What is Sustainable Architecture?

Mary McMahon

Sustainable architecture is architecture which is designed in an environmentally friendly way. The goal of sustainable or “green” architecture is to create structures which are beautiful and functional, but which also contribute to a sustainable lifestyle and culture. Interest in sustainable architecture grew radically in the early 21st century in response to growing concerns about the environment, but in fact people have been building sustainably for thousands of years, because sustainable projects are often practical in nature.

An architect may specialize in "sustainable architecture" to design buildings or plans to renovate them in a way that preserves materials and saves energy.
An architect may specialize in "sustainable architecture" to design buildings or plans to renovate them in a way that preserves materials and saves energy.

A truly sustainable building will have a design which addresses a number of issues, including heating and cooling, water usage, environmental quality, and energy usage. Architects can deal with environmental aspects of building construction in a variety of ways, all of which are designed to increase efficiency without being cumbersome or detracting from the function of the building.

Much of sustainable architecture focuses on building intelligently.
Much of sustainable architecture focuses on building intelligently.

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Much of sustainable architecture focuses on building intelligently. For example, a building may be oriented towards the south in the Northern Hemisphere so that the building will be warmed through the day by the sun, and a building may be insulated with extra care to minimize heat loss. Plumbing systems may be designed to utilize less water while still functioning normally, and the building might include smart lighting which turns off when people are not around to save energy.

Installing green roofs or living walls is another example of sustainable architecture. These projects increase heating and cooling efficiency, help scrub the air, and look aesthetically interesting, making them beneficial from many points of view. Other sustainable architecture trends include the use of geothermal energy for heating, reclaimed water for flushing toilets, and other innovative techniques which are designed to reduce the environmental footprint of a building.

Many architects build sustainably to show people that it is possible, and to illustrate the fact that being environmentally friendly does not have to make a building ugly. In fact, many of the measures which increase efficiency can make a building more interesting and beautiful to look at, and they can also improve quality of life for users of the building. A courtyard with plants, for example, can be a good sustainability move, and it also creates a pleasant outdoor space for people to use.

Anything from a private home to a towering office building can be constructed with sustainable ideals in mind. Sustainable architecture principles can also be applied to the retrofitting and remodeling of existing structures, because conversion is more environmentally friendly than demolition and rebuilding in most cases. Many governments provide incentives for people who address sustainability issues in construction projects, which has contributed to the rise of sustainable architecture around the world.

"Green" architects integrate sustainable design throughout their plans for a building.
"Green" architects integrate sustainable design throughout their plans for a building.

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Discussion Comments


@ ValleyFiah- Thanks for the information. I had heard of LEED, but I never realized they certified green and sustainable architecture. Do you (or anyone else) know if LEED certification is only for new constructions or is it for existing structures too?


@ GlassAxe- Luckily Architects see themselves more as artists rather than marketers of homes, so they take pride in the total design process. Sustainable residential architecture often focuses on the design features like energy flow, climate, and site as well as the ecological and social impacts of their designs.

That being said, the ultimate in sustainable design is a home that meets LEED certification. The US Green Building Council manages LEED certification and it only certifies structures that can meet rigorous economic, social, and environmental standards. LEED certification takes into account the entire process form procurement of materials to the final product, and awards qualifying structures certification based on their level of sustainability.


Is there any type of organization that certifies a building based on the designer's use of sustainable design? I especially like the fact that sustainable design helps to erase the stigma that a green building is some sort of primitive earth ship that uses antiquated construction methods.

At the same time, I don't want to see sustainable design become a sort of "hybrid" trap where it is simply a vague term that implies only a few aspects of a home are designed sustainably, while the input activities associated with the home are high impact. I was so disappointed when I bought my Prius, only to find out later that it has a huge environmental impact due to the mining of the materials for the batteries, making it less sustainable than a traditional compact car.

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