The Quest for Sustainable Architecture

Buildings and construction account for around 40% of the world's carbon emissions. Find out how architects are responding to the climate emergency.

By Royal Institute of British Architects

St Edward's, Brotherton, and Ferrybridge B Power Station (1960) by Photographer: Eric de MareRoyal Institute of British Architects

What is sustainability in architecture?

Sustainability can be both a broad and nuanced term, especially in architecture. It essentially describes how future proof something is, whether environmentally, economically or socially. Will it still be valuable, and viable, for society in the longer term? 

John Ruskin, photographic portrait (1890) by Photographer: Elliot & FryRoyal Institute of British Architects

Early warnings

Over 130 years ago, the architecture and art critic John Ruskin warned starkly of the effects of industrialisation on the environment, sounding the alarm about the air pollution caused by the coal-fuelled industrial revolution.

Architects campaign to raise awareness about the climate emergency (2019)Royal Institute of British Architects

Architects declare a climate emergency

In 2019, 17 British RIBA Stirling Prize-winning architectural practices united behind an urgent message: the world is in the midst of a climate, justice and biodiversity emergency. Without fundamental change to how we build and think about architecture, we risk serious  consequences.

Eden Project, Bodelva (2002) by Nicholas Grimshaw and PartnersRoyal Institute of British Architects

This story focuses on environmentally sustainable architecture, which aims to respond to this crisis by limiting the production of harmful carbon emissions and the exploitation of natural resources, to create buildings that are of long-term benefit to people and planet.  

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2008, Hyde Park, London: detail of a structural wall showing timber section (2008) by Frank GehryRoyal Institute of British Architects

Materials

Of course, a building has to be made from something. Whether this material is mined from the earth, produced through carbon-intensive processes, or repurposed from a previous structure, this has a significant effect on a building's environmental impact. 

Airship hangar (1916) by Eugene FreyssinetRoyal Institute of British Architects

Concrete emerged as the dominant construction material in the 20th century, allowing ambitious post-war infrastructure and housing schemes to be realised relatively cheaply. 

Although it is durable and thermally efficient, it relies on highly carbon-intensive production processes and is thought to be responsible for around 10% of the world's industrial water consumption and 4 to 8% of the world's carbon dioxide.

A self-build house in Lewisham under construction (1980) by Walter SegalRoyal Institute of British Architects

Timber from responsibly-managed forests is one alternative with high potential for supporting sustainable architecture. Starting in the 1960s, architect Walter Segal oversaw construction of several self-build homes in London that featured a carefully calculated, modular timber frame to minimise waste and avoid concrete.     

Other natural materials, such as structural hemp and cork, can also reduce a building’s environmental impact. They can often be grown or produced sustainably and will typically be reusable, recyclable, or biodegradable at the end of a building’s lifespan.

City Point, Ropemaker Street, City of London (2007) by Architect: Sheppard Robson & PartnersRoyal Institute of British Architects

Like concrete, glass can present a dilemma. Although tactical glazing can help reduce the need for carbon-intensive heating, systems are often only designed to last 30 years, resulting in more of the carbon emissions associated with their disposal and replacement. 

Demolition of Killingworth Towers Estate (1987) by Northumberland County CouncilRoyal Institute of British Architects

To replace or to retrofit?

Even when made from sustainable materials, the creation of new buildings often involves the extraction of non-renewable resources and the unsustainable disposal of existing structures. The shorter a building's lifespan, the higher its whole-life carbon footprint is likely to be. 

Oak and Eldon Gardens beyond demolished by controlled explosives. (1978)Royal Institute of British Architects

This situation has prompted the idea that "the most sustainable building is one that already exists". Yet older buildings can be thermally inefficient and not well suited to contemporary needs. Here's where retrofit comes in. 

Cite du Lignon (2010) by George AddorRoyal Institute of British Architects

Le Lignon, a 1960s housing development in Geneva, avoided the fate of demolition often meted out to estates of its period when it was retrofitted by Jaccaud Spicher Architectes in an 11-year project completed in 2021.

Cite du Lignon (2021) by Jaccaud Spicher Architectes AssociésRoyal Institute of British Architects

The retrofit of the estate, which was originally designed by Swiss architect George Addor, has improved its energy efficiency and living conditions for residents, giving it a new lease of life at a fraction of the environmental cost of wholesale replacement. 

Durham Deep Retrofit (2021) by Arboreal ArchitectureRoyal Institute of British Architects

Retrofitting also offers a relatively inexpensive way to enhance the thermal efficiency of existing individual homes, which in turn reduces their energy consumption. Arboreal Architecture carried out a 'deep retrofit' of this Victorian townhouse to reduce its energy consumption by around 75%. 

Durham Deep Retrofit (2021) by Arboreal ArchitectureRoyal Institute of British Architects

They stripped back the house to its shell of solid brick walls and re-lined the walls with insulation, airtight boards and new interior finishes to create a more energy-efficient home. 

Beddington Zero Energy Development, "BedZed" (2007) by Bill Dunster ArchitectsRoyal Institute of British Architects

Renewable energy sources

Architects are also increasingly designing new buildings to run from renewable energy sources, or even to produce their own energy for a local grid, to reduce their reliance on carbon-based energy. 

Beddington Zero Energy Development, "BedZed" (2008) by Bill Dunster ArchitectsRoyal Institute of British Architects

"BedZed", designed by Bill Dunster Architects in the early 2000s, was the UK's first large-scale community that aimed to create zero carbon emissions. Its distinctive, brightly coloured ventilation chimneys harness breezes to continuously replenish the fresh air inside.  

Beddington Zero Energy Development, "BedZed" (2007) by Bill Dunster ArchitectsRoyal Institute of British Architects

It generated energy via solar panels, as well as a biomass-fuelled cogeneration plant, to provide both electricity and hot water. The plant was later abandoned due to maintenance problems, but the development did achieve significantly lower than average emissions.

Housing, SolarCity (2004) by Richard Rogers PartnershipRoyal Institute of British Architects

In the 1990s and early 2000s, SolarCity took shape in the town of Linz, Austria. It was designed as a low-energy community initially for around 4,000 residents, with around a third of its energy drawn from solar power. 

Housing, SolarCity (2004) by Richard Rogers PartnershipRoyal Institute of British Architects

It also drew from the principles of the Garden City Movement of the late 19th century, which emphasised planted green spaces within residential communities. Well-known architects were hired to design SolarCity's buildings, including Richard Rogers Partnership. 

Goldsmith Street (2019) by Photographer: Tim CrockerRoyal Institute of British Architects

Passivhaus

While renewable energy reduces reliance on fossil fuels, 'Passivhaus' methodology aims to reduce energy consumption altogether by maintaining internal temperatures through thermal efficiency. 

Goldsmith Street, a RIBA Stirling Prize winning development in Norwich, is the UK's largest 100% Passivehouse social housing development.

Goldsmith Street Housing (2019) by Mikhail Riches with Cathy HawleyRoyal Institute of British Architects

The design, by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, tactically shades homes from the hot summer sun while encouraging the warming winter sun, resulting in 'passively' maintained comfortable temperatures without the need for 'active' carbon-reliant heating or cooling. 

Passive House, Kranichstein (1991) by Bott, Ridder and WestermeyerRoyal Institute of British Architects

The idea for  Passivhaus (or Passivehouse) design originated in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s. It was spearheaded by physicist Dr Wolfgang Feist, whose own family home, designed by architects Bott, Ridder and Westermeyer, was the first officially Passivhaus building. 

Verandah Chana Dowlah, Seringapatam (about 1866–1870) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

But the principles behind Passivhaus were not new. Long before the rise of carbon-based energy, buildings in hot climates employed features such as verandas, sunlight-deflecting brise soleil and heat-absorbing materials to passively maintain cooler temperatures. 

Eden Project, Bodelva (2002) by Nicholas Grimshaw and PartnersRoyal Institute of British Architects

These approaches (biodegradable materials, retrofitting, renewable energy sources and Passivhaus) are just a few of the tactics necessary to future-proof the built environment and lessen the impacts of global heating.

Arch Oboler Residence (1990) by Frank Lloyd WrightRoyal Institute of British Architects

In the early 20th century, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright argued for the importance of an "organic architecture" that worked in harmony with nature. 

To truly achieve this, architects, alongside - the developers, planners and manufacturers involved in all stages of the construction process - will need to keep pace in order to both slow, and offer protection from, increasing global temperatures and rising sea levels.

"The only way forward, if we are going to improve the quality of the environment, is to get everybody involved."


Richard Rogers

Credits: Story

Explore more from RIBA Collections here. 
All images are from RIBA Collections unless listed.  

St Edward's, Brotherton and Ferrybridge B Power Station. Rights: Eric de Marie / RIBA Collections 
Eden Project: Rights: Jonathan Makepeace / RIBA Collections 
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2008, Hyde Park, London: detail of a structural wall showing timber section. Rights: Christopher Hope-Fitch / RIBA Collections 
A self-build house in Lewisham under construction. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections 
City Point, Ropemaker Street, City of London. Rights: Max Fenton / RIBA Collections 
Demolition of Killingworth Towers Estate. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections Oak and Eldon Gardens beyond demolished by controlled explosives. Rights: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections 
Cite du Lignon (2010) Rights: Alessandro Costa / RIBA Collections 
Cite du Lignon (2021). Rights: Jaccaud Spicher Architectes Associés 
Durham Deep Retrofit, exterior and interior shot. Rights: Arboreal Architecture / Agnes Sanvito Beddington Zero Energy Development, "BedZed". Rights: Christopher Hope-Fitch / RIBA Collections 
Housing, SolarCity, Richard Rogers Partnership. Rights: Roland Halbe / RIBA Collections Goldsmith Street Housing. Rights: Tim Crocker 
Passive House, Kranichstein. Rights: Peter Cook 
Arch Oboler Residence, Frank Lloyd Wright. Rights: Damien Blower / RIBA Collections

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps