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Green Architecture: What Is It And What Are Its Goals?

February 20, 2024 7-minute read

Author: Katie Ziraldo

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As we consider the future, we’re looking for new ways to reduce our impact on the environment. One of the biggest solutions may lie in our past. The long-standing concept of green architecture, with the added assistance of modern technology, may hold the key to a better future for both buildings and people.

But what exactly is green architecture, and why is it so important? In this article, we’ll walk you through how this architectural style came to be and the power it may hold for homes of the future.

What Is Green Architecture And What Is Its Purpose?

Green architecture is a philosophy focused on designing buildings with the lowest possible negative impact on the surrounding environment by using sustainable materials and energy sources in construction. This architectural style also emphasizes the importance of creating a healthy indoor environment for a building’s inhabitants.

“Our living environments profoundly impact our health and social equity,” explains Cassy Aoyagi, president of the sustainable landscaping company FormLA Landscaping, who is also a board member of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Los Angeles chapter. “We now have the know-how to create living environments that facilitate our health and positively impact the broader environment.”

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A Brief History of Green Architecture

The concepts of green architecture aren’t new. In fact, basic green architecture has been around since the time of ancient civilizations. Without the convenience of modern technology, these civilizations had to work with the earth to build livable structures. Without air conditioning, structures had to be built with natural ventilation to control the interior climate, and buildings were placed intentionally to maximize natural light.

But as the years passed, technology advanced and communities rushed to urban centers, leading to less focus on living with the land and more on modern convenience. Unfortunately, that modern convenience came at a price – rapidly increasing energy consumption has had a tremendous impact on our carbon footprint. Today, as sustainable living becomes increasingly popular, this philosophy of green design has become more common in the effort to battle climate change. Buildings that meet a certain level of energy efficiency are certified by LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which is a green building standard used worldwide.

Characteristics Of Green Architecture

So, what traits indicate a green building? The answer may be more complicated than you think.

“Sometimes people think of a green building as one that has solar panels on it, but it’s much more than that,” says Jim Schneider, a writer and LEED-accredited professional who has worked in the building design and construction industry for almost 20 years. “The best sustainable designs seek to reduce waste, conserve energy and resources and offer a high degree of performance and function to occupants and the community. There are lots of ways to get to those goals, and the challenge and opportunity for architects is coming up with the right mix of materials, building products and systems that work together with a smart design to deliver an efficient, high-performing building.”

Although there are many ways to accomplish green design, the following make up the most crucial and consistent characteristics.

Renewable Energy Sources

For homeowners looking to add renewable energy sources to their homes, a variety of options are available. Some common ways to use renewable energy in your home include adding:

  • Green roofs: Green roofs, sometimes called living roofs, have vegetation partially or fully growing on them. Green roofs not only improve air quality, but also provide insulation and reduce storm runoff.

  • Solar panels: Solar panels feature solar cells that turn the sun’s light into energy. Having solar panels installed on your home can allow you to run your home using renewable energy.

  • Geothermal systems: Geothermal systems use natural heat that is found beneath the Earth’s surface. They are a great alternative to traditional HVAC systems because they reduce energy consumption and cost.

Reducing energy consumption is one of the biggest goals of green architecture, so it follows that these types of constructions will often include a power source that runs on renewable energy.

“I am a big believer in solar panels, where it makes sense. Not every building is a good choice for solar because it does depend on how much sun exposure and surface area you have,” comments Schneider. “But me, for example, I live in Colorado where we get lots of sun and my house happens to be perfectly suited for solar. We’re not net-zero, but we are able to generate most of the electricity that we use.”

Efficient Systems For Ventilation And Air Quality Control

Efficient ventilation systems are also key in designing a truly green space. Natural ventilation systems, which rely on the natural forces of wind and buoyancy to bring fresh air into the building, may even be used in areas where climate permits. The type of ventilation used in construction also plays a significant role in the building’s overall air quality.

Use Of Sustainable And Recycled Materials

Green design’s focus on the environment starts before the home is even built. Green architects focus on using nontoxic, recycled and sustainable building materials. Some of the materials commonly used in green architecture include:

  • Reclaimed wood
  • Bamboo
  • Cork
  • Hempcrete
  • Straw bales
  • Clay plaster
  • Sheep’s wool
  • Enviroboard

What makes these building materials “green”? They’re not only harmless to the environment or human health, but they also have a smaller carbon footprint than other building materials. “‘Cradle-to-grave’ metrics are factored into green building principles,” says Anna DeSimone, author of “Live in a Home that Pays You Back: A Complete Guide to Net Zero and Energy-Efficient Homes.” “This means that the carbon emissions during the manufacturing process – as well as the transportation to distribution centers – are factored into the carbon footprint analysis.”

Green Architecture Terms To Know

When we analyze green architecture, there are a few key terms to keep in mind.

Sustainability

Sustainability itself is a relatively broad concept, encompassing everything from how the building is built to how it’s used. A building is considered sustainable when it creates a comfortable and functional space without negatively impacting the environment.

But it’s important to recognize the differences between sustainable and green buildings. Sustainability puts a focus on three pillars: planet, people and profit. Green, on the other hand, focuses solely on the environment. This means that all green buildings are sustainable, but not all sustainable buildings are green.

Energy Efficiency

The efficient use of energy is the most important element of green architecture, as using less energy reduces a building’s carbon emissions. Energy efficiency is achieved by using technology that requires less energy to perform the same task.

The solutions here can be simple or complex. For example, LED light bulbs use 70% – 90% less energy than incandescent bulbs, so by changing something this simple, a home can become more energy efficient. But to obtain LEED certification, these efforts must go much further, such as capitalizing on renewable sources like solar energy.

Net-Zero Homes

“A home is considered ‘net-zero’ when the energy that is produced from an installed renewable energy system, such as solar photovoltaic power, is equal to the amount of energy consumed by the home,” says Anna DeSimone, author of Live in a Home that Pays You Back: A Complete Guide to Net Zero and Energy-Efficient Homes. “If the renewable energy system produces an excess amount of energy, then the effect is called ‘positive energy.’”

DeSimone explains that while homeowners can make improvements to their current home to work towards achieving net-zero energy, there are also more and more homes built with this concept in mind.

“A very popular trend in home construction is called the ‘net-zero ready’ home, which means the builder has constructed a high-performance home with energy-efficient technologies, and has ‘prewired’ the house, enabling the homeowner to install solar energy or other types of renewable energy systems in the future – seamlessly and at a much lower cost,” says DeSimone.

Where To Find Green Design Homes

There are homes built with green architecture across the U.S., but how and where do you go about finding one? Of course, you can always follow the traditional process and rely on your real estate agent to find what you’re looking for, but this process may take time. A more proactive option may be to research green homes yourself on websites such as Green Homes For Sale.

If you’re looking to build a new home instead of buying one, finding LEED-accredited architects and designers is a good place to start. We recommend relying on the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)’s website.

And if you’re still not convinced green homes are the way of the future, there may be an added incentive that sways you. “Home buyers can benefit from expanded mortgage incentives when buying a home that is certified in accordance with a green building standard,” says DeSimone.

The Bottom Line

Green architecture has been around since the beginning, but ongoing efforts to minimize our impact on the planet have brought this architectural philosophy back to the surface – and for good reason. With the right balance of sustainable materials, renewable energy and a strong focus on surroundings, green design can benefit both people and the environment.

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Katie Ziraldo Headshot

Katie Ziraldo

Katie Ziraldo is a financial writer and data journalist focused on creating accurate, accessible and educational content for future generations of home buyers. Her portfolio of work also includes The Detroit Free Press and The Huffington Post.