Sustainable Architecture: 6 Basic Principles for Better Design 

Sustainable architecture is becoming a more important standard in modern design than ever before. Cost is also a significant factor in commercial and home design. Yet, many designers and architects recognize that less sustainable design leads to greater costs down the road.

What is Sustainable Architecture?

Sustainable Architecture

Sustainability is a high-profile buzzword right now. But many people are unsure of what sustainability means in architecture. According to the U.S. General Services Administration sustainable design seeks to “reduce negative impacts on the environment, and the health and comfort of building occupants, thereby improving building performance.”

The objectives of sustainable architecture are to create buildings that reduce waste. The next objective is to limit the consumption of resources and create healthy environments where inhabitants can thrive. Last, sustainable architecture leads to a building’s continued existence that is regenerative.

Paola Sassi puts the goals of sustainable architecture in more simple terms. In her book, Strategies for Sustainable Architecture, she writes about the two aims of sustainable architecture. First, it should have a soft footprint upon the earth by minimizing their impact. Second, sustainable buildings should contribute in a positive way to the social environment in their space.

6 Principles for Sustainable Architecture

The objectives for sustainability in architecture and design should impact every level of design. This includes the planning process, construction, and the continued functioning of the building. The following principles for sustainable architecture are based on Sassi’s expansive coverage of her subject.

The Building Site and Use of Land

The land is a limited resource. Under current architectural models, there is more land and resource use than necessary for healthy living. Therefore, one of the goals of sustainable architecture is to reduce the use of undeveloped green space.

It is also important to utilize areas that have been developed. Creating compact and high-density living with mixed use environments concentrates development. This creates less need to rely on cars and greater dependence on public transport.

Sustainable Architecture Project: Retrofit of a Public Housing Building – Hamilton, Ontario

Sustainable Architecture Project: Retrofit of a Public Housing Building - Hamilton, Ontario

Rather than tear it down, architects in Hamilton, Ontario, chose to retrofit this brutalist-style senior apartment tower built in 1967. The ERA Architects used an expansion of the European Passivhaus standards to achieve the Passivhaus EnerPHit certification.

They used thermal cladding on top of the original concrete. They also used fiberglass windows to make the building as energy efficient as possible. In addition to the reuse of a building and its energy-efficient design, the architects considered the buildings senior residents. They included a new solarium with scenic views and expanded community space.

Community Cultivation

Individual people are the building block of any society. But, it is these people operating together in a community that make a society fulfill deeper needs. Sustainable design begins in a holistic way. It is also supported by the community to create what they need to thrive.

Sustainable building design incorporates ways to create community and balance privacy at the same time. These communities care about the people in them. Therefore, they are invested in creating long-term housing, education, and resources for their members.

Sustainable Architecture Project: Residential Housing Project – Beijing, China

Residential Housing Project - Beijing, China

The Baiziwan housing development consists of 12 residential buildings connected by green spaces and raised walkways. This residential design also has more communal spaces. These include an eco-farm, children’s playgrounds, gyms, and a service center. The bottom of the buildings are integral to the public space. The bottom of the building houses shops, restaurants, senior care, and childcare facilities.

Promotion of Healthy Development

Sustainable design architecture leads to more healthful outcomes for people as well as the environment. This includes the use of materials with chemical compositions that are not harmful to people. They also create a place that leads to better mental health. This means creating spaces of comfort and relaxation.

Sustainable Architecture Project: House of Wood, Straw, and Cork – Magnago, Italy

House of Wood, Straw, and Cork - Magnago, Italy

LCA Architetti designed the House of Wood, Straw, and Cork based on designs of local barns in the area. They used a timber frame, straw insulation, and the cladding from sustainable cork. The straw insulation comes from the waste from neighboring farmers in the area. This helps to ensure that the home has minimal energy demands.

The interior of the home has a minimalist style with a palette of oak, ceramic, and stone. This is to keep the focus of the interior on the exterior through the inclusion of large windows that frame the outdoor spaces.

Materials in the Building Process

When any architect is planning a sustainable building, they must pay special attention to the materials they use. In terms of renewability, renewable resources should be given preference over non-renewable resources. The sourcing of resources should also impact both the quantity of the resource used and which place they look to purchase it.

Architects should also consider the life of the material. They must consider what will happen when the material is disposed of and the energy used to transport the material. Also, the more durable the material, the longer it will last so as not to be thrown away.

Sustainable Architecture Project: Home in the Dolomites – South Tyrol, Italy

Home in the Dolomites

Pedevilla Architects designed this residential space in the Dolomites. They used almost all wood in the design that is sourced from local forests and fabricated by local craftsmen.

These architects designed the walls so that they could be constructed without chemical resins or adhesives. This means, it creates a more healthful environment and that the products can be recycled after use.

They positioned the windows to frame dramatic views of the mountains and bring in light to every space.

Energy Consumption

One obvious aim for architecture sustainability is creating a more sustainable way to use energy and emit less CO2 into the air. In addition to this, sustainable design seeks to replace as much energy that it uses with renewable methods than with fossil fuels.

Architects must seek to use building materials that reduce the need for more energy while providing the same level of comfort.

Even if a zero-energy design is not possible, the building should use active systems that make the most of the energy they use.

Sustainable Architecture Project: Market Drayton MacDonald’s – Shropshire, UK

Energy Consumption

Most people do not associate MacDonald’s with zero energy design. Yet, they created the first net-zero carbon building in the UK. This does not include the menu and consumption in the restaurant, but the building itself.

They insulated the walls with British wool. The architects clad the building using recycled IT and household materials.

They create the signage in the restaurant with coffee bean waste to create a circular waste solution. Along with materials that emit less greenhouse gas, there are two wind turbines and solar panels on site to generate clean power.

The Use and Availability of Water

The Use and Availability of Water

Another principle of sustainable architecture is the preservation of usable water. While fresh water is renewable, many environments are using more water than their area can renew and sustain from ground sources.

Therefore, the best designs in sustainability create buildings that renew and use water from other sources such as rainfall and also minimize the discharge of “black” and “gray” water into the sewage system.

Sustainable Architecture Project: Kendeda Building – Atlanta, Georgia

Miller Hull Partnership and Lord Aeck Sargent created this sustainable building design on Georgia Tech’s campus.

They used recycled and sustainable materials for its structure. Water recycling is another part of its design. In fact, this building generates more water and electricity than it can use. This building captures rainwater and treats it. They use it in sinks, showers, and drinking fountains.

The drains capture the greywater and diverts it to a wetland where they treat it and use it to support vegetation. The design also reduces the amount of water the building needs by installing composting toilets.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)FAQ

What are sustainable building strategies that I can use in my own home?

Many people can’t hire an architect and build their home from scratch. But, there are things you can do to make your home a more sustainable building. You can use strategies to capture rainwater like barrels that attach to your gutters. Use this rainwater to water your outdoor plants. When it is time to replace items on your home like windows or siding, choose options that are more sustainable, long-lasting, and energy efficient. Take advantage of government programs that allow you to install solar panels to generate your own energy.

Is sustainable architecture expensive?

There is no denying the fact that most sustainable building strategies are more expensive than those for standard buildings. But, if you think in the long-term, sustainable architecture is also longer lasting. Therefore, the longer you are in a certain space and the longer it lasts, you will benefit from the cost to value ratio.

What are the different types of sustainable architecture?

There are many types of sustainable building strategies. There are strategies for utilizing less energy, using less water, using sustainable products that you buy from local sources. There are also less obvious goals that people have for sustainable architecture. These include greater community involvement and healthier living environments.

Why do some architects focus on sustainable architecture projects?

There are some architects who are responding to the need and desire of clients to live in a way that minimizes their footprint. But there are also some architecture firms that focus on sustainability projects because of personal convictions and interests.


Sustainable architecture is a greater passion for some people and not others. Yet, most of us want to live in a way that sustains our world for our needs. Sustainable building practices will help ensure that this is possible for all of those who also come after us.