Sustainable BuildingsConstructionA Functional Future – Ensuring Sustainable Public Buildings Are Fit for Purpose

A Functional Future – Ensuring Sustainable Public Buildings Are Fit for Purpose

Tanja Polonyi
Tanja Polonyi
I can't imagine my daily life without my bike (and coffee)! But cycling often means fighting over space on the road with car drivers.  That's why I want cyclists and pedestrians to get the space they deserve. Give me green spaces, walkable streets, and fresh air!

Public Buildings are essential to every city. They can be the heart of the community, places where neighbours gather, children play and learn, and real life takes place. That’s why it’s even more important to make these buildings sustainable, have them be a role model for future architecture projects, and a way to raise awareness among the citizens. 

Public buildings are an essential part of urban life, but what exactly counts as one? Lexico/Oxford dictionaries defines a public building as a “building used by the public for any purpose, such as assembly, education, entertainment or worship”. Collins adds that a public building “belongs to a town or state and is used by the public”.

Examples for public buildings, therefore, include town halls, public administration offices, schools, kindergartens, and sometimes even libraries and theatres (if owned by the city).

They are places to gather, to organise and learn, or just to be. As we are talking more and more about making cities sustainable holistically, public buildings cannot be ignored. 

Why Make Public Buildings Sustainable?

Having sustainable public buildings has many benefits above the obvious reason – that they produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. 

Moreover, sustainable buildings have economic and financial benefits. Through energy and water efficiency, money can be saved on utility bills. 

If planned correctly, construction costs are lower. As sustainable means longer-lasting, there’s less maintenance required as well.

As public buildings are owned by cities, and they most likely have a limited budget, making them sustainable is not just great for the environment but also better for the city’s pocket money. 

Image credit: Unsplash / Luca Florio

But as cities and city governments are representatives of their citizens, the psychological and social benefits should be emphasised. Several studies show that working in green buildings, with better indoor air quality, can lead to better productivity and workers’ performance. A city’s administration office in a sustainable building filled with greenery would result in a more energetic and rewarding workplace for councillors and other employees. 

The same goes for schools and kindergartens; not only do children flourish surrounded by a green environment and sustainable buildings, but studying in surroundings where sustainability is lived and taught will raise them to become environmentally conscious citizens. Check out our article on sustainable schools and the benefits of greenery in buildings for more.

How Should We Go About It? 

The ‘how’ breaks down into two basic factors: finance and support. As public buildings belong to the city, both are in the hands of your city’s politicians. When we talked to Birgit Rusten, co-founder of FutureBuilt, an organisation implementing sustainable buildings all over Oslo and neighbouring municipalities, she said “it always comes down to the people in charge and what they are willing to do. If the person in charge in the administration is not interested, it never actually comes to the table of the politicians”. 

FutureBuilt was lucky to find many public developers ambitious and eager to build sustainably. And you will too. With the increasing societal awareness about the climate crisis and environmental targets like the Paris Agreement, more and more people are willing to invest in sustainable buildings. However, if you still have to deal with a lot of opposition, check out this article for tips on how to overcome this. 

We also have some additional advice for you: teach administrations and politicians about the reality of costs – that financing sustainable building is not that much higher than regular buildings… if planned correctly. Out of all the elements that drive up the costs of a building, environmental ambitions are not necessarily among them.

What really adds costs is if you are putting on new things late in the process when all the costs are already fixed

“It’s actually more important to have the right people on board, to set ambitious targets very early in the process and have a good planning process on the project”, Birgit explains to us.

With experts on your team, politicians, and administrators all working together on a specific plan, the costs will not be much higher than for regular public buildings. And even if it is higher than expected, bear in mind that spending more up-front on sustainability will result in energy and cost savings over time. 

To find out how you could retrofit existing public buildings – possibly on a budget – check out this article. More on overall financing of sustainable buildings, here

The US Office of Federal Sustainability Council on Environmental Quality published guiding principles for sustainable federal buildings. Among other considerations, they included water conservation, energy optimisation, and reducing the environmental impact of building material. Click here to read more.

Do People Actually Care?

Financing a sustainable public building comes down to convincing your politicians and administration to allocate a budget towards this cause. The budget, however, consists mainly of tax money. Taxes paid by citizens. Hence, it is important to build these public buildings in a way that is beneficial and enjoyable for the people using them. 

But do citizens really care if the city’s public buildings are sustainable? Probably not. At least not if we talk about the general public. Citizens care more about the functionality and the quality of a public building financed with their tax money. The sustainability aspect is desirable: an additional feature, but not the main focus. 

“You can’t add lots of sustainability without having the qualities.”

The quality of a public building can be measured by its architectural design and how it is integrated into the public space around it, and how it contributes to the overall urban environment. The public building has to fit the existing surroundings and has to satisfy the needs of the citizens; if it doesn’t, a low carbon footprint won’t help.

Should Sustainability Be Mandatory?

With all said and done, the benefits of sustainable public buildings are immense and beg the question of whether or not it should be completely mandatory for new public buildings to be built sustainably.

Easier said than done, but the angle is certainly right. According to Birgit, it has to be a process taken step by step. Having national authorities and municipalities that are putting up environmental targets when planning a building is already a great strategy, and it will have an impact on private construction as well. “Even if a building is financed by the public, it has all the private companies that deliver the project. They use external architects, consultants, and construction companies that make it possible for a lot of key actors to learn, and then it’s easy for private developers to follow up.”

It is important, however, that cities seriously implement this mandate in their construction and planning processes, because symbolic politics created by hushed and ill-advised decisions will bring no real change. 

What to Keep In Mind About Sustainable Public Buildings

When building sustainable public buildings, here are the five most important things to keep in mind. 

1. Do not forget about quality and functionality.

2. Ask what the residents want. After all, it is their money that’s being spent!

3. Convince your city’s politicians and administration using the financial and psychological benefits of sustainable public buildings.

4. Remind decision-makers that investing slightly more money in sustainable construction will prove cost-efficient in the long run.

5. Have a detailed and thought-out construction plan from the beginning, as small things added late in the process will drive up the costs.

Overall, yes, public buildings should be constructed sustainably, but do not make this your sole focus. Public buildings are places for the community, and that’s what your development should be centred around.

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