Sustainable Architecture: Do You Know It When You See It?


Sustainable architecture is arguably the hottest topic in building construction right now. Everyone wants to be known as a friend of sustainability. From architects to general contractors and interior designers, anyone who wants to be someone embraces it. There is only one slight problem: there is no hard and fast standard in the construction arena.

Would you know sustainable architecture if you saw it? Chances are, yes. But not because there is anything about a building’s facade that leads you to see sustainability in action. No, your recognition would probably be due to the fact that architects willing to embrace sustainable principles also tend to embrace modern design. Therefore, sustainable buildings have a certain look.

 Looking the Part

Sustainable architecture tending toward a modern aesthetic might not be an accident. Lifegate contributor and sustainability disciple Federica Garofalo unequivocally stated in a 2018 post that sustainable architecture’s “functionality must be tied to its relationship with the environment through its appearance.” In other words, sustainable buildings have to look the part.

Garofalo’s assertion may be her own opinion rather than a hard and fast rule, but how likely is it that she is the only one who thinks this way? Not very likely. It is more likely that modern architects embracing a sustainable mindset have similar thoughts about aesthetics. That would certainly explain why so many sustainable projects look futuristic to the point of being odd.

 Sustainability Means Many Things

Architects have an advantage in the sense that they have considerably more opportunities to explore the boundaries of sustainability. Utah’s Sparano + Mooney, for example, specializes in mountain modern architecture in Park City, Provo, and throughout the state. Their architects place a heavy emphasis on passive design and LEED certification. Most of what they focus on from a sustainability standpoint relates to energy efficiency.

On the other hand, Garofalo’s Lifegate piece mentioned a small school building in Bali made of sustainable materials. The primary goal of that project was to create a building with natural resources in the most natural way possible, with the understanding that the materials are completely reusable should the building ever be taken down.

Truth be told, sustainability means many things in architecture. It can encompass:

  • overall energy efficiency
  • use of green energy sources
  • locally sourced materials
  • local environmental impact.

The one thing that ties almost all sustainability goals together is the underlying belief that embracing sustainability is somehow a radical concept. People who believe in sustainability want others to believe in it too, so they become evangelists of sorts. In the architectural world, the best way to evangelize for sustainability is to make buildings purposely look different.

 Starting the Conversation

Designing a new building to look like something out of this world has its merits. Architects have been embracing futuristic designs since architecture was a thing, simply because doing so is one way to make a name for yourself. But it is also a way to start a conversation.

Imagine being an accomplished architect addressing young people just beginning architectural school. Show them pictures from your portfolio and you instantly have an opportunity to begin discussing sustainability. You can explain why the roof has grass and a garden. You can explain why the facade is angled in such a way as to capture natural airflow for cooling purposes.

Would you know sustainable architecture if you saw it? Perhaps. What you are really seeing is an architect’s flair for modern design in the aesthetic realm. What you cannot see underneath that outer shell is truly what makes the building sustainable.

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