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 climate change, energy-efficient buildings have become more popular than ever due to their reduced environmental impact and lower operating costs.
What is Sustainable Building Design?
Sustainable building design is, put simply, an environmentally conscious way of approaching the architectural process—one that puts sustainability at the forefront of each building phase to ensure optimal building performance and minimize the negative human and environmental impacts associated with the built environment.
In practice sustainable design seeks to construct buildings with a neutral or positive impact by ensuring they operate at peak efficiency, are built using nontoxic, renewable (or recycled) materials, and work with—rather than against—the surrounding biosphere.
Green building certification programs like LEED, BREEAM, Passive House, and the Living Building Challenge provide guiding frameworks for architects, engineers, and urban planners to reference when designing sustainable buildings.
Why is Sustainable Building Design Important?
But in a world where the word “sustainability” is often thrown around, 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 present-day needs. Sustainable building design is a necessary step in combating anthropogenic climate change and is key to 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.
Benefits of Sustainable Building Design
These are some of the advantages of implementing green building practices during and after the initial construction process.
Reduced Environmental Impact
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? Energy-efficient structures save approximately 25% on utility bills when compared to buildings without these energy-saving measures, according to the DOE.
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 Challenges of Sustainable Building Design
Sustainable building design is not, however, without its challenges, especially when projects are slated to be built in heavily urbanized areas with strict or outdated regulations.
Sustainable buildings often 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 because high-quality sustainable materials aren’t yet as numerous as traditional building products, which means competition for available materials is high. Projects aiming for LEED certification can also add $10,000 to more than $30,000 to the overall expense depending on how large the project is, as inspectors charge by the square foot.
Sustainable buildings also require specialized professionals to 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.
However, it may be possible to alleviate cost barriers 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.
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.
These 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.
Lack of Awareness & 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.
Many misconceptions also surround sustainable building design, especially when it comes to cost. While green buildings have a marginally more expensive upfront cost than their traditional counterparts, most responders overestimated the cost of green buildings by 15 percentage points, according to a survey conducted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
Lack of awareness and education can be addressed in part 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.
Sometiems sustainable building design and construction has been coupled with gentrification. When sustainable projects are established in existing urban areas, the very qualities that make those areas desirable often lead to increased property values, which may price out the area’s low-income residents. As a result these residents are forced to find housing elsewhere, often in areas with poor sustainability scores; in short, inequitable design of sustainable building projects effectively excludes a large demographic from actually enjoying their benefits.
Sustainable projects should include a variety of affordable housing options beyond the single-family home or high-rise apartment. Multi-family homes, duplexes, townhomes, and other missing-middle housing types are a few examples of how sustainable housing can be made more inclusive of low-income, multi-generational, and non-traditional families.
The 7 Principles of Sustainable Design
What makes a building sustainable? What factors are architects prioritizing and what principles govern their decisions? Here are seven important principles.
1. Consideration of Site & Context
As perhaps the most important principle of sustainable design, the site and context of a planned structure is key to maximizing its overall efficiency and performance. Site and context determines everything from the building’s orientation and the materials that may be used to which passive design features are actually feasible and which energy sources are going to be the most efficient.
“Increasingly architects and designers are realizing that building designs need to reflect the conditions of the area in which they are located,” Prasoon Shrivastava, CEO and founder of Prasoon Design Studio, previously wrote for gb&d. “For example, buildings in warm climates should utilize tinted windows to cool off the space, rather than air conditioning units.” In designing with local climatic factors in mind, architects are able to both reduce their projects’ carbon emissions and create healthier spaces for their clients, Shrivastava says.
2. Reduced Energy Usage
Reduced energy dependency—especially with regard to non-renewable energy sources—is another hallmark of green building design. This is often achieved by installing 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 the right insulation is used and that windows are sealed properly—both of which help maintain a consistent indoor temperature.
3. Water Conservation
Freshwater should be conserved wherever possible when designing sustainable structures. Green buildings typically achieve this by implementing effective plumbing systems, recycling black- and greywater on-site, and installing water-efficient taps/fittings and appliances.
Rainwater catchment systems that filter and store water that can later be reused to flush toilets, water gardens, and even fill washing machines are another common design feature in green buildings.
4. Use of Green & Recycled Materials
Green building design also places a high priority on using high-quality, eco-friendly materials (e.g. stone, timber, bamboo, adobe) and products in place of mass-produced, non-renewable building materials. These materials tend to have lower embodied carbon, create fewer GHG emissions during their procurement, processing, and manufacturing, and do not contain harmful chemicals or compounds.
When choosing materials or products for a project, verify whether they bear the Red List Free label. The International Living Future Initiative’s Red List is a comprehensive guide to the “worst in class” chemicals, materials, and elements known to cause serious harm to human and ecosystem health. Red List Free products fully disclose 100% of their ingredients at or above 100 ppm in the final product and do not contain any chemicals on the Red List.
Recycled and reclaimed materials—particularly lumber, brick, and steel from demolished structures—are also used in sustainable building design whenever possible to mitigate waste production.
5. Improved Indoor Environmental Quality
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.
6. Resiliency & Long-Term Performance
A big part of sustainable building design is designing structures that last—structures engineered to be as durable as possible. This 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 durable, long-lasting materials with low maintenance requirements, such as rammed earth, stone, low-carbon concrete, and steel.
7. Promotion of Social Equity
Modern green building philosophy places a high importance on promoting social equity, too.
“In its most fundamental definition, equity looks at individual and community health and environmental justice and acknowledges that much of the world has benefitted less from economic development while bearing a disproportionate environmental burden,” David Bergman, program director of the Master of Professional Studies in Sustainable Interior Environments at NYSID, previously wrote for gb&d.
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.
Best Practices for Sustainable Building Design
Sustainable design may be successfully implemented in a variety of 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 seemingly endless.
Conduct a Thorough Site Analysis
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.
Practice Adaptive Reuse When Possible
Designing a building from the ground up can be done in a sustainable manner, but it will never be as sustainable as repurposing and renovating a building that already exists, a process known as adaptive reuse.
Adaptive reuse projects serve as a means of extending buildings’ operational lifespans by updating them to better address the economic and social needs of their respective communities. “Choosing to repurpose an existing building is a socially responsible and sustainable way to bring care closer to the communities that need it,” Aran McCarthy, principal of health care at FCA, previously wrote for gb&d.
Reusing existing buildings helps divert a significant amount of demolition waste from landfills and can even reduce construction costs by as much as 16%.
Choose Sustainable Materials
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.
In architecture daylighting simply refers to the practice of using natural sunlight—as opposed to electric light—to illuminate the interior of a building. By using windows, skylights, reflective surfaces, and other light-admitting features, daylighting can make effective use of indirect or direct sunlight to reduce a structure’s energy loads and operating costs.
Daylight is also crucial to maintaining the body’s circadian rhythm and is good for both occupants’ mental and physical health. “Exposure to natural light has been proven time and time again to have numerous benefits for people, from visual comfort to psychological and neurological benefits like improving mood, reducing stress, enhancing the body’s immune response, and allowing for better sleep,” Tori Wickard, senior project architect at Perkins&Will, previously told gb&d.
Utilize Passive Systems
One of the most effective ways to reduce a building’s overall energy consumption is by incorporating passive systems in its design. In architecture passive design refers to those design strategies that allow buildings to make the most efficient use of natural environmental factors—e.g. wind, buoyancy, and solar energy—to reduce energy consumption.
Rather than rely on mechanical systems for heating, cooling, lighting, and ventilation, passive design enables a building to depend solely on the laws of nature to fulfill these crucial functions. Two of the most common passive design strategies are passive solar and passive ventilation:
- Passive Solar Design. Design in which a building’s walls, floors, and windows are made to reject solar heat during the summer and collect, store, reflect, and redistribute solar heat during the winter; informs everything from building orientation and window placement to the materials used in construction.
- Passive Ventilation. Refers to the process of supplying air to and removing air from an indoor space via the pressure/density differences arising from either wind or buoyancy; informs window placement and building layout.
Incorporate Renewable Energy
An 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.
Solar is the most popular renewable energy source but is by no means the only option. The Urban Frontier House in Montana, for example, utilizes wind energy as well as solar, while countries like Iceland—which is powered almost exclusively by renewable energy—have demonstrated just how viable geothermal and hydro-power can be.
In the United States there exists both state and federal government incentive and assistance programs for a variety of renewable energies.
Optimize for Energy- and Water-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 in part through the installation of ENERGY STAR certified appliances but largely depends on how well the structure is insulated, air-sealed, and whether it makes use of energy-efficient windows and doors.
Similarly, it’s important to reduce water usage as much as possible, something that may be accomplished through the installation of low-flow, WaterSense certified appliances and fixtures. Many sustainable buildings also incorporate some form of rainwater harvesting, a practice that can be as simple as collecting water for use in irrigation or as involved as purifying and treating rainwater for plumbing purposes.
Embrace Biophilia & Green Spaces
Biophilia or biophilic design seeks to connect a building’s occupants directly or indirectly to the environment and the natural world at large. The implementation of biophilic design principles is intended to foster a greater relationship with—along with a responsibility to protect—nature by promoting positive interactions between people and the environment.
We’ve already touched on some biophilic elements like daylighting and natural ventilation, but the most effective examples of biophilia help bring greenery into a space. Living walls and green roofs, for instance, can be a great addition to urban development projects that may otherwise lack access to nearby green spaces. These biophilic design features help provide natural cooling, mitigate excess stormwater runoff, and provide habitats for birds and insects.
Aside from helping to mitigate the urban heat island effect and improve air quality, green roofs and living walls also have positive psychological effects, such as lowering blood pressure, reducing feelings of stress, and improving alertness.
5 Examples of Sustainable Building Design
Here are a few noteworthy examples of sustainable building design from around the country.
Designed by ZeroEnergy Design (ZED), the Acton Passive House in Acton, Massachusetts is a prime example of how sustainable building projects can leverage natural processes and phenomena to their advantage to ensure maximum energy savings.
Nestled into a remote clearing in the woods, the unassuming Acton Passive House—certified to both the PHIUS and Source-Zero standards—produces all of its own energy via a rooftop solar array and boasts incredible efficiency. Dense-packed cellulose insulation wrapped in wood fiberboard helps the building passively retain heat while also possessing a very low or negative embodied carbon. Rigorous air sealing and high-performance windows further serve to reduce the home’s energy consumption.
To minimize the home’s overall environmental impact ZeroEnergy Design elected to construct the Acton Passive House primarily from wood and fiber cement, reducing the amount of concrete required for the build.
“What we were able to do on this project was rely on a wood structure and minimize the concrete, which typically has the highest carbon impact. Through the process we wanted to make sure we weren’t just looking at operational carbon but also considering the embodied carbon—the carbon that goes into the construction,” Stephanie Horowitz, lead architect and managing director at ZED, previously told gb&d.
When the small maritime town of La Conner, Washington decided to upgrade its 1,500-square-foot one-room library, the neighboring Swinomish Indian Tribal Community became one of the project’s largest benefactors. This partnership is reflected in the completed La Conner Swinomish Public Library—designed by the BuildingWork architect team—whose design honors elements of both Coast Salish culture and the town’s historic past.
The first thing patrons see when they arrive at the new library is the 18-foot tall cedar story pole standing outside the front entrance. Designed by Kevin Paul, a Swinomish elder and master carver, the story pole depicts a traditional Salish person with outstretched hands at its base, two salmon to represent sustenance and resources, and an eagle at its peak to represent wisdom.
When it comes to the building itself the library is constructed almost entirely from locally-sourced cross laminated timber, a low-carbon engineered wood product with a high compression strength similar to that of concrete. Wood cladding and detailing, along with decorative cornices and vertically proportioned windows, helps the building emulate the style of La Conner’s historic 1800s-era architecture.
“We’re proud of how it came out from a design standpoint,” Matt Aalfs, founder and principal architect of BuildingWork, told gb&d in a previous article. “It was a wonderful opportunity to figure out how the architecture could reflect native culture in a really authentic way and present a public space that is welcoming to everyone.”
As the first net-positive energy public school in New England, the Annie E. Fales Elementary School in Westborough, Massachusetts blends sustainable and educational design to foster a sense of environmental and social responsibility in young students from an early age.
Designed by HMFH Architects, the Annie E. Fales Elementary School earned net-positive status by employing a rooftop photovoltaic solar grid and 40 geothermal wells to generate its power. HFMH chose to install a sawtooth roof in order to maximize surface area for the school’s south-facing PV panels and increase their efficiency. All in all these renewable energy systems allow Fales to produce 11.6% more energy than it needs.
Fales’ interior learning areas are organized into four project areas, each of which are centered around different landscapes found in Massachusetts: forest, meadow, marshland, and pond. Each area corresponds to a specific grade level and boasts a unique, biome-specific color palette as well as storybook-style murals.
“The murals help get the students excited about where they live, wanting to get out and explore as well,” Caitlin Osepchuk, project architect and associate at HMFH Architects, told gb&d in a previous article. “And foster that love of the environment so they’ll continue to make positive sustainable choices in the future to help maintain the ecosystems they live in.”
Designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects (LMSA), the Casa Adelante 2828 16th Street housing project in San Francisco’s Mission District—an area populated largely by families of Latin American descent—proves cultural and environmental sustainability need not be sacrificed in the name of affordable housing.
Casa Adelante encompasses 143 total residential units, a childcare center, art gallery, community room, and a youth organization, as well as gardening spaces on the 7th floor and roof. These spaces are dedicated to urban agricultural food production and allow residents to grow their own produce, strengthening food security and encouraging the teaching of traditional food-ways.
“Food insecurity is a very big and valid concern for the populations the building serves,” Ryan Jang, principal at LMSA, told gb&d in a previous article. “This idea of combining food and housing security together helps with these huge housing issues that are present in San Francisco and elsewhere.”
Given California’s propensity for natural disasters, Casa Adelante also features a range of precautionary and preparedness measures. The building’s ground floor is raised above the floodplain and any water that is not retained by the roof’s agricultural beds is routed to large stormwater planters in the building’s inner court/adjoining residential open space—both of which help reduce flood risk. A centralized ventilation and air filtration system ensures that residential units will receive clean air even when the skies are filled with smoke from wildfires.
Casa Adelante’s interior receives plentiful natural light and primarily features concrete, metal, fabric, FSC-certified wood, and other sustainable materials. All of the rooms on the building’s ground floor are open and interconnected to facilitate interaction and engagement amongst families and community members.
“It’s really about fighting displacement within another predominantly Latin American community,” Jang says. “It’s about what we with MEDA (Mission Economic Development Agency), our client, call cultural resilience and cultural preservation, fighting against gentrification and displacement so families can find a way to live affordably within the neighborhoods and community they’ve been a part of for a long time.”
5. Powerhouse Brattørkaia, Trondheim
As Scandinavia’s largest energy-positive building, the Snøhetta-designed Powerhouse Brattørkaia is nothing short of a green-engineering marvel. Located in Trondheim, Norway the Powerhouse Brattørkaia office building features a 3,000 m2 solar grid capable of producing a whopping 485,000 kWh annually—enough to power itself, surrounding buildings, and more than 200 electric vehicles.
Brattørkaia’s ultimate goal, however, is not just to maximize the amount of clean energy it produces, but to minimize the amount of energy required to run it in the first place. To accomplish this Snøhetta employed a variety of energy-saving strategies, including: highly efficient insulation, energy-efficient appliances, a seawater-based heating and cooling system, intelligent airflow solutions, and heat-recovery measures.
Powerhouse Brattørkaia was also designed so as to make the effective use of natural daylight throughout the year, drastically reducing the need for artificial lighting.