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What Is Green Architecture and How Does It Help the Environment?

Curious about green architecture? Here's what green architecture is, how it helps the environment, and examples from around the world.

Written by
Samantha Wood

As global industries come together to combat the issue of climate change, architecture proves to be a standout player in the game. This might come as a surprise, but it turns out that buildings and construction account for a whopping 39% of energy-related CO2 emissions. This offers an opportunity for green architecture to make a big difference. 

What Is Green Architecture? 

Green architecture is a method of minimizing the negative effects built structures have on their surrounding environment. It’s a philosophy that draws on the environment as inspiration to deliver low-impact, adaptable, and healthy spaces.

Green buildings are made in accordance with this thinking. They are designed, constructed, and operated with a focus on conserving energy, sourcing eco-friendly/recycled materials, and preserving the biodiversity of the area. 

Think solar panels, commercial composting toilets, and rainwater harvesting. Also, consider things like improved resiliency guidelines that account for natural disasters to create longer-lasting buildings. These initiatives are becoming more commonplace, and they all represent ways that infrastructure can minimize its environmental footprint. 

Certified groups and individuals come together to make green buildings a reality. The process begins even before breaking ground with site surveys for topography, drainage/soil samples, and sun patterns. The role of architects and engineers might be to design a natural ventilation system to offset air conditioning use, then to work with builders and local organizations to source sustainable materials.

Once constructed, building tenants play their part to minimize their own energy, water, and general resource use within the structure. Each group fulfills an important role in making the building more environmentally friendly. 

How Did Green Architecture Become a Thing?  

The green architecture movement gained momentum in the late 80s/early 90s when the American Institute of Architects collaborated with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop new guidelines for architectural design.

The result was the AIA Committee on the Environment (or COTE), now the oldest organization in the U.S. dedicated to sustainable design. Going beyond traditional building safety requirements, these new methodologies offered an “above and beyond” checklist for reducing resource consumption. 

The formation of the U.S. Green Business Council (USGBC) marked another milestone for the green architecture movement. Initially launched in 1993, they now operate in over 70 countries and host yearly conventions for over 20,000 attendees.

The USGBC also piloted the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, now the most widely used green building rating system in the world with over 100,000 LEED commercial projects in the U.S. alone as of November 2019. 

Organizations like COTE and USGBC set the stage for green architecture to go mainstream, pioneering large-scale programs that have elevated general industry standards. As global leaders look for ways to combat climate change and help the environment, green architecture initiatives definitely offer some viable solutions. 

What Does a Green Building Look Like? 

There’s no one way to make a green building. Any building, whether it’s a home, office, school, or other structure, can be a green building if it is made with these features: 

  • Efficient use of energy, water, space, and other resources
  • Use of renewable energy, such as solar energy
  • Pollution and waste reduction measures, and the enabling of re-use and recycling
  • Good indoor environmental air quality
  • Use of materials that are non-toxic, ethical and sustainable
  • Consideration of the environment in design, construction and operation
  • Consideration of the quality of life of occupants in design, construction, and operation
  • A design that enables adaptation to a changing environment

Green buildings differ from each other across regions and countries to account for unique variations in climate, cultures, and economic priorities. No two will be exactly alike. But one thing holds true: effective green architecture is not an add-on.

Green buildings must be designed and executed with the environment in mind, from start to finish. Some examples of particularly impressive Green Building initiatives include the below.

Examples of Impressive Green Building Iniatives

1. The Vertical Forest in Milan: A Residential Building Designed by Boeri Studio

The Vertical Forest in Milan is a model for regenerating urban environmental diversity without expanding city limits. The building is home to thousands of planted shrubs that absorb CO2 and produce oxygen. 

2. The Edge in Amsterdam: An Office Building by PLP Architecture

This worker-friendly building by PLP Architecture is covered in solar panels and powered by a digital LED ceiling that anticipates and adjusts lighting needs, rather than running at a steady rate. The architects estimate an 80% savings over traditional lighting.

3. The Shilda Complex in Georgia: A Winery Concept from X-Architecture

From X-Architecture, this structure is literally embedded within the landscape. It faces north to avoid overheating, and the thermal mass of the soil also optimizes the cooling of the building. These details minimize the building’s energy consumption, instead allowing the environment to regulate internal temperature. 

4. The Bahrain World Trade Complex from Atkins

Built by architecture firm Atkins, this 50-floor skyscraper incorporates wind turbines into the blueprint. The turbines fulfill 15% of the complex’s energy needs, and they represent a bold step toward a more innovative green design.

Is Green Architecture Actually Effective? 

When the built environment is truly synchronized with its natural environment, it can effectively regenerate life. Programs like the Living Building Challenge certify green architecture projects that contribute positively to the environment, rather than simply being “less bad.” Though only 24 buildings have been fully certified by this rigorous challenge, it does show that it’s possible for green architecture to help the environment.

To achieve this kind of success at a larger scale, individuals and industry groups will need to collaborate to improve and innovate effective programs. In terms of energy efficiency, for example, it’s true that there are conflicting opinions about whether certain programs (like LEED certification) are comprehensive enough to make an impact.

Many studies show that LEED-certified buildings use about 25% less energy, but others contend that usage habits can minimize or even eliminate those savings. In addition to calls for more performance-based data, LEED has weathered complaints surrounding high upfront costs and lengthy application processes. 

Regardless, it’s clear that recent green architecture initiatives have mobilized the masses around the idea of environmentally responsible construction. The sheer size of a program like LEED has fueled widespread consumer pressure, paving the way for more rigorous standards to be developed in the future. Without that momentum, things like eco-friendly paints and appliances probably wouldn’t be available at every Home Depot.

Green buildings also offer "co-benefits" that improve the health and happiness of occupants and the surrounding community. Some co-benefits (like increased natural light) can reap economic rewards by lowering operating costs and increasing employee productivity.

One Harvard study even showed that the climate and health benefits are nearly equivalent to the energy savings for green buildings in the U.S. In other words, green buildings can actually reduce hospitalizations by minimizing things like asthma exacerbations. 

What’s Next for the Green Building Movement?

Of course, the ultimate goal is for all buildings to consume net-zero energy and water resources—or even contribute more than they use. That’s a lofty challenge, but more than two decades of experimentation and learning have already laid the groundwork for moving the industry in that direction. From here, we see great potential for green buildings to become even more numerous and more environmentally friendly. 

For example, international certification programs like LEED, though less rigorous, have allowed the movement to advance by successfully making basic green building compliance more accessible. Now, newer complements to LEED certification, like the LEED Zero Program, offer more comprehensive, performance-based standards that recognize standout green building leaders. This “race to the top” is a trend that will continue as consumers add pressure, and companies look for competitive sustainable design solutions.

To really make buildings environmentally friendly, the key is collaboration. Everyone—developers, architects, engineers, builders, and occupants—need to work together to minimize negative impacts and improve industry standards. Specialty nonprofits and community groups are also key to understanding each location’s specific ecological and cultural needs.

With global movements like Mission 2020 calling for cities to decarbonize their infrastructure, green architecture initiatives will be pushing for more innovations and improvements. No single program or entity can solve the problem on their own—it will take a global village to make sure that buildings become an asset to the environment.