How to Design a Sustainable Building

Buildings are responsible for about 40% (1) of global energy consumption and about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. They are a fundamental piece to our shift to a lower-carbon future. In 2021 direct and indirect emissions from buildings operations rebounded to about 10 Gt, or 2% higher than in 2019 and about 5% higher than 2020 (2). Creating an eco-friendly structure entails taking multiple aspects into account to reduce its negative effects on the environment and enhance energy efficiency and the well-being of occupants. The foundation of any design endeavor lies in establishing clear sustainability targets, which determine how green you want the project to be. By defining specific sustainability objectives, such as minimizing energy consumption, utilizing renewable materials, optimizing water usage, and enhancing indoor air quality, you gain valuable insights into the building’s ecological impact. In this article, we will review the different ways you can make your project sustainable by incorporating both passive and active design elements, that can fulfill the requirements for various green building certifications.

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Passive Sustainable Design

Passive sustainable design plays a crucial role in creating energy-efficient buildings and reducing their environmental impact. It includes designing a building’s heating, cooling, lighting, and ventilation systems while considering the effects of the sun, wind, flora, and other natural resources on the site. An effective passively planned building will virtually “default to nature.”

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1. Orientation

A building’s proper orientation can assist in minimizing direct sun exposure and maximize natural ventilation, which can help reduce energy use and increase indoor comfort. It is feasible to lessen the need for heating and cooling systems and increase indoor comfort by positioning the building to maximize sun exposure in the winter and minimize it in the summer.

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2. Insulation

In order to decrease heat gain in the summer and loss in the winter, insulation is a passive design method that entails enhancing a building’s thermal envelope. This maintains a comfortable indoor climate while using less energy for heating and cooling. Insulation can be added to a building’s walls, roof, floor, and windows to lessen heat transfer.

3. Openings

Openings allow natural light to enter a building, minimizing the need for artificial lighting throughout the day. They also give ventilation, vistas to the outside, and a link to the surrounding environment. Proper ventilation aids in the regulation of indoor air quality, the reduction of indoor pollution, and the enhancement of overall indoor comfort. It can also help with passive cooling and heating by enabling interior and outdoor air to exchange. It is critical to consider the orientation and size of openings, the usage of shading devices, and the overall thermal performance of the building envelope when designing natural ventilation systems.

4. Green Roofs and Green Walls

Green roofs and walls offer numerous advantages, including greater insulation and thermal performance, reduced stormwater runoff, increased biodiversity, and improved air quality. When building green roofs and walls, it is critical to consider elements such as the type and amount of vegetation, the growing medium, and the drainage and irrigation systems. Proper design and maintenance are essential for maintaining these features’ long-term performance and durability.

Active Sustainable Design

To provide comfortable conditions inside a building, active design makes use of active building services systems, such as mechanical ventilation, electric lighting, and so forth. On the other hand, active design features are not restricted to those that rely on less ‘green’ sources of power and can be employed to make a building more environmentally friendly.

1. Energy efficiency

In commercial buildings, lighting, refrigeration, and ventilation use the most energy. Computers and office equipment take up less than 15%, and space heating takes up the least energy.

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13% of the world’s electricity is consumed by lighting, which accounts for 5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Energy-efficient LEDs can replace lighting sources like incandescent light bulbs and halogen lamps, which can positively impact the environment (?).

Effective HVAC systems often exchange heat between air brought in the outside and air released inside a room. Only sensible heat or both sensible and latent heat may be exchanged by the system. This heat-recovery system lowers the system load by preheating and/or precooling ventilation air. The best energy-efficient HVAC systems rely on different technologies to conserve energy (?).

2. Install Smart Appliances

The system integrates with a home’s management system and modifies internal temperatures according to the outside conditions and the number of occupants. The gadgets gradually reduce a building’s carbon footprint and lower utility bills.  We can decrease energy usage, maintenance expenses, and equipment longevity using smart digital solutions (?). ENERGY STAR-certified products offer the following features with linked capability to promote interoperability: low energy consumption, energy use reporting, and consumer control of all data (?).

3. Rainwater Harvesting

Rainwater harvesting systems decrease an occupant’s reliance on city water sources. The detrimental effects of buildings on the environment can be lessened by using retention ponds and pervious pavement, which slow down runoff and capture it. How is Stormwater Managed in the GCC? (4) Madurai is a city in India of over 1 million people, where 83% of buildings use rainwater harvesting (5).

4. Green Building Certifications

Obtaining green building certification is one of the most widely used techniques to make a building more sustainable. List of sustainable building certifications (3).

Green building rating tools are used to assess and recognize buildings that meet certain sustainability requirements or standards. Certifications vary in their approach and can be applied to the planning and design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and eventual demolition phases of a building. Green Building Regulations and Specifications are based on the principle of improving the performance of buildings in terms of reducing the consumption of energy, water, and materials and improving public health, safety, and general welfare.

Ultimately, certification doesn’t necessarily imply that a building is genuinely sustainable. Even if a building satisfies all the criteria for certification, it may still have serious sustainability issues. For these reasons, while evaluating the sustainability of a building, it’s crucial to look beyond certification. We must aim for constant progress and go above and beyond the basic standards to design truly sustainable buildings.

Following are the Sustainable building design principles that play an important role when designing energy-efficient, sustainable structures. Not all these approaches must be integrated into a building’s design for it to be sustainable. However, implementing even one of these crucial examples of sustainable building design may significantly improve a building’s sustainability level.

Here they are all (in no particular order):

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5. Zero Energy Buildings

The usage of non-renewable energy in the building industry is decreased because zero-energy buildings (ZEBs) generate enough renewable energy to cover their own annual energy needs (?). ZEBs include renewable energy systems that can supply enough energy to cover residual needs while also reducing energy use through energy efficiency. Moving toward ZEBs has several long-term benefits, including as fewer negative effects on the environment, lower operating and maintenance costs, higher resilience to power outages and natural catastrophes, and increased energy security.

Most of the Net Zero Energy Buildings are still tethered to the electric grid, allowing for the usage of traditional energy sources (natural gas, electric, etc.) when they are unable to supply the building’s energy needs. Conversely, if permitted by legislation, excess energy produced on-site should be exported back to the utility grid when it exceeds the needs of the building (?).

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Read more about Net Zero Energy Buildings here

Why Sustainable Design Matters

Sustainable design will be necessary to make sure that everyone can live in the future as climate change continues to affect our planet and civilization. It goes without saying that man-built buildings have made significant contributions to energy waste and carbon emissions. Reduced emissions that warm the planet and affect the climate can only be achieved by designing more environmentally friendly buildings and enhancing the sustainability of buildings that exist.

When you are ready to begin, Our Team at Alpin Limited provides consultancy services on designing Sustainable buildings. Reach out to us at or give us a call at +971-2-234-6198.