Sustainability in Architecture and Design

November 5, 2019

Photo by Scott Webb from Pexels


Sustainability means to satisfy present needs without affecting the ability of future generations to fulfill their own needs. This is key for the well-being of society; therefore, it should be a priority in everything that we do, especially in our built environment where “residential, commercial, and industrial buildings account for 17% of Canada’s GHC emissions”.[1]


Although some people may not perceive cities as being environmentally friendly, building in denser areas with existing infrastructure is better than sprawling outwards, which leads to car-dependency and diminishing greenfield spaces. As cities continue to grow and expand all over the world, we should increase our focus on making them more sustainable.


Greener approaches can be implemented within architecture, design and construction processes, especially with the aid of newly developed technologies that can help to simplify complicated methods. Green buildings are still in the process of becoming accepted by owners and the building industry overall. Although there are now many ways of constructing sustainable buildings with third party certifications, most builders and buyers continue to opt for traditional materials and methods in fear that green buildings will be a financial burden. Generally, sustainable building systems and materials have higher upfront costs. However, the costs of operating and maintaining a green building are lower than that of a traditional building. This can help offset the initial increase in costs as well as save money and resources in the long term.


Sustainable features can bring in other financial benefits such as higher lease rates and be more attractive to some buyers or tenants. According to the World Green Building Trends 2016 Smart Market Report, green buildings are 14% less costly to operate and are worth 7% more than standard buildings.[2] Although some developers will not own the building after construction and will not benefit from these lower operating costs, the completed project can command a higher sale price as demand for sustainable buildings increases.


Sustainable design can be implemented in buildings in numerous ways. Methods including dual-flush toilets, energy efficient lightbulbs, and bamboo flooring are just some examples of small-scale, simple practices.


The Scotia Plaza is a great example of a building that uses a sustainable LED illumination system. The building replaced all fluorescent lights with LED fixtures. By doing so, lights last more than two times longer and uses 50% less energy.[3]


Seattle’s Bullitt Center, designed by Miller Hull Partnership, is a green building that utilizes more complex systems to save energy.[4] It is known for its regenerative elevator which is 60% more efficient than a standard elevator.[5] As it slows down, it captures and transforms its motion into electric energy. The center also uses a heat pump to extract heat from underground which is designated for hot water in the taps and for the heating system in the building.[6] This process can also be reversed during the warm summer months to cool the building.


Active Design in the Bullitt Environment & Bullitt Center Tour Photo by Taomeister from Flickr


The TD Centre, first designed by Mies Van de Rohe with B+H as Architect of Record in Joint Venture with John B. Parkin and Associates[7], in Toronto, is a great example of retro-fitting an older building to make it more energy efficient. It was the first ever office complex to receive the LEED EB GOLD certification, a standard targeting the operations and maintenance phase of an existing building.[8] Over $200 million was spent on the project to go green, which resulted in a 16.8% decrease in energy use and 16.7% drop in consumption of water. It also prevented 19 million kilograms of garbage from ending up in landfills, which saved the complex $300,000 in waste removal fees[7]. The TD Centre also has 430 bicycle spaces at their entrances and five electric vehicle charging stations free for anyone to use. A 22,000 square foot green roof (the “living roof”) is part of the Centre, which limits stormwater run-off and improves thermal resistance.


The examples above depict complex systems that require a thorough design process. However, sustainability can also make use of simple systems, some of which have been used for centuries. For example, the Cambodian temple Angkor Wat from the 12th century has a rainwater irrigation system which watered crops during extended periods with little to no rain. This is similar to cistern systems that are used today to retain stormwater runoff.


Along with design implementations, local and global regulations are essential for the push in sustainable design. In 2017, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs announced that there would be changes to the Ontario Building Code in order to support the Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP). This aims to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and implement energy-efficient measures in various types of buildings. The goal is for all buildings built after 2030 to have net-zero emissions.[7]  All new housing and large buildings will be required to be built with roofs capable of supporting and sustaining solar panels. Another change to the Ontario Building Code includes adding a heat or energy recovery unit in all apartment buildings and condominiums, which will be required by 2022. The UN has also implemented launches in order to support sustainable building and construction. In 2006, United Nations Environment Programme commenced the Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative (SBCI) which promotes building sustainably in order to reduce GHG emissions and to support energy efficiency.


As more codes and initiatives similar to these emerge, the industry will better understand the benefits of building green and future builders will be more conscientious of sustainable design. In addition, as the public pushes government officials to address future environmental issues, new laws will continue to arise which will drive developers and builders to be more sustainable. As consumers also become aware of these issues, they will be inclined to choose a home that is sustainable over a traditional unit, especially if it can save them money in the long term. With these changes, there is an opportunity and market to design higher performing buildings that will sustainably house populations. Buildings hold an immense impact on the environment, we must keep them at the forefront of our minds and design them to function sustainably for our current and future society.