Sustainable architecture explained

The Romans used architecture to showcase their power and authority, with monumental structures, such as triumphal arches or temples constructed with stone and marble, serving as symbols of their enduring control. The Egyptians built the pyramids of Giza primarily as artefacts of religious significance, as they believed the pyramids were a means to ascend to heaven after death.  

Architecture reflects the era and circumstances of its creation, and today, the most pressing challenge of our era is tackling the climate crisis. The construction industry has a significant impact on the environment. Therefore, will the buildings we construct today be artefacts of sustainable architecture to future generations? 

Keep reading to see how sustainability in architecture plays a role in the revolution of the construction industry! 

What is sustainable architecture

Sustainable architecture refers to design and construction of buildings with minimal negative effects on both human health and the environment. It introduces innovative approaches to building design and construction, prioritizing the use of eco-friendly materials and methods to reduce CO2 emissions

You may think that green architecture and sustainable architecture are synonymous terms, but the reality is that they are not the same: 

  • Green architecture encompasses construction practices aimed at reducing environmental and climate impact.  
  • On the other hand, sustainable architecture goes beyond minimizing environmental impact. It also attemps to enhance the economic sustainability and quality of life for those who use the structure. 

Sustainable buildings are the result of sustainable architecture. For instance, many sustainable designs incorporate natural elements, such as promoting sunlight entry and green spaces, which can boost mood, productivity and reduce stress levels. Sustainable architecture is designed with energy efficiency and durability at its core, proving more cost-effective in the long term. 

Fun fact: sustainable architecture traces back to ‘building biology’, a field of building science that traces back to Germany back in the 1970s. One of its pioneers was Karl Ernst Lotz, who in 1975 described the home as a “third skin”. He emphasized that a building’s bio-ecological construction should envelop and protect us while allowing for interaction with the outside environment. Decades later, these are the buldings we know today as sustainable buildings

A glass building surrounded by trees representing what sustainable architecture means.

Core principles of sustainable architecture

Sustainability is the right-hand of modern architecture, reflecting our collective responsibility to build a better future. But what exactly makes architecture sustainable? Here are some key features! 

Renewable energy sources

The use of these renewable energy sources in buildings minimizes the use of fossil fuels, like propane or natural gas. One of the most common practices in sustainable construction is harnessing solar energy through the installation of solar panels. These panels aid in decreasing tenants’ energy bills by generating power on-site. On average, edifices can save between 50-70% on electricity expenses by using this renewable energy source

Another example of renewable energy sources that characterizes sustainable architecture is wind power. It is the fastest-growing source of energy in the world and can be applied to individual homes or small businesses through smaller turbines installed nearby that can produce enough electricity for self-sufficiency. 

According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero Emissions by 2050 plan, renewable energies, such as wind and solar power, are projected to make up nearly 50% of global electricity generation by 2050. This global objective of achieving net zero emissions is shared by Cemex through its Future in Action program. 

Sustainable materials

It makes sense that sustainable materials are used in sustainable architecture, right? Recyclability is a key feature of sustainable materials. We can reuse various materials in construction to lower our carbon footprint and decrease reliance on non-renewable resources. Some of the most used recycled materials in construction are concrete, glass, plastic, and steel. 

Other eco-friendly materials include cork, a highly recyclable and renewable building material, and precast concrete. Precast concrete is a construction product manufactured off-site in a factory setting, which reduces CO2 emissions compared to ready-mix concrete and has the potential to save billions of tons of CO2 emissions annually.

Low cost

Investing in buildings with energy-efficient technologies and sustainable materials saves money on maintenance and energy bills, which can even qualify constructors and tenants for tax incentives in some locations.  

For example, take the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the United States in 2022. The law focuses on building a clean energy economy that benefits all citizens and encourages the adoption of renewable energy in households by providing bonuses to those who have them installed. 

Design integrated into nature

Sustainable architecture aims to blend modern technology, aesthetics, and nature seamlessly. This ethos is embodied in the building’s design, which integrates innovative construction techniques while prioritizing environmental respect.  

The result are sustainable buildings with elements like vertical gardens, which shield houses from UV rays and serve as acoustic insulation, or wooden facades that provide building durability and thermal insulation. These design elements don’t just promote sustainability, but also give buildings a distinctive modern flair, setting them apart from the ordinary. 

Examples of sustainable architecture around the world

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore 

Gardens by the Bay is a natural park located in Singapore. Its futuristic design and innovative use of technology have turned it into an architectural icon that has attracted over 50 million visitors from around the world.  

As an interesting fact, the Flower Dome at Gardens is a large conservatory that mimics the cool-dry conditions of the Mediterranean and its semi-arid subtropical areas, creating a microclimate through the natural resources employed in its design. 

 Image of The Gardens by the Bay an architecturally sustainable construction.

Museum of Tomorrow, Brazil 

The Museum of Tomorrow, designed by architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava, is a remarkable cultural institution located in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is a shining example of sustainable architecture, primarily constructed from locally sourced materials, emphasizing its connection to the environment.  

The museum features solar panels that dynamically track the sun’s movement, maximizing energy absorption throughout the day and collects and reuses rainwater, reducing the strain on external water sources. 

A photograph of the museum of Tomorrow in Brazil designed in a sustainable way by the architect Calatrava.

CopenHill, Denmark 

CopenHill, located in Copenhagen, Denmark, serves as both a waste-to-energy power plant that burns waste into electricity and a sports complex featuring one of the world’s tallest climbing towers. However, its most remarkable feature is the artificial ski and snowboard slope on its roof. 

Beneath the winter recreational activities, the plant efficiently converts 440,000 tons of waste annually using furnaces and turbines, producing clean electricity and heating for approximately 150,000 nearby homes. 

Copenhill in Denmark is a showcase of environmentally responsible architecture.

Bosco Verticale, Italy 

Architect Stefano Boeri designed these apartments, based in Milan, with spacious areas to accommodate large trees in their green spaces, as well as a variety of ground cover plants and shrubs. All this vegetation helps to enhance air quality and acts as a natural insulator against heat. 

An image of how the Bosco Verticale in Milan is an example of sustainable architecture.

The Friendship Hospital, Bangladesh 

The Friendship Hospital, located in the rural Bangladesh delta, is an environmentally friendly architectural marvel. It employs a passive design approach, regulating temperature through natural ventilation, which reduces the need for artificial energy. The construction process utilized local materials and skilled craftsmen. This simple design, attuned to both human needs and nature, earned RIBA International Prize in 2021 for its socially impactful contribution. 

The future of architecture is green  

Design & Architecture play fundamental roles in the construction of any structure, and Cemex Ventures is committed to helping drive sustainability in the construction industry through its Cleantech Construction Map’s vertical. Due to the data-based nature of these solutions, Design and Architecture tools contribute to a more efficient, digital, interconnected, and environmentally responsible construction industry. 

Will your startup be the next leader in sustainable architecture? Apply to the Construction Startup Competition under the Green Construction category! As an applicant, you’ll join the construction industry’s biggest ecosystem-made up of 5000+ startups & 300+ investors and corporate partners-and be closer to receiving a cash prize, piloting your solution in real markets, and pitching to keen investors at one of the industry’s biggest conferences.    

Let’s keep in touch!


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