Sustainability is no new concept in today’s world, in architecture, or otherwise. Almost a prerequisite nowadays, it’s a challenge to treat sustainability as more than a quickly rising trend. The truth is, although a popular trend, it serves a far greater purpose than simply being the latest lifestyle fluff piece. In terms of global scenario, every day is a battle to undo the havoc we have wreaked onto the Earth, and a sustainable lifestyle and thought process is something we definitely stand to gain from.

That sustainability is always expensive, is a misconception, in fact, there are more than a few ways in which you can slash a bit off the old price tag without compromising performance and quality.


Materials are the bedrock of any building, any product for that matter. It is the most basic, most important element and has far-reaching impacts on its structure and architecture. Hence, it should come as no surprise that one of the best ways to attain sustainability, without breaking the bank, is through a careful and well-educated selection of materials.

Choosing locally available materials is one of the simplest ways to reduce the external energy requirements necessary to combat the effects of ill-suited materials for a particular climate or geography. Moreover, it eliminates much of the import and transportation charges, while stimulating the local economy. Strategically compounding layers of different materials can also help naturally thermally and insulate and regulate the building.

In recent years, older techniques such as rammed earth or adobe have made a comeback, along with newer ideas, like green roofing in a wave of sustainable housing trends.

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Rammed Earth ©Wikipedia
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Adobe, Citadel of Bam, Iran ©Wikipedia
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Green Roof, British Horse Society ©Sky Garden Ltd


Often, the role of passive design techniques, rooted in tradition and culture is underestimated and shunned in favour of the latest collection of shiny new toys. However, its impact is far greater than what is perceived.

The role of courtyards in warm, tropical climates, for example, is a beautiful and simple way to thermally regulate a structure while also creating interesting visual and social focal points. By employing the most basic means of cross ventilation and daylighting, a building can be brought alive without mechanical support systems.

In taller buildings, it is not uncommon to find the use of earth tubing and geothermal wells to naturally control temperatures.

Although not limited to it, cultural and traditional designs have a lot to teach us. As much as it’s hard to believe, there was a time that such advanced technology was not available. However, our ancestors managed to create liveable, comfortable and at the same time, intriguing pieces of architecture. By analysing such designs and combining it with current, sustainable strategies, and technology, we can come up with alternatives, ones that are not so heavily dependent on artificial, flawed technology.

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Courtyards ©Google Images
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Earth Tubing ©Passivhaus Institute


Although natural daylight transforms spaces into bright and airy zones, it is also the primary source of heat in a building. Poorly positioned and sized openings and exorbitant uses of glass facades without appropriate shading, heat the building from within, not only creating uncomfortable spaces but also sizeably increasing the need for external cooling devices.

HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems are an important development in architecture and engineering and though plenty of systems are energy efficient, the priority should be to question and modify the elements of architecture.

Protecting external openings through shading devices and overhangs or replacing the plain glass with double-skinned glass facades could considerably lighten heating and cooling loads. Sometimes it’s as simple as positioning the right windows in the right places.

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Double Skin Facades ©Wikipedia
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External Shading Devices ©


Beauty can be found both in simplicity and in extravagance. From cultural standpoints, structures like palaces and temples are intriguing in their proportions, ornamentation, and overall extravagance, telling rich stories. It is widely encouraged for contemporary architecture to build upon such techniques and draw inspiration from them. Continuity is encouraged. However, cutting down on excessiveness and exuberance doesn’t necessarily imply boring and simple.

There are ways to achieve the required luxury and proportion without creating redundant spaces. Replacing rigid, single-use areas with flexible, multi-functional spaces can eliminate the need to build half a dozen rooms, putting a new spin on ‘less is more’.


Embodied Energy is the energy consumed by all processes of a building production-production as a whole, not just construction. Keeping the value low is key. This also encompasses the manufacture, transportation of materials and parts, labour, design teams, and more. In a global, generic sense, sustainability is accompanied by the idea of ‘thinking local’ and architecture is no different.

By locally sourcing both resources and labor, not only is the local economy allowed to grow, but it also helps uplift the community it is building for. Local construction teams and designers are more in-tune with the region and its needs; they are naturally better equipped to work on such projects. They have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. As members of the local society, they stand to profit from smarter designs and construction, which not only enriches the architecture of the area but also provides better social, urban, and community growth. This is in addition to all the money saved on transporting resources and material from far-off places.


As Oscar Wilde so astutely put it, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”.

This is a great philosophy to follow, both in life and in architecture. Although the initial investments can be a little pricey, a net-zero energy building will be self-sustaining, saving money in the long run. For cases where cost is a consideration but not a limiting factor, aiming for net-zero energy goals is the smartest investment for a building.

Examples like The Unisphere, a large, multi-level commercial building or Kenya’s Asilong  Christian High School, a low-budget school, are proof that such goals are achievable, no matter the size, function, or cost.

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Unisphere ©Ewing Cole
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Asilong School ©The Journal of the American Institute of Architects)


Waste, it’s unavoidable. We can reduce, re-use, and recycle all we want, but we will always produce waste. As a whole, the building and construction sector contributes to 39% of total energy-related CO2 emissions and 36% of final energy use. Annually, around 3 billion tons of construction and demolition waste is produced globally. Those are not small numbers and they need to come down.

Rather than bulldozing defunct buildings into piles of rubble, carefully salvaging any reusable elements to be used in new construction and renovation is a simple way of recycling, or rather upcycling. It is also important to avoid demolition until absolutely necessary.


Another misconception is that a building can only be its best sustainable self when newly built from the ground up. But that’s not necessarily always true. Retrofitting is a great way of creating sustainable and cheap buildings.

Demolition and construction from scratch generate a ton of construction waste, out of which a very low percentage is recycled into the new building. Removing a perfectly sound pre-existing structure also alters the identity and image of the area. At best, it is replaced by a slightly better building, at worst, it can wipe out cultural and historical identities, and displace a whole host of users.

Sustainability primarily deals with the environment, of which we play a major role. Hence, a sustainable building not only conserves environmental resources but also human ones – unless unavoidable, the best policy is to use what we’ve already got. After all, old is gold.


Once the basic design and architectural aspects have been taken care of, we can move on to more advanced techniques. Today’s world offers software that can help enhance and take sustainability to the next level. Energy calculation software like E-Quest and Energy-Plus are free and open-source. They can help calculate energy load calculation for different configurations and settings of natural and artificial systems and other climatic and geographic factors.

Building-Information Modelling (BIM) software like REVIT allows architects and engineers to model all aspects of the design and adjust it in terms of various material and structural arrangements.

These are just a handful of examples among a never-ending list, it’s only a matter of finding one which works best for you.


Communities and governments also play a vital role in the creation and maintenance of sustainable designs. Most people wouldn’t be directly involved in the design process but will end up living, working, or using such a building. Allowing the local community to have a participatory stake is crucial in satisfying user needs. Letting them add their own touches can help create healthy dialogues within the community and advocates for sustainability.

So, you see, although a little daunting at first, sustainability is a very attainable goal. Start small, it’s the little things that matter.



Nessa Philip is an aspiring architect. Forever frowned upon by professors for having too much text on her sheets, she is finally channelling some of that energy into something readable. She believes that architecture is more than just a series of spaces. It is a loud, colourful amalgamation of stories, ideas and lives intertwining, if one only knows where to look.

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