Story at a glance:
- Sustainable building design is an architectural movement that seeks to reduce the immediate and long-term environmental impacts of buildings.
- In recent years sustainable building design has grown in popularity due to the lower operating costs and higher property values of green buildings.
- Seven core elements govern the sustainable design process: site and context, energy efficiency, water conservation, use of sustainable materials, improvement of indoor environment quality, social equity, and long-term performance.
Twenty-five years ago the demand for sustainable building design skyrocketed. To the uninformed observer this push toward eco-friendly architecture may have seemed rather spontaneous. In reality the sudden proliferation of sustainable design was a response to early efforts at carbon reduction as a means of limiting pollution and addressing global warming.
As we begin to better understand the causes and effects of anthropogenic climate change, energy-efficient buildings have become more popular than ever due to their reduced environmental impact and lower operating costs.
This growth in popularity, however, means a refresher course on the core ideology of the sustainable building design movement is in order.
What is sustainable building design in 2023?
So what exactly is sustainable building design, anyway? In the fundamental sense, sustainable building design is an environmentally conscious way of approaching the architectural process, one that puts—you guessed it—sustainability at the forefront of each building phase.
In practice sustainable design seeks to construct buildings with a neutral or positive environmental impact by ensuring they operate at peak efficiency, are built using non-toxic, renewable (or recycled) materials, and work with—rather than against—the surrounding biosphere. Ideal green buildings operate at net-zero energy usage, which means they use the same amount of energy as they create using on-site renewable energy features.
Why is it important to design sustainably?
But in a world where “sustainability” is often thrown around as a sort of nebulous concept—or worse, an advertising buzzword—it can be difficult to understand exactly why sustainable design is so important. Aside from the fact that green buildings produce less carbon emissions, sustainable design helps to conserve water, reduce energy usage, and prioritizes the health of human occupants and the environment by limiting the use of toxic building materials.
Overall this conscious approach to building design helps ensure future generations’ well-being by protecting their access to non-renewable resources and reducing harmful emissions—without compromising our own present-day needs.
Benefits of Sustainable Building Design
Now that we know the what and why of sustainable building design, let’s talk more in-depth about some of the advantages of implementing green building practices during and after the initial construction process.
Reduced Environmental Impact
As we’ve already alluded to, the main benefit of sustainable building design is that it reduces a structure’s overall environmental impact, both at the time of construction and throughout its life cycle. Green buildings are designed to offset their carbon emissions and waste production by generating their own renewable energy, recycling resources (e.g. water), and minimizing routine maintenance.
Improved Indoor Air Quality
Another advantage of sustainable building design is that it helps improve indoor air quality by reducing the amount of toxins, such as CO2 and VOCs (volatile organic compounds), released by building materials. Traditional polystyrene or fiberglass insulation, for example, can leach VOCs into the air over time—to avoid this, green buildings may use natural insulators such as hemp or cotton.
Green building design also seeks to maximize airflow and minimize ambient humidity, which in turn helps reduce the risk of mildew and mold growth, both of which can negatively impact the respiratory system.
Lower Operating Costs
Sustainable buildings also have lower operating costs due to the fact that they are engineered to minimize water and electricity usage. How much lower, you ask? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, energy-efficient structures save approximately 25% on utility bills when compared to buildings without these energy-saving measures.
These reduced operating costs help offset the initial expense of green buildings, which typically cost more to build than their traditional counterparts.
Improved Occupant Health and Productivity
In reducing the use of toxic building materials and limiting moisture buildup, green buildings ultimately improve the health of their occupants by minimizing the risk of developing debilitating respiratory illnesses and certain cancers. Natural sunlight, a comfortable micro-climate, and a stronger connection to the natural world further serve to improve an occupant’s mental state.
As a result of improved physical and mental health, occupant productivity also increases when living or working in a sustainably-designed building.
Increased Property Value
Lastly, the addition of sustainable features positively affects a building’s resale value. Don’t believe us? A 2019 study conducted by Freddie Mac found that homes with energy-efficient upgrades sold for approximately 2.7% more than homes without high energy-efficiency ratings—and they typically sold faster, too.
This is largely due to the fact that sustainable homes are a hot commodity: buyers want homes with a low environmental impact, because those features will save them money in the long run.
The 7 Principles of Sustainable Design
Of course, it’s all well and good to talk about the benefits of sustainable design—but what actually makes a building sustainable? What factors are architects prioritizing and what principles govern their decisions? Let’s take a look at seven of the most important ones.
Site and Context
As perhaps the most overlooked principle of sustainable design, the site and context of a planned structure determines the building’s orientation, the materials that may be used, which design features are actually feasible, and which energy sources are going to be the most efficient.
Sustainable buildings in colder climates, for example, often make heavy use of southern-facing windows to maximize the amount of solar heat received during the winter months, which helps cut down on energy expenses.
Reduced energy dependency—especially with regard to non-renewable energy sources—is another hallmark of green building design. Oftentimes, this is achieved through the installation of solar panels, well-placed windows or skylights that make the most efficient use of natural sunlight, and energy-efficient appliances.
It also means making sure that the right insulation is used and that windows are sealed properly—both of which help maintain a consistent indoor temperature.
Similarly, sustainable design seeks to conserve water wherever and whenever possible. Green buildings typically achieve this by implementing effective plumbing systems, recycling black- and graywater on-site, and installing water-efficient taps/fittings and appliances.
Another common design feature in green buildings is the addition of rainwater catchment systems, which filter and store water that can later be reused to flush toilets, water gardens, and even fill washing machines.
Green building design also places a high priority on using high-quality, eco-friendly materials (such as glass, stone, adobe, bamboo, cork, etc.) in place of mass-produced, non-renewable building materials.
Recycled and reclaimed materials—particularly wood and lumber from demolished structures—are also used in sustainable building design whenever possible to mitigate waste production.
Indoor Environmental Quality
As previously mentioned, a healthy indoor environment is another integral component of sustainable design, especially when it comes to the occupant’s exposure to toxic chemicals. A healthy indoor space goes hand-in-hand with the use of eco-friendly materials, which typically produce lower levels of VOCs than traditional building materials.
Green buildings also seek to provide comfort and bolster productivity—both of which may be achieved by maximizing daylight and ensuring that the building’s layout effectively uses natural ventilation to maintain a pleasant micro-climate.
In order to combat the historic inaccessibility of sustainable architecture in low-income and marginalized communities, green building design places a high importance on social equity. This is exemplified by the LEED rating system, which offers Social Equity Pilot Credits as a means of encouraging socially responsible building practices.
These credits place an emphasis on working with the community impacted by the building project to ensure that needs and concerns are properly addressed.
Finally, sustainably designed buildings are meant to last—that is, they are engineered to be as durable as possible, which in turn helps minimize material waste and provides ample time for the structure to make up for the environmental impact incurred during its construction.
This is achieved largely through the use of long-lasting materials with low maintenance requirements, such as rammed earth or stone.
5 Examples of Popular Sustainable Building Designs
What does sustainable building design look like in practice, you ask? Let’s take a look at a few noteworthy examples from around the world.
Built in the late 2000s, the Sun-Moon Mansion in Dezhou, China is one of the world’s largest solar buildings and features approximately 5,000 solar panels across its sundial-shaped roof. Used as an exhibition center, hotel, and research center, this sustainable structure produces roughly 54,000 kWh/year and operates 88% more efficiently than comparable non-sustainable buildings.
In Seattle, the six-story Bullitt Center is one of the largest energy-positive buildings in the world—that is, it produces more energy than it uses annually thanks to an impressive grid of roof-mounted solar panels. To further cut its environmental impact, the Bullitt Center collects and purifies rainwater, composts toilet waste, and uses a system of geothermal wells to cool the building during summer and heat it during winter.
In Melbourne, the Pixel Building is Australia’s first carbon-neutral office building, capable of meeting its yearly water and energy needs using on-site rainwater collection and rooftop solar panels. Its unique, colorful façade is as aesthetically-pleasing as it is functional—a mix of solar shading, double-glazed window walls, perimeter planters, and fixed shading louvers help reduce energy usage by keeping indoor temperatures within a comfortable range.
As Scandinavia’s largest energy-positive building, the Powerhouse Brattørkaia designed by Snøhetta is nothing short of a green-engineering marvel. Located in Trondheim, Norway, the Powerhouse Brattørkaia office building uses a large solar grid to produce a whopping 485,000 kWh annually—enough to power itself, surrounding buildings, and more than 200 electric vehicles. In order to reduce its overall energy use, Brattørkaia makes use of intelligent airflow design, highly efficient insulation, a seawater-based heating and cooling system, and an array of energy-efficient appliances.
One Angel Square
Serving as the headquarters for the Co-operative Group, One Angel Square is one of England’s most energy-efficient buildings. Located in the heart of Manchester, One Angel Square uses a centralized atrium to provide natural sunlight and a double-skinned facade consisting of louvers to control the building’s heating/cooling needs. Other notable features include on-site rainwater and gray water recycling, energy-efficient lighting and IT equipment, and an onsite combined heat and power plant.
Best Practices for Sustainable Building Design
As evidenced by these examples, sustainable design may be successfully implemented in a variety of unique ways, and no two green buildings need be the same to be effective. As long as the following core practices are realized in some fashion, the possibilities are just about endless.
Conducting a thorough site analysis
As previously mentioned, the physical location of a building heavily influences its design—which is why it’s important that a thorough site analysis be conducted before the planning process even starts. This allows for a better understanding of the natural topography, local flora, and climate, which in turn informs the building’s layout, orientation, natural light requirements, and landscaping.
Choosing sustainable materials
If it’s been said once, it’s been said 1,000 times: Choosing sustainable materials is an integral component of the green design process, one that is largely influenced by the building’s location and function. Low-carbon concrete, for example, is as structurally sound as high-carbon concrete, but has a lower environmental impact and high thermal mass, which can help reduce heating and cooling energy requirements.
Choosing sustainable materials also means knowing when to reuse existing materials—like reclaimed timber, salvaged windows, steel, or even drywall—as recycling material from prior building projects helps keep waste out of landfills.
Maximizing energy efficiency
Any successful sustainable building needs to implement certain design elements and technologies in order to maximize the structure’s energy efficiency. This can be achieved partially through the installation of energy-efficient appliances, but largely depends on how well the structure is insulated and whether it makes appropriate use of available solar energy. Buildings located in warm climates—the Pixel Building, for example—maximize their energy efficiency through the strategic use of solar shading, green roofs, and louvers to keep indoor temperatures comfortable without the need for air conditioning.
Prioritizing water conservation
As one of the most important resources on the planet, freshwater should be conserved wherever possible when designing sustainable structures. Ideally, water conservation is practiced at three levels: on-site collection and filtration, installation of water-efficient appliances/fittings, and on-site wastewater recycling. Many sustainable buildings feature rainwater catchment systems that can be used to water gardens or flush toilets—and in heavily urbanized environments, green roofs and living walls can be used to mitigate storm-water runoff, which in turn reduces the risk of flooding.
Incorporating renewable energy sources
Finally, the ideal green building is capable of producing its own energy via renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, or hydropower. Incorporating renewable energy into a building’s design is the first step in creating a zero-energy or positive-energy structure, which in turn reduces dependency on fossil fuels and other non-renewable energies. Solar is the most popular renewable energy source—one that can even be made viable in northern climates, as shown by Powerhouse Brattørkaia—but is by no means the only option, and government incentives exist for a wide variety of renewable energies.
Challenges and Solutions in Sustainable Building Design
Of course, sustainable building design is not without its challenges, especially when projects are slated to be built in heavily urbanized areas with strict or outdated regulations.
No matter how you look at it, sustainable buildings typically cost more to build at the outset than their non-sustainable counterparts. In fact, the average green building costs 2% more to build than a conventional building. This is largely due to the fact that high-quality sustainable materials aren’t as numerous as traditional building products, which means competition for available materials is high. LEED certification can also add an additional $10,000 to $30,000+ to the overall expense depending on how large the project is, as inspectors charge by the square foot.
What’s more, sustainable building design requires specialized professionals be involved in the planning process—and those architects and engineers knowledgeable in green design are in high demand, which means they can charge a higher rate.
Lack of awareness and education
Another challenge to sustainable design is the general lack of awareness and education surrounding the field itself, particularly amongst industry professionals and the general populace as a whole. Despite the growing popularity of green design, there’s still a comparatively low number of designers, architects, engineers, and construction companies that have experience working with the materials and technologies associated with sustainable architecture.
There are also many misconceptions surrounding sustainable building design, especially when it comes to cost. There’s no denying that green buildings have a marginally more expensive upfront cost than their traditional counterparts, but a survey conducted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development found that most responders overestimated the cost of green buildings by 15 percentage points.
Many cities, states, and countries also have building regulations that may hinder the design and construction of sustainable structures—the Bullitt Center in Seattle, for example, ran into one such issue due to its UV-light rainwater purification system, as the city requires water be treated with chlorine for purification purposes. Other sustainable building projects run into regulatory barriers before they even start construction, as existing building codes and regulations are often ill-equipped to deal with emerging green technologies.
Similarly, outdated government policies and strict regulations often make it difficult to adapt an existing building’s use and broaden their functionality, hindering the development of multi-use structures—a practice that can help reduce construction waste and make efficient use of limited urban spaces.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for these issues, there are several ways to go about addressing and remedying them. Cost barriers, for example, can be alleviated in part through the implementation of government-funded programs—we already see this in the US with various government assistance programs for constructing or retrofitting energy-efficient buildings.
Lack of awareness and education can be addressed by updating existing training and certification programs to include recent innovations in sustainable design—this would help to expand the pool of qualified professionals, which could in turn take on a greater number of projects. Forging international connections and shared databases in the architectural and design worlds could also help disseminate new ideas, advancements, and products at a faster rate.
Finally, regulatory barriers can be remedied by involving more sustainability professionals in the committees that oversee building code reevaluations—something that is, admittedly, easier said than done, as building codes are determined at the state and local level, which makes enacting widespread regulation changes a bit more challenging.
Ultimately sustainable building design is a necessary step in combating anthropogenic climate change and reducing the built environment’s impact on the natural world. When done correctly, green design is not only an environmentally sound practice, but one that helps reduce operating costs, improve occupant health, strengthen communities, and bolster long-term property value.
If you or a company you work for is looking to move forward with a building project, it’s in your best interest—particularly financially—to seriously consider incorporating elements of sustainable building design in both the planning and construction phases. In doing so, you’ll help reduce waste production, energy usage, and the structure’s overall environmental impact, while also saving money in the long run.