What Is Sustainable Architecture?

Solar panels on a home

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Sustainable architecture is a general term that refers to buildings that are designed to limit humanity’s impact on the environment. An eco-friendly approach to modern day building encompasses every aspect of the planning and construction process. This includes the choice of building materials; the design and implementation of heating, cooling, plumbing, waste, and ventilation systems; and the integration of the built environment into the natural landscape. 

Shipping container housing
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History of Sustainable Architecture

Many of the practices and principles used in sustainable architecture are rooted in ancient building practices that were transformed with the rise of modern materials and mass production in the industrial age. The modern day consciousness about the need for sustainable architecture can be traced back at least 50 years to the anniversary of the first Earth Day and the international environmental movement and ensuing legislation that it sparked across the globe. 

But the world is now in the midst of a climate change emergency, and many of the environmental laws that were passed in the last 50 years are being rolled back. This makes it even more imperative for designers, architects, builders, and consumers to demand better building practices to help combat the damage caused by one of the most polluting industries on the planet. In the US, for example, buildings account for 39 percent of CO2 emissions.

Sustainability has become an important element of contemporary architecture. Environmental standards such as BREEAM or LEED offer guidelines for sustainable building and responsible architects strive to achieve these globally recognized ratings in order to confirm their sustainable credentials. But many more simply use buzzwords like “eco-friendly,” “green,” or “sustainable” as greenwashing marketing terms. Despite all the advances in knowledge and awareness, truly sustainable architecture is still more the exception than the rule.

Green roofs
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Characteristics of Sustainable Architecture

  • Overall focus on reducing human environmental impact on the environment
  • Limiting wasteful energy consumption with the use of renewable energy sources such as solar panels and natural heating, cooling, and ventilation systems
  • Buildings that produce at least as much energy as they consume for a net zero effect
  • Water conservation systems such as rainwater collection and recycling gray water
  • Green roofs, living walls for natural cooling and the health and well being of people who work and live inside
  • Integration into the surrounding landscape
  • Use of renewable materials such as bamboo, hemp, cork, flax, and soy
Bamboo treehouse
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  • Replacing conventional materials such as concrete with sustainable alternatives such as hempcrete made from hemp, lime, and water or conventional plastics with innovative bioplastics made from algae
  • Use of recycled and upcycled materials 
  • Adaptable, modular spaces made from natural materials that can be easily broken down and repurposed or recycled
  • Tiny houses, micro apartments and other small structures that help address the appetite for more sustainable housing and use less land mass and energy
  • Alternative housing solutions such as homes and apartment buildings constructed from recycled shipping containers as well as floating architecture on waterways around the world that address housing shortages in dense coastal areas
  • Incorporation of plants and nature via living walls, tree-covered residential towers, and green roofs to help cool existing buildings and create healthy biophilic environments for humans 
Cardboard cathedral by Shigeru Ban
Transitional Cathedral made of cardboard tubes by Shigeru Ban. Boy_Anupong / Getty Images

Examples of Sustainable Architecture

Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban uses recycled cardboard tubing to build both emergency shelters around the world and his world renowned Transitional Cathedral, built in 2013 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

Wood might be an ancient building material, but cross-laminated timber, made by gluing layers of lumber together, has become a sustainable alternative for city towers and prefab cross-laminated timber houses in Europe and the US. If the 20th century was defined by the steel and glass skyscrapers of cities like NYC, the 21st century might come to be defined by the timber skyscrapers like Mjøstårnet by Voll Arkitekter in Brumunddal, Norway.

Another example of cutting edge sustainable architecture is CopenHill in Copenhagen, Denmark, which bills itself as “the cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in the world.” It includes a façade built for climbing, a roof you can hike across, and an actual ski slope.

Floating houses in Vancouver
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The Future of Sustainable Architecture

Despite innovations, advancements and increasing public awareness about the need for greener building practices, sustainable architecture is still the exception rather than the norm. Futhermore, many experts believe that the concept of sustainability is outdated given the current state of the planet.

Instead, they insist that the way forward lies in regenerative architecture and design, a much more progressive holistic approach that focuses on tapping into the world's natural resources to create buildings and systems that are capable of regenerating themselves and breaking down completely when they have served their purpose.

We know that climate change affects women, people of color, and poor communities most severely, and regenerative design integrates social equity into its practices in a world where even among green building designations, only the International Living Future Institute Living Building Challenge includes a mandatory social equity component.