Sustainability has been a part of architectural design throughout history. Even before the technological advancement in construction building with local materials was already in practice using simple and smart sustainable design methods. Architects and builders of ancient civilizations have been practicing sustainable architecture for centuries from where today’s architects get inspirations from. Ancient civilizations used to live in harmony with nature, as cities used to occupy a limited area and not beyond what was necessary. Cities and towns of ancient civilizations were designed organically concerning the geography of the land and the orientation of the sun without any forcible modifications.

Sustainability compliments cultural identity as it has played an important role in composing both tangible and intangible cultural resources. Sustainable architecture has evolved over centuries and ancient civilizations were based completely on different principles. Identity is defined by place, people, and culture and each one of them is related to each other. 

Culture is completely man-made and it is a way of life, comprising customs, norms, values, and traditions that are passed from one generation to another. A particular culture is related to a particular place or region and the natural environment of that region has a huge impact on the people residing there. The cultural identity of any place can be easily expressed through the architecture of that place as the ambient environment and the manifestation of the people. Vernacular architecture in particular reflects the values and traditions profoundly as it uses local materials and techniques which only contributes to the uniqueness of the region.

Sustainable architecture can be described as simple, indigenous, traditional structures made up of materials locally available. Most of the ancient civilizations were environmentally conscious and usually built earthly materials to build their public and private buildings. Indus valley civilization, which dates back to 3300 BCE, features buildings built up of mud bricks and wood. Houses were constructed using rammed earth which was clustered on both sides of the road, and the roads were perpendicular to each other running in East-West direction. Houses had voids for doors and windows which resulted in high solar gain. Also, the openings and reflective surfaces were placed in North-South direction so that during the day internal lighting was provided effectively by the natural light.

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Dwelling units of Indus valley civilization ©

This also shows us how effectively they were able to achieve indoor comfort levels. The buildings had South Westerly orientations, which helped in achieving optimal indoor temperature compared to the outside and also were more energy efficient. Even the height of the building helped in maintaining the indoor temperature, which varied from 3.2 m to 4 m.

For natural ventilation and cooling systems, the Persians were well skilled in making use of natural elements and engineered windcatcher(created narrow paths) which regulated indoor temperatures and helped in lowering the inside temperature of the lower rooms even during hot days. The wind catchers could be unidirectional, bi-directional, or multi-directional. This technique is believed to be as old as 2000 years. A windcatcher is a narrow passage through which hot air passes and mixes with underground cold water. Wind catchers are an excellent example of ancient Persian architecture.

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Persian wind catchers ©

If we take a look at the ancient Roman architecture we can say without any doubt that the Romans were the best builders. In Roman architecture, they built different rooms for different purposes. To get the maximum evening light they positioned their dining rooms and bathrooms facing South-East, even the bedrooms were placed in the East direction to get the maximum morning light, because of the severe winter. Different types of dwellings were allocated to a different class of people. Domus being one of them was a high-level house occupied by people of higher rank and had excellent architectural features. One of the many features of Domus was to collect rainwater and drain it automatically into an underground reservoir.

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Sectional view of Domus ©

During the summers, the water which was stored underground was used to fill the pools and even at times left for evaporation to reduce the temperature and add moisture in the air. This passive cooling technique was widely used in Roman as well as in ancient Egypt too. The Romans also knew how to use geothermal energy. The Romans used geothermal energy in building public baths, they also used it to keep their residences hot during the severe winters.

One of the most unique features of ancient civilization was the sanitation facilities. The Indus valley civilization had one of the best urban sanitation systems, with the drains covered with huge blocks and having inspection chambers at intervals. Even Jerusalem, which is situated 2500 feet above the sea level had a greywater plumbing system, evidence of which is still intact. The city of Jerusalem had several tunnels that reversed the sink water in basins and used it for gardening and other purposes later.

Sustainability has again gained its position in the forefront because of today’s economic and environmental challenges. Government authorities have mandated strict building regulations and even many architectural firms are now very much concerned with creating sustainable, eco-friendly, and energy-efficient structures. 

Buildings of ancient civilizations were attuned to how their natural surroundings can help them attain efficient structures and contemporary buildings are more concerned with conserving the resources. We should take inspirations from the past and amalgamate it with the contemporary construction technique to create sustainable and eco-friendly structures.


She is a budding architect hailing from the city of joy, Kolkata. With dreams in her eyes and determination in her will, she is all set to tell stories about buildings, cultures, and people through her point of view. She hopes you all enjoy her writings. Much love.