environment, in terms of:

Landscaping and planting of native species
Convenient public transport arrangements
Safe play areas
Recycling facilities

These are just a few ideas to give an impression of some of the important areas that are often overlooked, particularly in the planning and design of housing, which does not usually require an Environmental Impact Assessment. It is also important to consider the secondary effects of developments. For example, building an out-of-town housing scheme without adequate public transport will lead to a requirement for car-based commuting, which will reduce quality of life not just for the occupants of the new development but also for everyone else unfortunate enough to live on the route.