Sustainable Architecture Blog: Should buildings be green or sustainable?

Home » Sustainable Architecture Blog: Should buildings be green or sustainable?

Last week the blog looked at the future of sustainable architecture, this week we explore the differences between sustainable, green and natural architecture. Sustainability appears to be a much more popular concept in professional circles than it is being green. So should architects distance their designs from being labeled as green?

In recent years, the prefix green has become increasingly unpopular, particularly in professional circles, in promoting environmentally responsible architecture.

But what does green mean? The word brings to mind a wide range of associations. It has grown to be synonymous with environmentally-friendly lifestyles. But for many, green simply means that the end product minimises effects on natural resources; producing less waste in the process.

A lot of the backlash against using the word green stems from the trend to promote businesses and brands as environmentally friendly, even when they are not. This practice is known as ‘Greenwashing‘. Fortunately many of the underhand tactics used to make businesses appear environmentally responsible, have now been curtailed by international advertising standards and regulatory bodies. However, it seems that architects prefer to promote their designs as sustainable rather than green.
In recent discussions with architecture students, both AEES postgraduates at CAT and undergraduates from other colleges, the opinion was that the phrase ‘green architecture’ has connotations with natural building. To some it lacks precision, being more issue driven than quantitative in a measurable manner. It seems that green building is not seen as being cutting edge in the same way as sustainable architecture often is.

Natural building focuses on using local resources to negate the environmental impact of a building. These resources can include geological factors and the surrounding ecology. The use of plentiful materials that have not be treated with synthetic chemicals is often key to reducing the ecological impact. In general this means that many of the building processes are informed by historic methods of building. Therefore natural building tends to rely on human labour, more so than cutting edge technology.

Popular raw materials include stone, clay, sand and locally sourced & renewable wood. These materials can be combined to create surprisingly resilient structures. For instance, earthen architecture is one of the oldest examples of built environments. Cob, rammed earth and adobe are all examples of earthen architecture building methods.

So how does natural building compare to sustainable architecture?

Sustainability as a concept can often be contradictory and muddled. To be sustainable is be aware of the long-term; the effects of what you do on your environment and the future. To sustain is not to over-reach but to endure. In this interpretation of the definition, sustainability is about so much more than just being green.

However, a building can claim to be sustainable without being truly environmentally responsible. If a building is energy efficient then it can be argued that the structure is economically sustainable. Indeed, energy efficiency has become the over-riding consideration for much of sustainable architecture. An architect may design a building that is totally energy efficient but it might not be green. As sustainable assessment methods, such as LEED and passivhaus certification, become more popular the aim of many sustainable building projects have shifted. The aim might now be to achieve a certain rating at the expense of the environment.

An example of this is the use of concrete as a building material. Concrete has a high thermal mass and therefore, can be very efficient at storing heat or insulting buildings. This can make it very energy efficient. But the production of concrete is very energy-intensive. The concrete industry emits large amounts of carbon emissions because of transport and production. A final consideration is the fact that concrete is resilient, so the building may last a long time. The materials needed for repair might be reduced. This highlights how a construction material can be seen as sustainable but not necessarily green.

The argument for and against labeling building methods as green will continue to rage. It is obvious that professionals might not want their projects defined as being green but architects should not be afraid to label their sustainable processes as green.

By designing buildings that have a holistic approach and a green ethos, architects can consider the wider impacts on climate and environment. This must be the goal of all sustainable architecture.

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