Don’t design the church for Easter Sunday - and other ways to reduce our impact

Growth and development continue in Charlotte

Responsible and thoughtful design entails understanding the relationship between the built environment and its impact on ecological systems.  With 6.7 billion people projected to live in urban areas worldwide by 2050, there are many achievable strategies that should resonate with architects, developers and local governments to sustain the natural environment even as growth and development continue. 

Reserve:  The built environment should include land reserved for natural areas, farmland, parks, village greens and natural water features.  To reserve these natural areas, urban planning should promote height and density.  Biophilia will be important to the health of the urban areas, as trees provide shade, cooling effects and fresh air, as well as reducing solar radiation.  While many municipalities - including Charlotte - have ambitious goals for shade coverage and landscaping, architects and developers should exceed minimum requirements.

Stephen Overcash

Reduce:  While architects and developers often reap financial benefits of larger developments, reducing the built environment should be of prime importance.  Designing efficiently and vertically with a mix of uses reduces land needs and duplication of mechanical systems, structural systems, parking needs and vertical circulation.  Living spaces, work spaces and recreational spaces can all be effectively reduced. Reduce parking lots and asphalt wherever possible.  Don’t design the church for Easter Sunday or the Walmart parking lot for Black Friday.

Reuse, Reinvent and Recycle:  These terms are very similar and should be promoted in urban planning, both with structures and with all building materials.  Be creative and look for new uses for buildings in which the current use is no longer viable.  Save the entire building and reinvent it, or save portions for a different use.  Where density is warranted, consider saving facades and building over existing buildings to preserve history and the culture of a place.  Local governments should promote the reuse of existing buildings and relax laws and “triggers” that often make adaptive use projects financially unfeasible.  Recycle as much as possible, and return landfills to natural areas.

Restore:  The earth has been inhabited by humans for hundreds of thousands of years, but widespread urbanization is relatively new.  In 1800, less than 10 percent lived in urban area. This has increased to 55 percent today, with a projection of 70 percent by 2050.  With thoughtful planning, this can be beneficial to restoring the natural environment by reducing the built-upon area.  Architects, developers and local governments should be leaders in rethinking development strategies, including densifying, reducing, reusing and sharing in order to help restore Mother Earth’s natural ecosystems.

Stephen Overcash is a principal at Charlotte-based Overcash Demmitt Architects. He originally wrote about this subject for Earth Day in April.