Sustainability as an Architectural Concept

The architectural concept plays a crucial role in guiding an architect’s decision-making process, particularly concerning design. Although architecture is commonly recognized as the art of constructing physical structures, a building concept encompasses more than artistic expression. Sustainable architecture has emerged as a prominent trend in the field, gaining momentum in the 1980s. However, the underlying principles of sustainability are not entirely new, with the term itself being a relatively recent addition.

“As an architect, you design for the present, with an awareness of the past for a future which is essentially unknown” Norman Foster

What is a Sustainable Architectural concept?

Sustainable architecture is an all-encompassing terminology used to describe sustainable designs. These architectural specimens involve the use of energy consumption in the building design to reduce the carbon footprint of each structure.

Sustainable architecture starts with choosing ecological building materials with a minimum negative environmental impact. The design process incorporates green architecture, built environment design, renewable energy resources, recycled materials, heating and cooling systems, natural light and natural ventilation, zero-waste system, and advancements to support modular living. The focus is on creating a healthy, productive environment for the building’s inhabitants.

Principles of sustainable design include:

  • Use of environmentally friendly products
  • Optimize building site potential
  • Enhancement of indoor environmental quality
  • Protection and conservation of resources, such as water
  • Optimize renewable energy
  • Enhance operational and maintenance procedures

Sustainable architecture reduces energy consumption and improves your standard of living. Green rating systems such as BREEAM and LEED extensively specify the necessity for assessments of sustainability metrics. These rating systems provide a framework for sustainable development.

Other related architectural concepts:

Sustainability is an umbrella for other architectural concepts, such as green architecture, climate-responsive, net-zero, biophilic design, biomimicry, and vernacular architecture. In this article, we will define each one of these concepts.

A. Green Architecture

A building that reduces or eliminates a negative impact on the environment. One that creates a positive influence on the environment and climate. Green buildings may include any of the following features:

  • Solar or another form of renewable energy
  • Healthy indoor air quality
  • Efficient energy and water resources
  • Adaptable design to changing environment
  • Utilization of green roofs and rain gardens
  • Use of non-toxic, sustainable, low-impact, and ethical materials
  • Reduction of waste and pollution
  • Recycling and re-use abilities
  • Design and construction that considers the quality of life of occupants
  •  Consideration of environmental needs in design, construction, and operation

When comparing green vs. sustainable, the primary difference is that sustainability design is a broad ideology that takes into consideration social, environmental, performance, and financial implications. The green design focuses more on the environmental aspects.

Bahrain World Trade Center, Manama, Bahrain

Architect: Atkins

The Bahrain World Trade Center (BWTC) is a 50-floored, twin-tower complex built in 2008 by the world-renowned architectural firm Atkins. BWTC is set to conquer the world as it is the first-ever skyscraper in the world to have incorporated wind turbines into its blueprint. The two towers are interconnected by three sky bridges, each holding 225 kW wind turbine. These turbines supply up to 15% of the twin towers’ needs. In other words, it helps reduce the building’s energy consumption and carbon discharge.

B. Climate-Responsive Design

The climate-responsive design refers to the architecture that reflects the particular region-specific weather conditions of the peculiar area. It uses data on weather patterns and factors like sun, wind, rainfall, and humidity. The building structure is built according to the same.

In climate-responsive design, the environment is analyzed to determine the climate resources that can be utilized and the negatives in a climate that need to be avoided. This is furthered by applying the right passive strategies in design to support the analysis.

Climate data is gathered by addressing questions such as “Determining the sun’s position in the sky at a given time and season?”, “How much rain falls on the site each season?” , and “What effect will the wind have on the building keeping in mind the occupant’s comfort?”. The building should be adaptive to changing environmental conditions to meet its functional requirement and to provide comfort.

Chesa Futura , Sankt Moritz , Switzerland

Architect: Norman Foster

“Chesa future” means house of the future. The structure is made by merging the latest technology with traditional construction techniques of that particular region of a Swiss mountain. This three-story apartment building is in the shape of a bubble. The whole building’s exterior is made of local wood larch and will last for a century without maintenance. According to the climate of that area, the facade is open to allow light to enter, and the Northside is close to save energy. 

C.  Net-Zero Architecture

By definition, “net-zero”, also known as carbon neutrality, is the act of negating or canceling the number of greenhouse gases produced by human activity by reducing existing emissions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Net-Zero Energy is when the building is able to offset or counterbalance the amount of energy required to build and operate throughout its lifetime in all aspects of the site, source, cost, and emissions.

Although net-zero buildings represent a fragment of new construction projects, the technology, tools, and knowledge that architects have acquired over the past years have made designing a net-zero building the new norm. To design net-zero buildings, the following account to contribute to this global objective:

  • making use of bioclimatic architecture and passive concepts
  • provide renewable energy on-site whenever possible
  • using energy efficiency of appliances and lighting
  • considering embedded carbon.

The Unisphere, Maryland, U.S.A

Architect: Ewing Cole

The Unisphere stands in the middle of the city in downtown silver spring as a sterling example of technologies embodied, making it a fully sustainable, net-zero energy construction. Completed in 2018, the clients (United Therapeutics) expected nothing less than the world’s largest office building that works on the concept of zero energy. The Unisphere amalgamates automation like Solar Photovoltaic systems, Geothermal wells, high-performance electromagnetic envelopes, earth-coupled heating-cooling systems, a thermal pool, etc., helping the building function with a no carbon footprint. The building sells more power than it buys with the help of 3,000 solar panels that surplus energy from the thousands of systems during the day and sells minimum power back from the grid to the building in the evenings. The company installed a centerpiece in the central atrium of the headquarters called the Energy Wheel to make the design stimulating and start a dialogue about energy consumption between the employees. The energy wheel uses real-time data to display its energy use, hence explaining how the net-zero emissions work. 

D.  Biophilic Architecture

‘Biophilia’ can be defined as a love of nature. Biophilic design is an approach to architecture that seeks to connect building occupants more closely to nature. Biophilic-designed buildings incorporate design elements to create a more productive and healthier built environment for people.

Biophilic designs include a range of strategies that a designer or architect can incorporate into their building designs. Some of the most common ideas include: 

  • Addition of plants and trees into walls, interior design, roofs, and landscaping
  • Use of natural light
  •  Attempting to break down the barrier between inside and outside via extensive use of skylights, sliding doors, and balconies
  • Introduction of water features
  • Where possible, encourage wildlife, particularly insects and small birds
  • Using images and colors associated with the natural world
  • Copying the random patterns found in nature within facades, floor plans, or wallpaper
  •  Using natural materials, particularly timber, clay or wool in the structure and furniture

Amazon Spheres, Seattle, United States

Architects: NBBJ

Copyright: Photo © Bruce Damonte

Amazon’s Spheres embraces Biophilia and are inspired by Nature. The large glass domes, covered in pentagonal panels, are home to over 40,000 plant species and function as a verdant employee lounge and workspace. Designed by NBBJ and Site Workshop landscape firm, this lush green complex opened in January 2018. While the spheres are generally reserved for Amazon employees, they open to the public for weekly headquarters tours, as well as an exhibit on the ground floor. The Spheres’ Living Walls are vertical gardens featuring over 25,000 plants woven into 4,000 square feet of mesh are a creative demonstration of biodiversity and have functional benefits, including reducing the urban heat island effect (urban areas tend to be significantly warmer than surrounding rural areas due to human activities and darker surfaces), in addition to purifying indoor air and reducing indoor air pollution, as well as providing both natural cooling and insulation for buildings.  

E.  Biomimetic Architecture

Biomimicry is derived from the Greek word; Bio means life, and mimicry means to imitate. Biomimicry Architecture; is often referred to as a unique and technical approach to mimicking nature in creating various designs in architecture. The structure inspired by nature can be strong yet sustainable since nature is a long-lasting system. The buildings are designed to mimic the functions of nature. The design is limitless since nature has no bounds, and design inspired by nature also has no bounds.

Biomimicry can shape our structure in several ways; Functioning like nature, Appearance like nature, and Utilizing nature as elements. Architecture is a path toward sensitive and nature-inspired architecture. Architecture that draws inspiration from nature contributes to developing sustainable built environments, leading to a deeper understanding of how nature operates. Through this approach, we gain valuable insights and knowledge from nature’s mechanisms and apply them in creating more environmentally friendly structures. The following are the three different categories of biomimicry:

  • Organism Level – The structure’s form and façade are directly inspired by nature.
  • Behavior Level – The structure’s design is inspired by the working or functioning of nature and its elements.
  • Ecosystem Level – The structure is inspired by creating a self-sufficient and sustainable structure and environment, taking inspiration from nature and its work.

Esplanade Theatre on the Bay, Singapore

Architect: Michael Wilford

The architect was asked to design a glass dome for an expressive view in all directions for the interior. However, Singapore is so close to the equator, which is a hot–humid climate, so that an entire glass dome could have allowed the interior of the building to overheat. Based on the biomimetic design framework, this project was a top-down approach starting from the ‘design problem.’ Wilford reframed the problem by understanding the need for ‘a new skin design of the glass dome’. He initially searched for bio-role models that have a similar morphology of the glass dome and their skins that have a thermoregulation capacity to protect from the heat. Inspired by the local durian fruit shell’s characteristics, Wilford proposed a new design concept of an alternative double skin envelope that can help to reduce excessive solar heat inside the building.

G. Vernacular Architecture

The word vernacular comes from the Latin word “vernaculus” meaning domestic or native, usually related to a country. Vernacular architecture may be considered as one of the oldest architectural design concepts.

Vernacular architecture is an architectural design style and concept that develops from a place’s particular climate and social conditions. It focuses on local construction with traditional and regional materials. While later architectural styles may have become similar, vernacular architecture has always been unique as a response to the site. It is considered a symbol of the cultural identity of a particular region and accommodates the specific needs and values of the region and culture.

Vernacular architecture connects people and nature in several ways – design, materials, features, characteristics, and built environment protecting natural resources that are part of environmental sustainability. Many of the sustainable strategies are adopted from vernacular architecture. Here are five essential sustainable strategies and approaches one can learn from Vernacular architecture:

  • Climate responsive design
  • Use of Regional and low energy Materials
  • Passive design techniques – Increased ventilation and thermal comfort design
  • Quality-oriented construction techniques
  • Connecting people and the Natural environment

University of Doha, Doha

Architect: Kamal El Kafrawi

At the University of Doha, each chimney works independently as a thermal regulator of the interior space. Referencing the architecture of the windcatcher, a traditional element of Arab architecture that passively creates cross ventilation and cooling, the chimneys renovate the interior air constantly and take advantage of air currents. As we can see in the cover image, the vents are oriented toward predominant cool air and staggered to avoid blocking these currents. The interior of each chimney is divided into two parts to let hot and cold currents flow without mixing each other. First, the cool air passes through the openings of the vent and hits its interior wall; Because of the stack effect, cool air with more density descends to the lower levels of the building and cools the interior space; Once this cool air becomes hot, at the inhabitant level, it ascends again to the double-height space and leaves through small openings located in the other side of the chimney. Through this simple, passive, and inexpensive process, the air at human height stays cool during the day. 


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