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The main area where the sustainability of construction can be improved is in thinking carefully about the integrated design of the whole project. From the ground up and from cradle to grave (or cradle to cradle), every element of a construction project has an effect on every other. This complexity means that it is very difficult to set out a definitive approach to sustainable construction, as the variation within and between different projects would make this approach almost irrelevant in some cases, while being ideally suited to others.

The sustainable design of a project must consider all the relevant elements that go into the location, orientation, structure, systems, construction, use and eventual demolition of the project and also how each decision at each stage will affect all of the others. Clearly, this process is not going to be an exact science and the trade-offs that are made in each case will reflect the information, values and resources available to the design team.

For the discipline of sustainable construction to develop, it is essential that these trade-offs and decisions are clearly described. The information and values on which they are based are in a state of constant change, on top of which it is perfectly possible for even the most experienced professional to make an honest mistake. Only through a process of peer review from one project to the next can real progress be made to improve the sustainability of construction and the built environment.

The examples shown on this site cover a range of building types and uses, reflected by a range of approaches to improve the sustainability of each project. There is no single correct approach, although there are some general principles which can be applied to all such projects. One overall guiding principle is to minimise the environmental impact of the development over its design life.

This overall principle generates a set of subsidiary principles for the main environmental impacts. Once again, these will depend on the nature of the development but the following areas are usually important.

Land

Resource extraction and depletion
Land use and contamination
Waste generation and disposal

Water

Contamination of ground and surface waters
Over-abstraction

Atmosphere

Global warming
Acid Rain
Photochemical pollution
Transport pollution

People

Sick Building Syndrome
Sustainable Communities
Commuting and communications links
Noise and odour pollution
Local economic development

Biodiversity

Ecological damage caused by resource extraction
Environmental degradation caused by materials processing
Habitat destruction

It is a complex task to compare the impact of each building element within each of these categories and this is only an abbreviated list. One problem faced by all such environmental assessment is comparing "apples and pears": it is fair enough to compare the embodied energy of two comparable materials but how do you compare this with the resource depletion for which each is responsible? And then how do you compare the embodied energy of one with the resource depletion of the other?

These decisions are shown for most of the projects on this site and such information as is available has been presented to clarify the decision-making process. Although these are undoubtedly complex areas, potential sustainable project managers can rest easy in the knowledge that even thinking about these issues is a major step forward from traditional building practice.

For any project with a floor area above 500m2, a free design advice consultation is available anywhere in the UK to help developers improve the sustainability of their development. More details on this service and on sustainable design are available from design@sustainableconstruction.co.uk