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The future of green architecture

Throughout history, homes were built to take advantage of sun, wind and water. The 20th Century: it was assumed that cheap oil would bring light, heat and artificial air. The 21st Century?

Coinciding with the simultaneous bursting of the real estate bubble in many countries and the hardening of credit markets, sustainable architecture has gone from being marginalized to an increasingly common part of any type of project (residences, offices, public works).

The green building has grown in spite of the market downturn according to a 2009 report by McGraw-Hill Construction. They determined that the sector seems insulated from the recession due to an increased awareness of bottom line advantages for owners and a heavy increase in government incentives and mandates of eco-friendly features.

The Economist explains the boom in this type of construction as being due to “rising energy prices, new standards (the European Union’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, Britain’s Code for Sustainable Homes and California’s Green Building Standards Code, to name three recent examples), and improved technologies”.

An economic crisis: an opportunity for sustainable architecture

The sustainable house (an example: CERES EcoHouse) isn’t just a reaction to an increase in energy costs or international or governmental mandates against climate change, but encompasses a general strategy to improve our lives and help us adapt to whatever situation.

A sustainable house is healthier, consumers less energy and generates less waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A sustainable building can also produce food, with the planting of urban gardens (see our report Why we all will be gardeners), whether in backyards or balconies or on walls (vertical gardens).

Sustainable implies better functionality, better health, more energy independence, economic savings, both in residential construction and civic works.

Simple living (or “downshifting” as we discuss in an article) is applied inclusively to increasingly more disciplines, including types of dwellings.

What makes a building green?

Despite the growth of the market, what exactly makes a building “green” is still the subject of debate. There is no unmistakable definition of sustainable building, nor of sustainable- or green- architecture.

Given the difficulty of calculating the degree of sustainability of a house or building, the arrival of several systems of environmental certification, such as LEED in the U.S., the best known, will help give structure to this emerging market.

From the 300 square foot home to a giant skyscraper, there are fundamental concepts and building methods to help assure that construction complies with the main practices of sustainable architecture.

In sustainable construction, high-tech materials and architectural techniques are mixed with ancient concepts and industrial methods. There are products designed to improve the environmental and energy efficiency of already existing houses and buildings: installation of solar thermal collectors (to heat water) and photovoltaics (for the production of electricity); improvement the insulation of windows and walls; installation of low consuming lighting and electrical appliances; among others measures.

The types of materials used in a sustainable construction project, for example, vary as much as the different types of construction or reforms. They include bamboo, straw bale, sustainably-certified wood, recycled stone, metal and other products that are recycled, recyclable, renewable, non-toxic (wool, brick, blocks and panels made with paper, rammed earth, adobe, cooked earth, clay, coconut, mud brick, vegetable fiber plates), and a large etcetera. For its characteristics – cost, durability, insulating character-, even cement can fit in a sustainable construction project.

Choice of building size and type are also important. Building a small prefabricated house does not require the same resources and architectural techniques of a standard house, residential building, skyscraper, or a big functional building (hospital, airport). 

Whether it’s a small prefab house or an airport terminal, sustainable construction dictates not only using non-toxic, functional and natural building materials, but those produced locally, to minimize the energy costs from transport.

Different reports (like Reuter’s Build green to cut emissions fast) make clear that constructing in a sustainable way will dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, both in rich- and developing- countries.

Green construction, natural construction, sustainable design, green architecture

Sustainability in contemporary architecture began to be applied, though still marginally, in the 1970s, by architects like Ian McHarg, in the United States; and Brenda and Robert Vale, in the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Currently, the American Institute of Architects recognizes that half the country’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from buildings, a figure higher than that generated by transportation or industry. 

Sustainable buildings aim to improve efficiency of resources use -energy, water, materials- while at the same time reducing their impact on human health and the environment throughout their lifecycle, through the careful study of placement, design, construction, operation, maintenance and demolition. 

Green building shares the objectives of so-called natural building, that is focused on small-scale building and centers on the use of natural materials that can be obtained locally.

The terms sustainable design and green architecture are also used to refer to a worldwide trend to return to the construction of buildings that are aware of their context and take advantage of an accumulated cultural and technical knowledge, as explained by Rob Hopkins, founder of the movement Transition Culture in his book A Natural Way of Building.

The terms solar architecture and alternative architecture alternative have also experienced a boom recently. 

Recuperating biomimicry (imitating nature)

Scores of traditional building methods originating from all over the world are inspiring many current examples of sustainable construction, with the same naturalness that Antoni Gaudí took from nature in both structural principles, as well as, ornamental elements. 

Permaculture, for example, aims to design human habitats that are healthy and respectful of the environment by mimicking relationships found in nature.

In a recognition of the virtues of traditional building, sustainable construction does not only try to use technological advances, but to recover ancient systems of insulation and orientation, as well as to use local materials with contrasting performance (from stone to adobe, including clay, earth and natural fibers). 

During his trips through Asia, Africa and Latin America, Bill Mollison, co-author of Permaculture One, a book that served as the foundation of permaculture, discovered ancient practices that had contributed to the sustainability of old agricultural and hunter-gatherer cultures, which he helped re-popularize. 

Mollison had originally developed his idea for agricultural production, although he soon saw that the idea could be applied to distinct, interrelated aspects of human life, like construction, education, the economy and social organization. 

Permaculture recuperates for the contemporary world concepts as old as those applied to traditional Mediterranean homes, which are whitewashed to avoid solar radiation; or the traditional orientation toward the south of Northern hemisphere homes, to take advantage of the solar inclination in winter and to avoid the direct rays of the summer rays, when one wants to avoid the sun.

There are other disciplines and schools of thought that explore ecological architecture and share the main characteristics of permaculture. This is the case with the “cradle to cradle” concept of Michael Braungart and William McDonough, an approximation of biomimicry design (that which imitates nature) for whatever type of product, from a shoe to a house or an automobile or a book.

For McDonough and Braungart, whatever product (also a house) should achieve the level of sophistication of a tree: the fruit of the cherry tree that isn’t collected by a farmer or isn’t eaten by the birds or other animals, returns to the earth and is converted into nutrients for that same tree.

This nutrient (from the maxim “waste equals food” of the cradle to cradle concept) in the earth affects other animals and the health of the tree, that grows taller and creates a more imposing shadow, that will serve to protect the farmer, plants and other animals.

The products that are influenced by the “cradle to cradle” idea and those based on permaculture (a word formed by “permanent” and “agriculture”) have been used by architectural studios and builders worldwide.

Both permaculture and the cradle to cradle (C2C) concept model human industry through natural processes in which materials are seen as nutrients that circulate through healthy and safe metabolisms.

For both authors, “the Next Industrial Revolution is the emerging transformation of human industry from a system that takes, makes, and wastes to one that celebrates natural, economic, and cultural abundance”.

Another concept in vogue related to sustainable architecture: bioclimatic architecture relies on similar concepts as permaculture and even C2C. It consists of designing buildings that account for climatic conditions and taking advantage of available natural resources (sun, vegetation, rain and wind act as nutrients).

A bioclimatic house can substantially reduce energy use and even do away with the need for it completely. Dwellings defined as bioclimatic take advantage of concepts used in Roman towns:

  • Orientation: orient windows toward the south (Northern Hemisphere) or toward the north (Southern Hemisphere) to capture more solar radiation in winter and less in summer. In the hottest zones, it’s advantageous to place the windows in the opposite way (back to the equator). In this way, the windowed side will only be radiated by the sun first thing in the morning and the last hour in the evening (reducing the heat flow). Despite the simplicity of this idea, in the past century it has lost popularity.
  • Greenhouse effect: cover windows with large and vertical shutters, on the exterior, to prevent the sun’s rays from entering in summer and the generation of the greenhouse effect, a common occurrence in modern homes and apartments, to the good fortune of air conditioning manufacturers.
  • Thermal insulation: most older European homes were built with thicker walls than those of today’s buildings. Thick walls prevent temperature variation, due to their thermal inertia. Thick walls prevent heat loss in winter and the entrance of heat in summer.
  • Cross ventilation: the difference in temperature and pressure between two areas with opposing orientation.

In addition to permaculture, C2C design and bioclimatic architecture, the Slow Food Movement has also entered into industrial design and even sustainable architecture, with the concept Slow Design.

Slow Design, a topic we’ve covered in an article (see In search of the “tempo” of Slow Design), also can be applied to ecological architecture, referring to:

  • Design processes with more time to research, contemplate, trial the impact of a product on real life and to adjust it to the task for which it has been created.
  • Design for the fabrication of products using local and regional materials or design that helps local industry and artisans.
  • Study of the concept of natural cycles and their subsequent incorporation in design processes and fabrication of a product.
  • Design that focuses on long and stable cycles, such as human behavior and environmental sustainability.

In search of “green” standards

Buildings used to be sustainable, but we’ve moved away from our greener roots just in this past century. “For much of human history, homes were built to make the most of the sun, air, and water”, explains Elsa Wenzel of CNET, “for much of the last century, however, home builders assumed that cheap fossil fuels could provide artificial light, heat, and breezes”.

Several programs incentivize sustainable construction worldwide. In Europe, there is a voluntary program for green building Green Building Programme (GBP), created in 2004 by the European Commission, focused on offering technical help and economic incentives to the owners of non-residential building who want to improve the sustainability of their structure (office buildings, public offices, industrial factories), integrating renewable energy sources.

In the rest of the world, there are initiatives like the Sustainable Building Alliance, or SB Alliance, that tries to provide, according to the organization, an “instrument to defend local specificities while recognizing the necessity of international convergence, socioeconomic and environmental aspects, integration and urban scale analysis, all over the life cycle of the built environment”.

Certifications for sustainable buildings

The growth of systems to certify sustainability in construction lends credibility and prestige to the businesses and individuals that implement best practices when building or remodeling offices and homes.

There are different degrees of stringency in the certification of sustainable construction. The most demanding one -and most difficult to obtain- is the German standard Passivhaus, applied to buildings that reduce their energy requirements so dramatically – by 90%, if compared with traditional construction-, that they do not need any artificial climate control. 

In 2007, the U.S. Green Building Council launched the most utilized and recognized certification system, known as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). 

LEED includes, as evaluation criteria: energy efficiency, efficiency of water consumption, efficiency of heating, use of local materials and recycling of surpluses. 

The LEED guidelines, to which any American construction project can aspire, were created to achieve, according to the agency: 

  • To define “green construction” establishing a commonly accepted standard of measurement.
  • To promote design practices that are integrated into the context of the entire building and its environment. 
  • To recognize environmental leadership in the construction industry. 
  • To stimulate green competition.
  • To make consumers aware of the benefits of sustainability.
  • To transform the construction market.

There are different levels of LEED certification, in function of the number of prerequisites with which the building complies, as well as the points earned in 7 categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency; energy and atmosphere; materials and resources; indoor environmental quality; innovation in design; regional priority.

Through this scoring system, projects can earn a ranking of:

  • Certified (26-32 points).
  • Silver (33-38 points).
  • Gold (39-51 points).
  • Platinum (52-69 points).

Despite recent advances, there still isn’t a standard certification that evaluates the environmental character of buildings. LEED was designed for use in the United States. There are, however, systems equivalent to LEED in other countries:

Recent examples of sustainable residential construction (covered by faircompanies)

Designs for the future

Several specialized electronic publications have surveyed the most heralded trends in sustainable architecture in the past few years:


There are numerous technical advances, some of them free, that help professionals and aficionados to conceive of their own sustainable building projects. Among them: