Sustainable design is an exciting area of architecture and building which is moving into the mainstream. And there’s a good reason that ‘green’ or sustainable buildings are also known as ‘high performance buildings’: they not only tend to save on running costs, there is also growing evidence that they can increase productivity and well-being for occupants through improved lighting and air quality. Where office buildings have been designed or refurbished to be more sustainable, productivity gains in terms of better quality of work and reduced absenteeism can often dwarf the reductions in energy bills. Refits which are more sustainable can therefore yield faster returns on investment than is commonly expected.

What's it all about

Technology and the growth of computers allows you a much freer palette as an architect. Also, the study of nature and the way plants grow is more and more available. Bring these things together and there is quite a strong human response. Combine with a better understanding of materials, then we are in for a much richer phase of architecture.
Nicholas Grimshaw

People & Planet

Sustainable design creates products, places, processes and systems which optimise human well-being now and in the future without compromising the well-being of the planet.

Architecture is one of the most exciting, visible and burgeoning areas for sustainable design with a rich array of techniques, systems, technologies and materials already in place that can drastically reduce the effects buildings have on the environment while bringing about a step change in comfort and efficiency. Buildings can be self sufficient in energy, purifying their own air, and treating at least some of their own waste.

Performance & Productivity

Sustainable office design can deliver higher performance in energy and other resource use, and higher productivity in human terms. People simply work, see and think better in offices that have more natural lighting, fresher and cleaner air, and where they have more control over their immediate lighting or temperature levels. At a practical level, it simultaneously minimises the:

  • number
  • amount
  • volume
  • weight
  • toxicity
  • and use of materials, energy and water

while maximising the use of materials, energy and other components that are:

  • clean and safe
  • renewable
  • easy to repair, reuse, recycle or refurbish
  • and benign towards the environment

First principles

Health, Wealth & Happiness

Optimising well-being involves thinking about the personal, physical, social, cultural and economic effects of buildings. Hospitals can consider the curative effects of light, colour, and air quality on human health and spirit. Residential and public buildings can reduce crime and social isolation or disaffection. Schools can improve the concentration and commitment of pupils by responding to their human needs. Workplaces can enhance productivity by designing with occupants in mind.

Slow the Flow

Currently, materials tend to flow down a one-way street. We extract, process, use, throw away. Most things we use (including buildings) come with serious baggage in energy, materials and emissions. By using materials that have been reclaimed or recycled, and by designing for durability and adaptability (the two go hand in hand), we can slow the flow, ideally to a trickle.

We can reduce our energy use by 80 percent with no reduction in our quality of life.
Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce

Reduce the Use

Water, energy, materials, components. Find ways to lighten your footprint and lightweight materials. For example, you could use a lighter material, or consider lightweight structures that retain strength but reduce material density; particleboard with a honeycomb structure has a high strength to weight ratio; metal can be produced in a foam structure rather than a solid state.

Loop the Loop

Conventional life cycle analysis looks at 'cradle to grave' (extraction to disposal), but this is shifting towards closed loop thinking, what McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) calls 'cradle to cradle'. This includes renewable materials or energy, such as plastics based on plants rather than petroleum (bioplastics or biopolymers), or materials that are easily recycled; recycled aluminium uses 95% less energy than the virgin stuff.

From Product to Performance

Sustainable design takes a step back and considers results or benefits rather than products. Most products are a means to an end; by focusing on the end, we can rethink the means. BP was an oil company until it decided that it wanted to deliver energy, of which oil is only one form. Amory Lovins, a champion of improved performance in office buildings, talks about buying 'coolth' (the opposite of warmth) instead of air-conditioners. A synonym for 'sustainable building' is 'high performance building'. Keep that in mind, it's where all sustainable design roads should converge.

Total financial benefits of green buildings are over 10 times the average initial investment required. Energy savings alone exceed the average increased cost of building green. The relatively large impact of productivity and health gains reflects the fact that the direct and indirect cost of employees is far larger than the cost of construction or energy. Even small changes in productivity and health translate into large financial benefits.
The Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and Capital E Group cost benefit analysis of green building for 40 Californian government agencies (

Hydro Building Systems has developed TEmotion ('T' meaning 'technology' and 'Emotion' referring to the good feeling we get from elegant, integrated solutions. TEmotion is an external cladding system in aluminium and glass which contains an all-in-one package for heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting and sun-screening, creating the potential to reduce primary energy consumption by about 40%.

Of Systems & Simplicity

Sustainable design integrates systems and functions and designs out duplicating or conflicting elements. It works best where it optimises a whole system by designing 'out' things that don't need to be there. Optimising parts of a system would mean buying a more energy-efficient air conditioner. Optimising the system would create a simplifying cascade which might look like this:

  • lighting provides a large part of the demand for 'coolth'
  • improve natural lighting, both in quality and quantity
  • install dimmable lighting and individual controls
  • reduce artificial lighting (and, incidentally, energy use)
  • plant deciduous trees outside - their summer leaves prevent direct sunlight heating up the building, their winter shedding lets sun contribute heat
  • reassess the demand for coolth
  • install some passive ventilation systems
  • now decide if you still need air conditioning; you might, but probably a great deal less than if you had upgraded existing equipment without looking at the whole system.
A properly designed workplace requires less building infrastructure, which takes up less space, produces less heat, and consumes less power than traditional workspaces - while supporting employees more effectively.
Christina Kite, Vice President Cisco Global Work Place Resources and Enterprise Risk Management

The Master Designer

Biomimicry is the study of nature applied to design and innovation. Nature has been trying things out for millennia and scientists and designers are learning how to apply these lessons from the molecular level to entire systems.

Interface's best selling carpet, Entropy, came about when a designer noticed the random beauty of autumn leaves on a forest floor. This randomness was incorporated into the patterning of carpet tiles, reducing installation waste to 1%, and increasing ease of replacing tiles, whilst appealing aesthetically to customers.

In materials, spider silk has more tensile strength, relative to its weight, than steel. It's been said that if you expanded a spider web to the size of a fishnet, its resilience could stop a Boeing in mid-flight. FTL Studio mimics the tensile strength of spider silk in its elegant, flexible, lightweight structures, and is now beginning to embed solar cells into the fabric.

Fun with Factoids

  • According to the DTI, non-renewable energy consumed in building services accounts for about 50% of UK carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Construction generally accounts for about 45% of the total global flow of raw materials (China uses 47% of the world's cement).
  • Envirowise has found that as much as 10% of construction materials on sites were never used.