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Building Design Strategies for a Sustainable Future

This Earth Day, Architect and Certified Passive House Consultant, Padraig McMorrow, and Cardiff Studio Director, Andrew Street, share their insights on best practices for designing sustainable buildings.

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March 25, 2021

In celebration of Earth Day 2021, we’re taking a look at the global challenges facing built environment professionals, as well as the sustainable solutions and goals that can help us create a healthier present and future. Architect and Certified Passive House Consultant, Padraig McMorrow, and Cardiff Studio Director, Andrew Street, share their insights.

What does sustainability mean in terms of architecture?

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals describe sustainable development as one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Measurable goals and sustainable outcomes

As architects and designers, we focus our efforts in creating a sustainable future by developing an approach built on three core areas:

  1. Environment
  2. Society
  3. Economy

The healthy future of the earth’s climate and ecology are central to this philosophy; our climate sustainability goals are combined with social and economic wellbeing goals to ensure sustainable development can be achieved and adapted widely.

As designers, we align our sustainable development goals with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Sustainable Outcomes. These outcomes are:

  1. Net-zero operational carbon
  2. Net-zero embodied carbon
  3. Sustainable water cycles
  4. Sustainable connectivity and transport
  5. Sustainable land use and biodiversity
  6. Good health and wellbeing
  7. Sustainable social community and social value
  8. Sustainable lifecycle cost

As practitioners of sustainable building and development, we must demonstrate that our projects will have a positive impact on these eight pillars of sustainability.

The discussion notes below are aligned with IBI’s Sustainability, Environmental and Climate Action Policy.


The role of buildings in reducing the global climate change impact is significant, as they account for 39 per cent of energy-related global CO2 emissions (2018 Global Status Report, Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction & International Energy Agency).

There are two main pillars on which we measure a building’s impact on the environment—operational energy and whole life carbon.

Operational energy

Operational energy is also measured in the Passive House standard for low energy use in buildings; this is a globally-recognized, stringent standard that IBI Group is currently certifying multiple projects to. Innovating globally, these “envelope first” strategies for reducing operational energy are hardwired into our design approach. These include:

  • high performance glazing at a sensible window-to-wall ratio;
  • creating an airtight building envelope to reduce heat loss through diligent detailing and construction practice; and
  • highly insulated assemblies, which avoid thermal bridging.

In addition to the high-performance building envelope, we utilize powerful technologies and building techniques to create healthy, comfortable, and efficient buildings.

Technologies and methods, such as highly efficient mechanical and electrical systems, heat recovery, and optimized glazing, enable us to avoid the use of fossil fuels, exploit renewable energy where possible, and reduce wasted energy.

Whole life carbon assessment

The global conversation around environmental sustainability has now moved to a holistic approach to a building’s life cycle carbon modeling. Whole life carbon assessment (WLCA) measures all stages of carbon related to buildings, allowing a true net zero lifecycle to be achieved for buildings.

The UK and international construction industry is currently at a crossroads where the framework for WLCA is being defined and benchmarked, with emerging standards and targets outlined, and best practice implemented in line with RICS WLCA guidance.

IBI Group is developing solutions which integrate our BIM processes to the carbon counting process; we are uniquely placed as an integrated design and technology firm to be at the leading-edge of the anticipated widespread adoption of WLCA in global building practice.

Societal and economic sustainability

As architects and designers, we can influence and inform, but sustainable development will always be a team effort. In order to achieve these sustainability goals, education, policy and government funding are key.

As seen in the IBI Group-designed project, Swansea Bay Technology Centre, both the government and client were aligned in putting sustainability at the forefront of the design, and the outcome is an exciting step on the path to net zero buildings and to net positive.

Excess energy generated by the building will be sold back to the grid, an example of circular economy in practice. Tight renewable energy loops and sustainable solutions help to reduce carbon emissions in our communities with great economic benefits.

The building is designed to produce renewable electricity throughout its life, thereby offsetting the carbon emitted earlier in its life. Every effort has been made to reduce the embodied carbon, but the renewable offsetting is what allows the building to be truly net zero in its lifecycle.

Leveraging our technology capabilities, we are empowered to select the most efficient solutions. There is endless potential for innovation, new products and building techniques going forward to assist us in designing, planning and creating a sustainable future for our built environment.

We are already achieving these sustainable outcomes in our exemplar projects. The global challenge facing built environment professionals is to continue to apply sustainable goals to all development activity; only then can we turn the tide and globally make a net positive contribution to the wellbeing of future generations.

  • Working with clients to ensure sustainable building certification to BREEAM, LEED, Passive House, WELL and others, as is most appropriate for the project type.
  • Collaborating with industry to develop Modern Methods of Construction (MMCs).
    • Nearby off-site fabrication solutions minimize the carbon impact of construction.
    • Local materials and labour benefit the regional economy and reduce the amount of carbon used during construction.
  • Requesting manufacturers of building products to disclose EPD (Environmental Product Declaration) data required for accurate lifecycle assessments.
  • Including plants in our design, which sequester carbon through photosynthesis, and produce biophilic design benefits for wellbeing and biodiversity.
  • Encouraging vertical greening systems in cities to promote biodiversity in the urban environment and green infrastructure for slowing stormwater treatment and retention. These living systems reduce carbon-intensive civil infrastructure.
  • Prioritizing daylighting in building design—a key component of wellbeing and a reduction in operational energy for artificial lighting.
  • Facilitating early decision-making to deliver effective cost solutions in a focused manner.
  • Promoting the reuse and adaptation of buildings in favour of demolition and rebuild. We develop feasibility studies to show the potential economic and carbon savings, while reducing the disruption to occupants through phased redevelopment.
  • Creating site-specific designs that respond appropriately to the context and climate by harnessing the benefits of the site in a triple-bottom-line approach: social, economic and climatic.
  • Engaging the existing community context and involve neighbours and building occupants in the participatory design process.
Padraig is a talented designer with a strong skill set to visually present and develop design concepts from preliminary to detail design. He has experience at multiple project stages in the residential, hospitality, and commercial sectors, including development planning and feasibility experience through multiple municipalities in British Columbia and Alberta. Padraig has extensive Revit, AutoCAD, and SketchUp 3D Modelling experience alongside the full Adobe Design Suite. He completed the Passive House Canada course in 2017.

Padraig is a sustainability-focused architect at IBI, guiding projects to reach Net Zero and deliver significant greenhouse gas emission reductions, through innovative and cost-effective measures. He is a Certified Passive House Designer, consulting on IBI’s portfolio of large Passive House buildings across Europe and North America. He was responsible for the architectural detailing on IBI’s first certified passive house building and continues to grow his portfolio in residential, cultural and healthcare buildings, which meet this stringent building energy standard.

Padraig’s knowledge of high-performance building is combined with his whole life carbon analysis studies, accounting for embodied carbon to achieve carbon neutral buildings. Working in the UK and North America, lessons learnt from both continents are being applied to broaden IBI’s approach to Net Zero architecture.

Andrew is a qualified architect specialising in healthcare, education, housing, and arts and community-based design with over 15 years’ experience in the sector, specifically in Wales. As a strong team leader, he has managed the design and delivery of projects under various public sector procurement routes and contracts, delivering a variety of types of facilities. Andrew’s broad and strong skill base allows him to engage at all stages of a project and balances established presentation and design qualities with technical excellence. Andrew is involved with a number of multi-agency, diverse stakeholder group projects, where he is able to bring clear communication and innovative solutions which result in stakeholder buy-in. This has led him to become involved in a diverse range of consultations, from community gardening to large stakeholder workshops. Andrew is project director for Cardiff University’s Centre for Student Life, Cardiff University Community Gateway’s Grangetown Pavilion Project, Swansea City Health Wellbeing Centre and Tredegar Health Wellbeing Centre.

Headshot of Pádraig McMorrow

Written by Pádraig McMorrow

Associate | Manager, Architecture
Dublin, IE and Vancouver, BC
Headshot of Andrew Street

Written by Andrew Street

Studio Principal | Architecture
Cardiff, UK
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