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Energy Busters

Real estate development is a lucrative large-scale business. So it's unsurprising that some greedy investors have an interest in exploiting every square centimetre of their plot. Unfortunately, this attitude undermines the appeal of a building as well as the comfort and happiness of its residents.

The sector's rapid development, particularly the "get rich quick" opportunities in Bulgaria, resulted in developers failing to heed the importance of quality construction. Thankfully, more intelligent investors are emerging who realise that sensible planning and energy conservation do not necessarily clash with the search for profits.

Revised building regulations

Legislation has also propelled change. Amendments to the Law on Regional Development, approved in 2006, stipulate that new projects in Bulgaria must meet certain criteria regarding green areas, on-site plantation and energy efficiency. In particular, regulations specify that 30 per cent of a plot's area must be covered with plants, 10 per cent of which must be deciduous.

The rising tide of "green" consciousness has also forced developers to plan projects more sensibly. Landscape architects, in particular, have a pivotal role in turning a metal-and-concrete construction into a comfortable and environmentally-friendly residential, recreational or working area.

Landscape architecture involves planning, managing, preserving and rehabilitating land as well as designing man-made projects. The profession embraces the whole gamut of architectural design: site planning, housing estate development, environmental restoration and urban planning and landscaping as well as recreational and regional design and historic preservation. Landscape architects plan sites for all communal spaces: town squares, shared countryside areas, city parks, green enclaves, public walkways, corporate office buildings and civil infrastructure.

Its remit also covers the management of large wilderness areas or reclamation of degraded landscapes such as mines or landfills. Landscape architects work on all types of structures and external spaces: large or small, urban or rural, and with "hard" or "soft" materials. It differs radically from garden design, a field concerned with enclosed private areas.

"The landscape architect should be involved in a project's realisation from the beginning of concept development," says Virginia Kostova, a landscape architect with a master's degree from Greenwich University in London.

Kostova used to work for RPS Clouston and Whitelaw Turkington in the UK, two of Britain's leading landscape architect firms. She currently works for an ecological design company in Sofia. A regular contributor to Bulgarian magazines, she has designed many offices, holiday homes, factories and public buildings at home and abroad.

Kostova's profession is a multi-disciplinary field incorporating geography, mathematics, science, engineering, art, horticulture, technology, social sciences, history and philosophy. But she never overlooks the human side. "Being able to look at green areas is a natural necessity. However, landscape design is not just about aesthetics but about practicality," says Kostova. "Developers in Bulgaria used to assign their project's design to a single architect and count on him/her to take care of all the aspects, including landscape design and planting. The results weren't all that bright," says Kostova.

Creating a healthy environment

Landscape architects can contribute greatly towards energy efficiency. Certain design techniques, including those outlined below, can turn a building into an environmentally-friendly development:

· Planting trees to provide shade, so reducing air conditioning/cooling costs.
· Planting or building windbreaks to slow wind speeds near buildings, so preventing heat loss in winter.
· Wall sheltering, using shrubbery or vines, to create a windbreak.
· Earth sheltering and positioning buildings to take advantage of natural landforms as windbreaks.
· "Green" roofs that cool buildings with extra thermal mass and evapotranspiration (evaporation and plant transpiration from the earth to the atmosphere).
· Reducing the so-called heat island effect (intense city heat) through pervious or high albedo paving and shade as well as reducing the total amount of paved areas.
· Lighting with full cut-off fixtures, light level sensors and high efficiency fittings.

A thoughtful landscape design can create an ecosystem system similar to nature. Thanks to botanical knowledge, it's possible to display natural-looking plant landscapes even if they are man-made.

Concrete buildings can be turned into comfortable and environmentally-conscious places as well as valuable shelters for biodiversity. They also provide city dwellers with a slice of nature.
Plants and green areas are also a cost-efficient way to clean the air surrounding buildings. In addition to the purifying effect of leaves, roots and their micro-organisms also clean the air.

Kostova is optimistic about the future. "In Bulgaria we are slowly retreating from the so-called practicality phase in architecture and design, whereby profits and optimal use of every square centimetre are paramount. A new breed of tasteful developers is emerging, people who want to see and create beautiful and effective buildings."

She also believes that buyers are becoming more intelligent about the sector. "All this is driving the development of local architecture and construction sectors.  In several years perhaps we'll see Patrick Blanc's vertical gardens in Bulgaria, traditional Chinese gardens and the hedges that are so popular in England," Kostova says.