A Primer on Green Architecture and Green Design

When "Green" Architecture Is More Than a Color

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

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Green architecture, or green design, is an approach to building that minimizes the harmful effects of construction projects 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.

Building a greener home is a choice—at least it is in most communities. "Typically, buildings are designed to meet building code requirements," the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has reminded us, "whereas green building design challenges designers to go beyond the codes to improve overall building performance and minimize life-cycle environmental impact and cost." Until local, state, and federal public officials are persuaded to legislate green processes and standards—just like building and fire prevention practices have been codified—much of what we call "green building practices" is up to the individual property owner. When the property owner is the U.S. General Services Administration, results can be as unexpected as the complex built in 2013 for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Common Characteristics of a "Green" Building

The highest goal of green architecture is to be fully sustainable. Simply put, people do "green" things in order to achieve sustainability. Some architecture, like Glenn Murcutt's 1984 Magney House, has been an experiment in green design for years. 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 (e.g., ENERGY STAR® products)
  • Water-saving plumbing fixtures
  • Landscaping with native vegetation and planned to maximize passive solar energy
  • Minimal harm to the natural habitat
  • Alternative renewable energy 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
  • Rainwater harvesting and greywater reuse

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 a huge aspect of green building. Great Britain transformed a brownfield into the site of the London 2012 summer Olympic Games with a plan for how contractors would build the Olympic village—dredging waterways, strict sourcing of building materials, recycling concrete, and using rail and water to deliver materials were just some of their 12 green ideas. The processes were implemented by the host country and overseen by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the ultimate authority for requiring Olympic-sized sustainable development.

LEED, the Green Verification

LEED is an acronym meaning Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Since 1993, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has been promoting green design. In 2000, they created a rating system that builders, developers, and architects can adhere to and then apply for certification. "Projects pursuing LEED certification earn points across several categories, including energy use and air quality," explains USGBC. "Based on the number of points achieved, a project then earns one of four LEED rating levels: Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum." The certification comes with a fee, but it can be adapted and applied to any building, "from homes to corporate headquarters." LEED certification is a choice and not a requirement by the government, although it may be a requirement in any private contract.

Students who enter their projects in the Solar Decathlon are judged by a rating system as well. Performance is part of being green.

Whole Building Design

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 the WBDG—Whole Building Design Guide. 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 the interrelationships of these design objectives must be understood, evaluated, and appropriately applied — accessibility; aesthetics; cost-effectiveness; functional or operational ("the functional and physical requirements of a project"); historic preservation; productivity (comfort and health of the occupants); security and safety; and sustainability.

The 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 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."

One architect who has taken the challenge is Richard Hawkes and Hawkes Architecture in Kent, United Kingdom. Hawkes' experimental home, Crossway Zero Carbon Home, is one of the first zero carbon houses built in the UK. The house uses a timbrel vault design and generates its own electricity through solar energy.

Looking to a Sustainable Future

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. Eco-tourism is a 21st-century trend, even if eco house designs might appear to be a bit non-traditional.

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. Biomimicry is a term used by architects who use nature as a guide to green design. For example, the Expo 2000 Venezuelan Pavilion has petal-like awnings that can be adjusted to control the internal environment—just as a flower may do. Mimetic architecture has long been an imitator of its surroundings.

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?


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Craven, Jackie. "A Primer on Green Architecture and Green Design." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-green-architecture-and-green-design-177955. Craven, Jackie. (2023, April 5). A Primer on Green Architecture and Green Design. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-green-architecture-and-green-design-177955 Craven, Jackie. "A Primer on Green Architecture and Green Design." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-green-architecture-and-green-design-177955 (accessed June 3, 2023).