Sustainable Architecture

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Sustainable architecture

Sustainable architecture refers to the practice of designing buildings which create living environments that work to minimize the human use of resources. This is reflected both in a building's construction materials and methods and in its use of resources, such as in heating, cooling, power, water, and wastewater treatment.

The operating concept is that structures so designed "sustain" their users by providing healthy environments, improving the quality of life, and avoiding the production of waste, to preserve the long-term survivability of the human species .

Hunter and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute say the purpose of sustainable architecture is to "meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The term, however, is a broad one, and is used to describe a wide variety of aspects of building design and use. For some, it applies to designing buildings that produce as much energy as they consume. Another interpretation calls for a consciousness of the spiritual significance of a building's design, construction, and siting. Also, some maintain that the buildings must foster the spiritual and physical wellbeing of their users.

One school of thought maintains that, in its highest form, sustainable architecture replicates a stable ecosystem . According to noted ecological engineer David Del Porto, a building designed for sustainability is a balanced system where there are no wastes, because the outputs of one process become the inputs of another. Energy, matter, and information are cascaded through connected processes in cyclical pathways, which by virtue of their efficiency and interdependence yield the matrix elements of environmental and economic security, high quality of life, and no waste. The constant input of the sun replenishes any energy lost in the process.

Sustainability, as it relates to resources, became a widely used term with Lester Brown's book, Building a Sustainable Society, and with the publishing of the International Union on the Conservation of Nature's "World Conservation Strategy" in 1980.

Sustainability then came to describe a state whereby natural renewable resources are used in a manner that does not eliminate or degrade them or otherwise diminish their renewable usefulness for future generations, while maintaining effectively constant or non-declining stocks of natural resources such as soil , groundwater , and biomass (World Resources Institute ).

Before "sustainable architecture," the term "solar architecture" was used to express the architectural approach to reducing the consumption of natural resources and fuels by capturing solar energy . This evolved into the current and broader concept of sustainable architecture, which expands the scope of issues involved to include water use, climate control, food production, air purification, solid waste reclamation , wastewater treatment, and overall energy efficiency . It also encompasses building materials, emphasizing the use of local materials, renewable resources and recycled materials, and the mental and physical comfort of the building's inhabitants. In addition, sustainable architecture calls for the siting and design of a building to harmonize with its surroundings.

The United Nations lists the following five principles of sustainable architecture:

  • Healthful interior environment. All possible measures are to be taken to ensure that materials and building systems do not emit toxic substances and gasses into the interior atmosphere . Additional measures are to be taken to clean and revitalize interior air with filtration and plantings.
  • Resource efficiency. All possible measures are to be taken to ensure that the building's use of energy and other resources is minimal. Cooling, heating, and lighting systems are to use methods and products that conserve or eliminate energy use. Water use and the production of wastewater are minimized.
  • Ecologically benign materials. All possible measures are to be taken to use building materials and products that minimize destruction of the global environment . Wood is to be selected based on non-destructive forestry practices. Other materials and products are to be considered based on the toxic waste output of production. Many practitioners cite an additional criterion: that the long-term environmental and societal costs to produce the building's materials must be considered and prove in keeping with sustainability goals.
  • Environmental form. All possible measures are to be taken to relate the form and plan of the design to the site, the region, and the climate. Measures are to be taken to "heal" and augment the ecology of the site. Accommodations are to be made for recycling and energy efficiency. Measures are to be taken to relate the form of building to a harmonious relationship between the inhabitants and nature .
  • Good design. All possible measures are to be taken to achieve an efficient, long-lasting, and elegant relationship of area use, circulation, building form, mechanical systems, and construction technology. Symbolic relationships with appropriate history, the Earth, and spiritual principles are to be searched for and expressed. Finished buildings shall be well built, easy to use, and beautiful.

The NMB Bank headquarters in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, is an example of sustainable architecture. Constructed in 1978, this approximately 150,000-ft2 (45,500-m2) complex is a meandering S-curve of 10 buildings, each offering different orientations and views of gardens. Constructed of natural and low-polluting materials, the buildings feature organic design lines, indoor and outdoor gardens, passive solar elements, heat recovery, water features, and natural lighting and ventilation. Built for an estimated 5% more than a conventional office building, the NMB building's operating costs are only 30% of those of a conventional building. Another example is the Solar Living Center in Hopland, California, which employs both passive and photovoltaic solar elements, as well as ecological wastewater systems. The rice straw bale and cement building is constructed around a solar calendar.

Sustainable architecture as a movement

Some maintain that sustainability, as it relates to architecture, refers to a process and an attitude or viewpoint. Sustainability is "a process of responsible consumption, wherein waste is minimized, and buildings interact in balanced ways with natural environments and cycles, balancing the desires and activities of humankind within the integrity and carrying capacity of nature, and achieving a stable, long-term relationship within the limits of their local and global environment." (Rocky Mountain Institute.)

However, sustainable architecture does not necessarily mean a reduction in material comfort. Sustainability represents a transition from a period of degradation of the natural environment (as represented by the industrial revolution and its associated unplanned and wasteful patterns of growth) to a more humane and natural environment. It is doing more with less.

Proponents of sustainable architecture occasionally debate the broader applications of the term. Some say that sustainable buildings should generate more energy over time (in the form of power, etc.) than was required to construct, fabricate their materials, operate, and maintain them. This is also referred to as "regenerative architecture," which John Tillman Lyle sums up in his book, Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development, as "living on the interest yielded by natural resources rather than the capital." Others simply see it as an approach to making buildings less consumptive of natural resources.

Spiritual aspects of sustainable architecture

A spiritual viewpoint is that sustainable architecture is "stewardship," a recognition and celebration of the human environment as a vital part of the larger universe and of humankind's role as caretakers of the earth. Viewed in this way, resources are regarded as sacred. Another perspective is that the creation of a building in the likeness of a living system is somewhat religious, as a divine entity creates a living order.

Although the term communicates slightly different meanings to various audiences, it nevertheless serves as a consciousness-raising focus for creating greater concern for the built environment and its long-term viability. Rather than representing a return to subsistence living, buildings designed for sustainability aim to improve the quality and standards of living. Sustainable architecture recognizes people as temporary stewards of their environments, working toward a respect for natural systems and a higher quality of life.

[Carol Steinfeld ]



Barnett, D., and W. Browning. A Primer on Sustainable Building. Colorado: Rocky Mountain Institute, 1995.

Dimensions of Sustainable Development. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 1990.

Lyle, J. Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994.

Nebel, B. J. Environmental Science: The Way the World Works. 3rd ed. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Orr, D. W. Ecological Literacy. New York: State University of New York Press, 1992.

World Resources 199293: A Guide to the Global Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.


Kremers, J. "Sustainable Architecture." Architronic December 1996 [cited July 2002] <>.