What Is Green Architecture? What Is Green Design?

When "Green" Is More Than a Color

Example of green architecture, adobe house built into a hillside, large windows for natural light.
Green Architecture Uses Natural and Reclaimed Building Materials, Optimizes Natural Light, and Often Integrates Into the Insulating Earth Instead of Sitting on and Using the Resources of the Earth. Photo by ML Harris / Photographer's Choice RF / Getty Images (cropped)

Green architecture, or green design, is an approach to building that minimizes harmful effects on human health and the environment. The "green" architect or designer attempts to safeguard air, water, and earth by choosing eco-friendly building materials and construction practices.

Common Characteristics of a "Green" Building:

You don't need a green roof to be a green building, although Italian architect Renzo Piano not only created a green roof, but also specified recycled blue jeans as insulation in his design of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

You don't need a vertical garden or green wall to have a green building, yet French architect Jean Nouvel has successfully experimented with the concept in his design for One Central Park residential building in Sydney, Australia.

Construction processes are also part of green building design. How did Great Britain transform a brownfield into the site of the London 2012 summer Olympic Games? Dredging waterways, sourcing building materials, recycling concrete, and using rail and water to deliver materials are just some of their 12 Green Ideas—implemented by the host country and overseen by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the ultimate authority for requiring Olympic-sized sustainable development.

The highest goal of green architecture is to be fully sustainable. Simply put, you do "green" things in order to achieve sustainability. While most green buildings do not have all of the following features, green architecture and design may include:

  • Ventilation systems designed for efficient heating and cooling
  • Energy-efficient lighting and appliances
  • Water-saving plumbing fixtures
  • Landscapes planned to maximize passive solar energy
  • Minimal harm to the natural habitat
  • Alternate power sources such as solar power or wind power
  • Non-synthetic, non-toxic materials used inside and out
  • Locally-obtained woods and stone, eliminating long-haul transportation
  • Responsibly-harvested woods
  • Adaptive reuse of older buildings
  • Use of recycled architectural salvage
  • Efficient use of space
  • Optimal location on the land, maximizing sunlight, winds, and natural sheltering

LEED, the Green Verification:

Since 1993, the U.S. Green Building Council has been promoting green design. In 2000, they created a rating system that builders, developers, and architects can adhere to, and then apply for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. "Projects pursuing LEED certification earn points across several areas that address sustainability issues," writes the USGBC. "Based on the number of points achieved, a project then receives one of four LEED rating levels: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum." The certification comes with a fee, but it can be adapted and applied to any building, "from homes to corporate headquarters."

Whole Building Design:

Green design has many related names and concepts associated with it, besides sustainable development. Some people emphasize the ecology and have adopted names like eco-design, eco-friendly architecture, and even arcology. Others take their cue from the environmental movement, arguably begun by Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring—earth-friendly architecture, environmental architecture, natural architecture, and even organic architecture have aspects of green architecture.

A building can look beautiful and even be constructed from very expensive materials, but not be "green." Likewise, a building can be very "green" but visually unappealing. How do we get good architecture? How do we move toward what Roman architect Vitruvius suggested to be the three rules of architecture—to be well-built, useful by serving a purpose, and beautiful to look at?

The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) argues that sustainability has to be part of the whole design process, from the very start of the project. They devote an entire website to WBDG—Whole Building Design Guide at www.wbdg.org/. Design objectives are interrelated, where designing for sustainability is just one aspect. "A truly successful project is one where project goals are identified early on," they write, "and where the interdependencies of all building systems are coordinated concurrently from the planning and programming phase." Green architectural design should not be an add-on.

It should be the way of doing the business of creating a built environment. NIBS suggests that these systems must be understood, evaluated, and appropriately applied:

  • accessibility
  • aesthetics
  • cost-effectiveness
  • functional or operational
  • historic preservation
  • productivity (comfort and health of the occupants)
  • security and safety
  • sustainability

The 2030 Challenge:

Climate change will not destroy the Earth. The planet will go on for millions of years, long after human life has expired. Climate change, however, can destroy the species of life on Earth that cannot adapt fast enough to new conditions.

The building trades have collectively recognized its role in contributing to the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere. For example, the manufacturing of cement, the basic ingredient in concrete, is reportedly one of the largest global contributors to carbon dioxide emissions. From poor designs to construction materials, the industry is challenged to change its ways.

Architect Edward Mazria has taken the lead to transform the building industry from a major polluter to an agent of change. He has suspended his own architectural practice (mazria.com) to concentrate on the nonprofit organization he established in 2002. The goal set for Architecture 2030 is simply this: "All new buildings, developments, and major renovations shall be carbon-neutral by 2030."

Will governments and the private sector choose to do the green thing?

Green Architecture as a Choice:

"Typically, buildings are designed to meet building code requirements, whereas green building design challenges designers to go beyond the codes to improve overall building performance and minimize life-cycle environmental impact and cost."—American Institute of Architects (AIA)

Examples and Variations of Green Architecture:

Sources: How Can I Determine If a Building Is Green? by AIA at http://www.aia.org/practicing/groups/kc/AIAS078386 [accessed April 1, 2015]; About USGBC and About LEED and WBDG Design Objectives [accessed April 18, 2016]