What do building massing and orientation have to do with sustainability?

The built environment has significant impact on the natural environment

It’s no secret. Buildings are big. They can take up a ton of space. They might dominate entire city blocks or empty fields. They influence the landscape surrounding them and how we interact with it. Buildings change how we see and experience the world, but they also change the earth itself.

The built environment has significant impact on the natural environment, which means sustainability must be a key factor in design, construction, and entire building lifecycles. Two design concepts that define a building’s sustainability that are explored very early on in a project are orientation and massing.

But what do they really have to do with sustainability? Why should we care? Let’s explore.

Decisions about a building’s orientation and massing are site-specific, directly tied to climate and geography. The positioning of a building on its site as well as its overall size and mass will impact the use of passive design strategies for lighting, heating, and cooling. ¬¬Proper orientation and massing are crucial for big sustainability-related priorities like energy savings and user comfort.

When it comes to orientation, the ultimate consideration is the sun. The sun provides us with two things that have major implications for energy use and comfort: daylight and heat. In any type of climate, orienting the longest façade to face the sun usually yields the positive results. For buildings in hot climates, shading strategies are always a top priority. In cooler climates, however, strategizing how to maximize sun penetration is important because doing so can lead to reduced heat loads.

In any climate, proper orientation optimizes daylight, which means fewer high-consuming electrical lighting systems or complicated shading devices. Apart from maximizing the power of the sun, proper orientation can help take advantage of other elements that increase energy efficiency. For example, if a climate allows for natural ventilation, the right orientation can help the building capture breezes, reducing dependency on cooling systems.

The sustainability wins of proper orientation are likely infinite, and more are being discovered with every new technology we use in the building industries. It’s also exciting to note that proper orientation may make the integration of renewable energy systems easier, leading to reduced dependency on non-renewables and lowering overall energy consumption.

Similar to orientation, building massing has a lot to do with energy use, lighting, and comfort. What’s really specific about massing, though, is that it’s deeply tied to building type. Buildings with the greatest mass will have multiple types within them, accommodating a variety of programmatic needs. Think about universities, hospitals, and mixed-use urban buildings. They’re going to be heavy and big—that’s just a fact. But they also have great opportunities for design. Building massing needs to be the perfect marriage of design and efficiency.

Location is one of the biggest contributors to a building’s massing. Urban, suburban, and rural locales will produce different requirements. An urban building, for example will likely be built upward, while a suburban or rural will be built outward. Daylighting strategies vary depending on a building’s footprint and height. Heating and cooling systems selection is also driven by a building’s climate and orientation. Systems carefully analyzed and decided upon as they can have drastic implications for building’s total mass and overall energy use.

Geography and climate go hand in hand and are always factored into design decisions. A building in a coastal region, for example, might need to withstand storms. One next to a river or wooded area may need to be constructed to avoid damaging the ecosystem. These aspects of sustainability—protecting the natural environment and accommodating climate resilience measures—are major contributors to building mass.

Client priorities and user culture and will also impact a building’s orientation, massing, and its ability to be sustainable. If a client wishes for its building to be bright and airy for users, then its positioning and design will need to allow for that. If something like easy access to the outdoors is desirable, the footprint will need to reflect that wish and more entry points may need to be considered. In both of these cases, occupant comfort and health will be enhanced. It’s important to remember that those are key measures of sustainability and building performance.

As with any elements of design, setting goals for performance and efficiency will help drastically with building orientation and massing. At times, decisions about massing and orientation may come into conflict with desired aesthetics and program elements. Sometimes these concerns can’t be avoided and compensations will be made, but it’s important to make sure all stakeholders are on the same page. Above all, these concepts are crucial early in design and should not be deviated from later on in a project, so you can remain on track with sustainability goals.