What Is Sustainable Architecture?
When you decide to build your own home, there are a lot of decisions that need to be made and a lot of parties involved with those decisions. Building and construction takes a massive toll on the environment by being responsible for almost 40% of all energy-related CO2, which is why nearly 200 Australian builders have declared a climate emergency that requires immediate action.
Don’t let these facts discourage you, let them inspire you! There are ways to make the building process a little simpler and a lot more environmentally responsible. As you may know, we can save you a small fortune with our sustainable house designs, which can be put towards reducing the footprint of your home both today, and far into the future.
What is Sustainable Architecture?
The quickest way to understand the definition of architecture that is sustainable is to break it down. In this context, sustainable refers to something that has a minimal impact on the environment, and architecture describes a physical structure. In a broader sense, these words can have additional meanings, but when we refer to sustainable architecture, we’re talking about a way to design buildings that gives an above-average consideration to the environment.
Some examples of this style of architecture look downright futuristic, but it can be as simple as solar panels on a roof to help power a home. At the end of the day, it’s still architecture and the underlying principles still apply. It just puts more of a focus on considering the environmental impact of the structure in the short term and the long term alike.
If you’re thinking of going the sustainable route with your home, you’re in the right place. Let’s start with the basics, some examples, and how you can take the next steps (including floor plans.)
Considerations for Environmentally Sustainable Houses
There are many ways to make a house more sustainable. Any new construction of a house is going to have an environmental impact, but this can be reduced initially compared to a typical house construction, with lasting benefits that pay dividends for decades to come.
Taking Advantage of the Location
We live on a huge, incredibly diverse planet with some towns that don’t see the sun for months at a time, and other places that are hot and sunny for nearly the entire year. Some areas get tons of rain, some of them are deserts. You get the idea.
Solar panels are an often-cited example of environmentally sustainable architecture, but they aren’t much use in Utqiagvik, Alaska, a small town where the sun sets in November and doesn’t shine again for over two months! When you’re that far North, you need to stay warm.
In this case, adequate insulation helps keep the heating bills down, reducing emissions. It’s nice to think of an ideal situation where a structure can be entirely sustainable, but that’s not always possible. What works in Alaska will differ from Australian sustainable architecture in some ways, but there will always be similarities, too.
Taking the local climate into consideration is important, and “more sustainable” is still a lot better than “not sustainable at all”, even if it’s not 100%.
Our goal is to take advantage of the location when we can, for example installing solar panels to power the house in places where this makes sense, while also reducing the energy consumption in places where panels aren’t possible or practical.
Building Materials and Their Impact
Considering the location and the region of a structure is not unique to sustainable architecture, but one thing that stands out is taking into account the end-of-life of the building. No matter how sustainable a building is, it’s not going to last forever. Eventually, it will be torn down. Now, you will probably be long gone by the time this happens, but it’s still a part of the legacy of the structure (and the person who put it there).
Will you use materials that can be recycled if the structure is torn down, or will they end up in a landfill? What is their impact on the environment?
Even things beyond the raw materials used, such as fixtures, shelving, and cabinets could be reused by somebody, or donated, or repurposed somehow if they are of quality and made to last. That’s more than can be said about bargain, borderline-disposable fixtures that wouldn’t be worth salvaging.
Here’s a quick example of two types of materials that we prioritize and emphasize in our sustainable home designs:
- Sustainably sourced timber cladding: Wood is an important part of most home builds, and it can be done in a way that reduces the impact, and the sourcing plays a major role in that. Trees are a renewable resource which sequester carbon, but forests need to be protected and maintained. Certified sustainably sourced timber adheres to strict and important standards for sustainability.
- Recycled bricks: Bricks last a very, very long time. They frequently outlast the life cycle of whatever building they were originally used for. By using recycled bricks, you’re saving a lot of emissions (Roughly 1 tonne of CO2 for each 2000 bricks that are re-used, per Brick Rescue.) You’re also adding a layer of sustainability to the original building that the recycled bricks were reclaimed from, and saving the bricks from landfill.
Passive Design Actively Helps Our Planet
“Passive design’ is design that takes advantage of the climate to maintain a comfortable temperature range in the home.” - YourHome.gov.au
By using passive design principles, the average Australian home can reduce their energy consumption by up to 40%, or even more in some climates. Unfortunately, passive design principles are, far too often, completely ignored in typical Australian home builds. By reducing the amount of mechanical heating and cooling required in the home, we can lessen our impact on the environment, and save money on energy bills at the same time!
We prioritize the things that make a big difference, like the orientation of the home, solar passive heating, double glazed windows, effective use of insulation, and more.
Harnessing the power of our sun to help offset even a small amount of a home’s heating needs can make a notable difference, but when you start from scratch with sustainability in mind and a home doesn’t need any additional heating, this makes an even bigger impact.
- Orientation: This is the practice of positioning the home in a way that takes advantage of the various seasons, climates, and how they can impact a home. We want to take advantage of the sun, and the wind, and all of this is taken into account.
- Thermal mass: Some materials are much more dense than others, making them far better options to absorb the sun’s heat during the day to keep the home warmer in the evening. Strategically using orientation, and the correct materials, means your home can be warmer when you want it warmer, and cooler when you want it cooler.
- Insulation: Insulation is a secret weapon when it comes to keeping your Australian home warmer in the wintertime, and cooler during the summer. When you’re using thermal mass strategies to keep a home warm, being able to hold onto that heat throughout the night is absolutely essential. Insulation can be added and upgraded in older homes, but it works best when sustainable insulation strategies are factored into the design from the very start.
Brilliant Examples of Sustainable Architecture in Australia
You will find examples of sustainable-focused architecture all around the world, and it’s not just a new trend. You can find examples of sustainable and green architecture in many ancient civilizations, including the 1000 year old Windmills of Nashtifan in Iran, or the Roman baths and their clever heating systems. Here are a few modern examples from across Australia:
Melbourne’s Pixel Building
The Pixel Building has a number of features that helped contribute to it being carbon-neutral. In fact, The Pixel Building was the first completely carbon-neutral office building in Australia - which is why we’ve decided to feature it.
The Pixel Building has many special and unique looking panels attached to it, which help keep things cooler inside on sunny days by providing shade. This building can process wastewater, and even capture rain on the roof. There are wind turbines as well, and all of this contributes to this being the very first carbon neutral office building in Australia. Could you imagine having these colorful panels attached to your home?
Sydney’s One Central Park
Many major cities have their own Central Park, which is often a greenspace that offers a slice of nature in the middle of a busy city. This isn’t always an easy feat, since these parks are often in areas where real estate comes at a premium. In Sydney, they had the clever idea to meet half way and incorporate the park into a building.
There is a park, with hundreds of examples of local flora, that begins at the street level of this building and climbs all the way up. It's quite remarkable. The plants soak up a lot of the sun, reducing cooling costs and energy consumption. Perhaps one of the larger impacts from this building is simply to remind us to stop and smell the flowers, and that we need nature for our own survival.
Victoria’s 10 Star Home
This fantastic example of architecture that prioritizes sustainability was built by The Sociable Weaver in collaboration with Clare Cousins Architects. From the construction materials being delivered without unnecessary plastic wrapping, to using LED lights and solar on the roof, to a design that absorbs heat and can maintain a temperature of 16-24 degrees without the need for a powered heater, it’s anticipated that this house will ultimately have a positive carbon footprint - a step further than being carbon-neutral.
Some would be surprised by how many toxic chemicals are used in the construction and operation of a regular house, but this isn't a regular house. The 10 Star Home was made with non-toxic materials. It uses natural paints and sealants, organic furnishings, and is stocked with non-toxic cleaning supplies.
Victoria’s Nightingale Housing
Sustainability isn’t just a goal for single family residences, it can be practiced in high density housing, too. High density housing already leaves less of an environmental footprint compared to single family homes, but Nightingale Housing takes it much further.
Nightingale has a number of principles that they follow to reduce energy consumption, to reduce costs for inhabitants, to enable access to green power, and to bring back the sense of community that can be lacking in today's world. They have a number of completed projects, and even more on the way, which aim to follow as many of their guiding principles as possible.
Why Do Environmentally Sustainable Houses Matter?
Some would argue that the impact of any single individual’s actions are minimal in the grand scheme of things when it comes to the environment. They would say, whether you use paper or plastic shopping bags probably isn’t going to tip the scale all that much. If you buy an electric car, it still takes quite a toll on the environment to build that car in the first place and electricity isn’t without its own costs. Is switching to reusable straws really going to save the planet?
We think it’s about everyone coming together to do their part. Some people are able to do more than others. Not everybody is in a position to seek out sustainable house designs and floor plans, but if you’re going to do it - you should do the best that you possibly can. When you choose to use sustainable house designs, you’re doing your part in one of the most significant ways that you possibly can.
Affordable Sustainable Home Plans
After looking through these examples, you may come away thinking that this type of architecture is a luxury, but we’ve made it our mission to make home plans affordable for everyone - and that includes sustainable home plans. Some of the examples of sustainable architecture are incredibly beautiful buildings, with huge budgets, because they are showpieces that are meant to highlight the possibilities.
It’s like going to a car show and seeing the incredible prototypes that they’re showing off. Those aren’t the cars that will make it onto the road, they’ll have much more modest models for the average driver. Those cars are meant to get attention, to get a conversation going.
As such, when you think about sustainable home designs, they don’t have to have trees planted all the way up the side, or a roof made out of beehives, or cantilevered rooms. There are many very practical ways to make a home design more energy efficient, to take advantage of the local climate and materials, and to build your home in a smart and sustainable way.
We can provide you with the floor plans that you need if you want to live in a sustainably-designed home, so please reach out to us to discuss your options.