What Is Sustainable Architecture?

Solar panels on a home

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In This Article

Sustainable architecture is a general term that refers to buildings 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, including 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 techniques that were transformed with the rise of modern materials and mass production in the industrial age. The modern consciousness about the need for sustainable architecture can be traced back over 50 years to the anniversary of the first Earth Day, the international environmental movement, and the 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 have been 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 United States, for example, buildings account for 39 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, United States Green Building Council.

Sustainability has become an important element of contemporary architecture. Environmental standards such as BREEAM and LEED offer guidelines for sustainable building. Responsible architects strive to meet these standards and gain the associated certifications for their projects. But many more designers and builders simply use buzzwords like "eco-friendly," "green," or "sustainable" as marketing terms. Essentially, their claims of sustainable practices are exaggerated. 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 impact on the environment
  • Minimal wasteful, harmful energy consumption thanks to 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
  • Integration into the surrounding landscape
  • Use of renewable materials, such as bamboo, hemp, cork, flax, and soy
  • Replacement of conventional materials like 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
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Examples of Sustainable Architecture

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 houses in Europe and the U.S. If the 20th century was defined by the steel and glass skyscrapers of cities like New York, the 21st century might come to be defined by the timber skyscrapers like Mjøstårnet by Voll Arkitekter in Brumunddal, Norway.

Even recycled materials can become the building blocks of structures large and small. Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban uses recycled cardboard tubing to build emergency shelters. He utilized the same material to create his world-renowned Transitional Cathedral, built in 2013 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

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 still represents a small portion of overall global construction. Furthermore, 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 capable of regenerating themselves and breaking down completely when they've served their purpose.

It's known that climate change affects women, people of color, and poor communities most severely, and regenerative design integrates social equity into its practices. For example, the International Living Future Institute Living Building Challenge includes a mandatory social-equity component. This represents an important step beyond the basic principles of sustainable building to help alleviate social problems while addressing environmental challenges.

Article Sources
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  1. Buildings and Climate Change. United States Green Building Council.