Top 10 Strategies for Sustainable Architecture & Design
By Michael Tobias
Architects committed to sustainable architecture focus on building design that utilizes materials and construction methods that lessen the impact of development on the environment both during the construction process and once the building has been completed and is in use.
Key concepts that enable architects to design and build environmentally-friendly houses and other eco-friendly buildings hinge on energy efficiency and sustainable resources. Sustainable strategies embrace the full spectrum of technologies developed to ensure buildings are as environmentally-friendly as possible.
Some sustainable strategies are better suited to public buildings, others to small residential dwellings. The site and its location will also have considerable bearing or relevance, and the size of the overall physical footprint will minimize the impact of the site.
Architects committed to green design and engineers with experience in advanced technologies that relate to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), plumbing, electrics, and mechanical engineering services will be able to advise clients on the best strategies for their specific buildings.
In general terms, here are 10 top strategies for sustainable architecture and building design. Some are more specific and focused than others.
Passive Sustainable Design
Passive strategies involve taking advantage of natural environmental factors like the orientation of the sun and climatic conditions when siting a building and deciding where windows will be placed. This enables designers to literally manage day-lighting and natural ventilation to their own advantage, and in this way reduce the energy requirements for the house.
In some climates, thermal-mass techniques may be incorporated into passive sustainable design and used to harness energy from the sun. For example, thick walls are designed with materials including brick, stone, and concrete, that will absorb the sun’s heat during the day and release it into the house when temperatures drop at night.
Active Sustainable Design
Active design strategies involve various engineers who design and implement highly efficient HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and other systems. Energy-efficiency also relies on creating a well-designed building envelope with superior insulation that can block, hold, and release energy, allowing nature to help make the design work.
Renewable energy systems take active sustainable design a step further.
Renewable Energy Systems
Frequently used in conjunction with various passive design strategies, renewable energy systems include those that harness solar and wind energy.
It does take some investment, but generating electricity onsite with photovoltaic panels can make a huge financial impact, cutting costs as you would never have imagined possible.
Other popular technologies include solar thermal panels, ground- and air-source heat pumps, as well as biomass boilers.
On a smaller scale, the energy efficiency of any home can be improved by using energy-efficient appliances and lighting. This should be part of the overall sustainable energy strategy.
Green Building Materials
While some building materials are more sustainable than others, the basic strategy here is to use materials that don’t plunder natural resources and are manufactured using responsible manufacturing techniques. It is also important to avoid materials that contain pollutants. When it comes to paint and sealants, it’s best to choose those that do not contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Board products that contain formaldehyde should also be avoided, and certified flooring should be the first choice.
The strategy also includes using recycled materials.
Maximized Indoor Air Quality
Part of active sustainable design, indoor air quality impacts on both the health and comfort of those who will live or work in buildings. It is vital for architectural design to be sustainable.
Important design elements include well-designed ventilation that will keep the indoor air clean and fresh, adequate air exchanges, and moisture control to avoid the development of mold.
Reducing, reusing, and recycling materials used for construction cuts costs. If the building is designed for durability, and to make efficient use of materials, future waste should also be minimized.
Additionally, there should be a waste management plan that simplifies the task of recycling waste once the house is occupied. The system might involve different containers for different types of waste, glass, plastic, metal, and so on.
Whether the building being constructed is a small rural cottage, a house in the suburbs, a skyscraper in the city, or a public building in the country, stormwater management is essential. Plumbing engineers design storm drains that channel water away from buildings. Traditionally, downspouts from gutters were connected to storm drains, but in the interests of sustainability, it is advisable to allow rainwater to be absorbed into the garden, or, better still, for rainwater to be collected in one or more rain barrels.
Other measures that can assist with sustainable stormwater management include green roofs that are planted to enable infiltration of rainwater and permeable surfaces for driveways and parking areas. Retention ponds also help to reduce runoff, particularly in urban environments.
Harvesting rainwater is not a new concept, but it is one of the top 10 strategies for sustainability. Instead of relying on water from a local authority, or sinking a borehole to access more groundwater, rainwater harvesting is a simple operation that involves collecting rainwater by channeling it from the roof gutters or downspouts into barrels for later use. It is excellent for irrigation, toilet flushing, washing clothes, and cleaning cars. But it isn’t potable unless it is filtered and treated.
A reliable water harvesting system can be incorporated into the initial design of any building very easily.
Another water-saving strategy involved recycling water used for sinks, bathtubs, showers, and clothes and dishwashing appliances and equipment. Frequently used for irrigation, recycled gray water should be treated on-site to minimize any risks. Ideally, this facility would need to be included by the building designer.
The NSF (originally founded as the National Sanitation Foundation), has developed a draft standard, Onsite Residential and Commercial Reuse Treatment Systems, that covers all types of wastewater treatment systems, including gray water.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has guidelines for water reuse which summarizes state requirements and outlines the treatment and uses of recycled water.
Indigenous landscaping, and even gardening on a very small scale, has gained popularity worldwide. Not only are native trees and plants easier to grow, but they also reduce irrigation needs.
Landscaping can also be used as part of passive sustainable design. For instance, planting trees that will shade windows and even the roof of the house on hot days reduces solar heat gain inside the house. An architect would work with the landscaper to ensure that native trees and large shrubs are planted in the right places.
Even though cost is often the primary consideration for sustainable architecture strategies, they all provide long-term savings and impact on our lives in a positive manner.
One thing’s for certain, sustainable architecture isn’t something we need to strive to embrace in the future, it is all-important right now, in the present.
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of both Nearby Engineers and New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.