Living in New York City, I’ve recently noticed something new posted on many building windows.
It’s a sheet of paper, usually taped on the inside of a window, rating the energy efficiency of the building.
This is NYC’s Building Energy Efficiency Rating, something that as of late 2020, must be visibly posted on all buildings 25,000 square feet and above. With the end goal of creating more sustainable architecture, the scale is based on the US Energy Star 1-100 scale. On the scale, 50 points is the national average in any one building category, while anything at 75 or above is “a top performer,” and usually received Energy Star certification.
Most of the buildings I saw, both new and old, were at 50 or below. A “D” rating. Yikes.
Building emission and energy usage are huge environmental problems. In 2017, the entire building and construction industry generated about 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Of that 39%, according to data gathered in 2018, roughly 28% of it came from existing building operations.
If we are to combat climate change and maintain a healthy planet, the way we design, construct, and operate buildings needs to change, and it needs to change now.
What Is Sustainable Architecture?
At its core, sustainable architecture, also called green architecture, is a building design philosophy centered around the idea of designing, creating, maintaining, and deconstructing structures with as minimal an environmental impact as possible. While traditional architectural design is largely focused on building function, aesthetic, and cost, sustainable architecture puts a building’s sustainability and carbon footprint towards the top of the priorities list.
Naturally, this means that architecture that’s built with sustainability in mind often incorporates renewable energy, sustainable building materials, low-flow rainwater management, and intensive environmental temperature control practices like adaptive insulation and ventilation.
How Does Sustainable Architecture Work?
To make sustainable architecture a reality, architects must employ a myriad of techniques throughout a building’s entire life cycle. Some of the most common architectural techniques include:
Passive Sustainable Design
The most holistic of techniques, passive sustainable design means planning on how the everyday environment around a building can affect its sustainability and energy usage.
This could mean a focus on utilizing the sun through sun-facing windows, allowing the sun to light and heat your building during the daytime.
Another common technique is that architects are using energy-saving, slow-acting insulation, meaning your building maintains a comfortable temperature without unnecessary energy use. Really anything that, after everything is said and done, doesn’t require a lot of maintenance and futzing after construction is passive sustainable design.
Active Sustainable Design
This is the realm of renewable power, high efficiency mechanical and electrical design, efficient rainwater management, and more. Having these types of systems means your building actively obtains and effectively uses natural resources necessary during day-to-day operations.
Sustainable Building Materials
Using recycled or easy-to-produce materials cuts down on any building’s carbon footprint. Using sustainable and green building materials cuts down on energy used during construction as well as demolition.
For example, a project that uses locally sourced wood reduces emissions spent transporting building materials dramatically. A building that uses materials that can be reused once the building is demolished dramatically reduces waste.
3 Examples of Sustainable Architecture
Sustainable architecture is a deep and complex field, one that is a lot easier to understand once you see it in action.
1. Triodos Bank Office, Driebergen-Rijsenburg, The Netherlands.
A big consideration in sustainable architecture is what happens at the end of a building’s lifespan, when the structure is no longer needed. What happens to the building’s materials is crucially important, as buildings made of hard to reuse materials like specially welder steel or concrete contribute a large amount of waste and emissions.
The Triodos Bank office in Driebergen-Rijsenburg is fully reconstructable. That means, akin to a set of LEGO, you can disassemble and reassemble the entire building with relative ease. It achieves this miraculous feat by being entirely made of wood. The myriad of wooden pieces is screwed together with exactly 165,312 screws.
Aside from using incredibly sustainable and reusable materials, the office employs excellent passive and active sustainable design. It features solar panels over the parking lot, which supply power to electric cars as well as the building itself. The green roof captures rainwater and uses it for the building’s plumbing.
Described as a “wooden cathedral,” this office building is energy positive, meaning it creates more energy than it uses. Overall, this office feels much more a part of its environment than any hulking steel monolith I’ve worked in
2. Powerhouse Brattørkaia, Trondheim, Norway.
Powerhouse Brattørkaia is a physical testament to the strength of solar power. Its location in Trondheim, Norway, 65 degrees north of the equator, means it gets nearly 20 hours of sunlight in the summer, but a mere five hours in the wintertime. Despite this, due to its vast array of solar panels, the building produces over double the amount of energy its uses. It then distributes this extra solar energy to nearby buildings and transit via a local microgrid, meaning it acts as a mini power plant for the neighborhood.
The building itself, while not made with renewable materials, was very sustainably designed, focusing on maximum sun exposure, maximum energy storage (for the dark winters), intelligent insulation and airflow to control indoor temperature naturally, and usage of nearby seawater to assist with both heating and cooling applications.
Overall, through this incredibly solar-focused design, it’s estimated that the building, despite being constructed using non-renewable materials, will more than make up for the energy and emissions used in its creation and eventual destruction.
3. Flat House, Margent Farm, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom
Flat House is a carbon-zero home built on Margent Farm, a hemp farm in Cambridgeshire in the United Kingdom practicing regenerative farming methods. The farm challenged architecture firm Practice Architecture to use the farm’s own supply of hemp to make the perfect sustainable farm home.
They delivered. The primary build material for the house is hempcrete, a mixture of hemp, lime, and water. The striking outside tiling of the house is made up of hemp tiles, glued together with a sugar-based resin sourced from agricultural waste. The building was made off-site in an energy-efficient factory, then the pre-constructed materials were assembled on-site in only two days. As if we needed any more reasons to love hemp.
Flat House isn’t even connected to an electrical grid, its heating and electricity are supplied through both solar panels and a biomass boiler.
Sustainable Architecture: The Future Is Now
These buildings and homes are not examples of far-out, cutting edge sustainable architecture. They are four examples in a list of hundreds like them. Solar power is cheaper and more effective than ever. Renewable building materials like wood, bamboo, and hemp are becoming more and more viable for buildings of all shapes and sizes. Sustainable architecture isn’t the future, but the present. And it is a key ingredient in the fight against climate change.
Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.
From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.