Comfort & Sustainability in Architecture: Trends 2021

Saint-Gobain Weber Hong-Kong

(Article written in collaboration with ArchDaily)

Just before the global lockdowns began in response to the spread of the widely discussed COVID-19, we met with Saint Gobain experts at their new headquarters in Paris to discuss an extensive investigation conducted in 2019, with the aim of understanding the transformations that architecture and construction have experienced in recent years. After an interesting exchange of ideas, we chose the most relevant topics to be analyzed in depth by our team of editors, resulting in a series of articles that combined the trends identified with the unexpected events that occurred during 2020, connecting them directly to architectural design.

Now, entering an uncertain but promising 2021, we took the time to stop and reread these articles carefully. How many of these trends are still valid and how much have they evolved? What new trends are likely to develop in the coming years?


The effects of global warming are already being felt in our own homes

The sad and alarming image of a melting glacier seemed somehow alien to our daily reality. However, the year 2020 forced us to inhabit our homes 24 hours a day, facing the virtues of home life but also its deficiencies. Perhaps we noticed how a pleasant indoor climate in the morning can turn into hell in the afternoon, or we witnessed firsthand the growth of fungus on the walls of that cold, dark room that we rarely used in the past. The degradation of the environment and the acceleration of climate change have had a direct impact on our quality of life and health, and many are beginning to perceive it negatively in their close surroundings, especially those who live in precarious conditions.

September 2020 was the hottest month ever recorded in the history of mankind, and one of the main challenges for architects will be to design projects that can be naturally or artificially cooled in the most efficient way possible since cooling is much more difficult than heating. By increasing awareness of these issues, we could predict that people will be even more rigorous when making decisions related to their homes and built environments, forcing architects to understand in depth the composition and behavior of materials and products, to carefully evaluate the consequences of our design decisions, and to work hand in hand with experts from other disciplines. These considerations seem obvious but they may not be in practice, especially in dense cities and emerging countries where the challenges become more complex. According to the UN, the cities that will grow the most in the coming years are mainly located in hot climates. To avoid an energy catastrophe, architectural design must begin to address these issues as a priority.

The search for individual comfort must be aligned with collective efforts to combat the climate crisis

As we see, everything is connected. We can equip a home with the most advanced technologies to achieve optimal levels of comfort, but if all these systems generate a negative impact on a larger scale, they are useless. After two particularly difficult years, the trend should be towards collaboration. How do my individual decisions affect my immediate community, and beyond? To what extent am I really aware of the behavior and effects of the spaces that I inhabit and design? Is the lifestyle that I lead and that I am helping to create sustainable? How should we inhabit the planet in the future?

Many of these responses are linked to complex global megatrends, and significant changes will only happen on the larger scale if adequate legislation and structural changes are promoted in the industry. However, the emergence of more thoughtful consumers can trigger major transformations in the long run. The same goes for architects. An architectural design that does not consider its repercussions on a local and global scale, and that does not adapt to a changing future, becomes unfeasible and a problem for subsequent generations. Individual comfort will only endure if it is achieved collectively and with a sustainable consciousness on a larger scale, feeding each other back. It works in the same way as herd immunity: a vaccine taken by just a few will not kill the disease.

We must build a conscious multidisciplinary future

In a way, these last few years have altered the course of architectural design and directed it towards somewhat unknown waters. Traditional architectural concerns now include new habits, new uses, new technologies, new construction dilemmas, new hygiene standards, and even new ideas related to the influence of physical space on our brains. However, life is a pendulum and while many of these trends will pass, some of what we learn could become positive principles for a more responsible and effective design.

Forecasts suggest that we will hardly be able to go back to work disconnected from other disciplines, and that the challenges we encounter along the way can be better solved by nurturing our work with knowledge from other areas. In this way, the buildings themselves will become more efficient by considering the entire life of each project, more easily adjusting the ecological footprint of their processes, including dismantling and the reuse of parts. Likewise, the complexity and variability of human beings can be adjusted for in an easier and more efficient way, collaboratively embracing a series of tools and technologies that are far from our traditional domains.

According to the urban manifesto of the Athens Charter, the city should be organized to satisfy four basic needs: to live, to work, to recreate, and to circulate (Athens C: 1941; v.p. 130). A pandemic was enough to force all these functions into the indoors, and the last one was very restricted. We can try to predict what is to come but there's only one sure thing: we must be prepared for adaptation, avoiding self-absorption and rigidity. A conscious multidisciplinary future, willing to adapt, is perhaps a good starting point to act simultaneously on many different scales, without neglecting anyone or anything.

Check out the full series on Comfort & Sustainability in Architecture