Building in Sensitive Natural Environments

In areas of great natural beauty and with delicate ecosystems and sensitive environments, special care has to be taken in the construction of any required structures – and this often poses a challenge for engineers and developers. But with the right technology, forethought and consideration, it can be done! Here are some shining examples of projects that delivered the infrastructure needed without negatively impacting the environment.

Building a temporary road to construct a wind farm in a Scottish nature reserve

When an access road to transport a wind turbine generator to a remote area in a Scottish nature reserve was required, engineers were faced with several unique challenges. Not only was the terrain mountainous and covered in large parts by soft peat bogs, the protected status of the reserve required minimal environmental disturbance. In addition, the road had to ‘disappear’ once the project had been completed – again, with minimal impact to the environment.

How do you build a temporary road that’s strong and stable enough to allow access for heavy vehicles over soft peat, and can also be easily dismantled? It turned out that geocell technology was the answer. Constructed from a polymeric alloy called Neoloy, which is welded into a honeycomb structure and then filled with soil or aggregate, geocells create what is referred to as a ‘cellular confinement system’.

Interlocking forces between the soil and cell walls give the resulting layer enhanced physical and mechanical properties. This means they could utilize weak soils from locally available borrow pits for structural infill – making its removal and disposal on site that much easier.

Whilst a normal gravel road would have required a much greater volume of granular infill, this solution reduced the amount required by some 120,000 cubic meters, as well as significantly shortening the project timetable. Overall, project costs were reduced by a whopping 72%, whilst minimizing the environmental footprint at the same time.  Once the project was complete, the road was easily dismantled, and the land quickly returned to its natural state.

Eco-friendly apartment living in Maine, USA

Creating affordable housing while also making minimal intrusion on the natural environment is a growing global challenge, and it’s not always easy to find room for both people and open, natural spaces. In Maine, the Ledgewood Court Apartments in Damariscotta won themselves the Friends of Midcoast Maine Award for managing to do just this.

They did this by constructing 24 affordable housing units over just 3.5 acres of the total available 10.5, preserving all the remaining land for open space. In addition, they handle all stormwater on-site, so that local water bodies are protected from pollutants from runoff.

Duma Manzi Eco-Lodge & Spa, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa

Another method for causing the least disturbance to a pristine natural environment is to limit new building to areas where old but unused infrastructure already exists.  Duma Manzi Eco-Lodge in South Africa, which is situated in a delicate game reserve environment, accomplished this by only constructing new sites on land which had previously been settled by farm laborers or used for campsites. This meant that no new areas were used for building, preserving as much of the African wilderness as possible in its original form.

They also used recycled bricks and grass thatching for construction wherever possible, as well as timber from removed alien vegetation to construct benches, tables and bar furniture. Greywater is collected and used for irrigation, solar panels augment electricity supply, several water saving mechanisms are in place, all refuse is recycled, and only biodegradable cleaning detergents are used throughout.

Pixel – the wacky, carbon-neutral, water-neutral office building in Melbourne, Australia

While not itself in what you would call a sensitive environmental area, this one of a kind building perfectly demonstrates a principle which can be applied to virtually any new building in such an environment – the ability to generate its own water and electricity and manage its own waste. The four story building managed not just to score a perfect 105 points on the Australian Green Star rating system, but went even further with a vacuum toilet system and anaerobic digestion system to deal with its own waste.

A native-planted green roof harvests all the water required by the building, solar panels and wind turbines on the roof generate enough energy to power it, and that slightly bizarre-looking façade helps make the structure more energy efficient. It is an excellent example of how a building can become totally self-sustaining – and therefore makes a great model for sensitive natural areas where minimal impact on the environment is desired.

Salman Zafar

Salman Zafar is the Founder of Cleantech Solutions, and an internationally-acclaimed blogger, journalist, consultant, advisor and ecopreneur. His areas of expertise includes waste management, renewable energy, waste-to-energy, environment protection, resource conservation and sustainable development.
Salman is a prolific environmental writer, and has authored more than 300 articles in reputed journals, magazines and websites. He is proactively engaged in creating mass awareness on renewable energy, waste management, sustainability and conservation all over the world.
Salman can be reached on salman@cleantechloops.com.

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