Invisible Sustainability: Starting from the Drawingboard


For all the noise made about sustainable technology ( PV panels on the roof, energy star everything, etc. ) an equally important part of what makes a building green is invisible.

Today’s post explores some of the less tangible qualities that make a green building – nothing you can buy, or add on after the fact – concepts that come at the very beginning of the design process and inform the sustainability of the building through its whole lifespan.


“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

William Morris

One of the most sustainable concepts that can be designed into a project is to make it smaller.  Each additional square foot of space requires more materials, more resources, more energy to maintain and heat and will likely be filled with more objects that require the same.  This is not to say that we advocate for everyone living in a packing crate – simply that its important to think carefully about what is really necessary before adding extra space.

Furthermore this is one of the hardest things to do after the fact.  While no one would argue that adding on to, or expanding, an existing building is easy or cheap … making one smaller after the fact is something that is never even attempted.

PLACE BASED: All your Conditions Considered

 “Ecological design begins with the intimate knowledge of a particular place.  Therefore, it is small-scale and direct, responsive to both local conditions and local people.  If we are sensitive to the nuances of place, we can inhabit without destroying.”

Sim Van Der Ryn and Stuart Cowan

A world of interconnected information can be a blessing and a curse for sustainable designers.  Sharing ideas is the ideal but what is appropriate in one place may be a terrible idea in another and its key to focus on sustainable solutions for the PLACE YOU ARE IN.  A beautiful (and sensitive) design for Washington state might be a disaster in Wisconsin where the demands of climate are drastically different.  Insulation, Daylight, Natural Ventilation, Orientation and Massing all need to be calibrated for the local conditions.

Buildings designed with the heating and cooling needs of its own climate (and micro climate) in mind from the beginning will require much less energy through its life span than those in which thermal comfort was an after thought!

BUILT TO LAST: Built to Change with Changing Needs 

“He who rejects change is the architect of decay.”

Harold Wilson

A 2007 study by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) lists the expected lifespans of home construction components from light switches to termite proof foundations and while some of the items are expected to last “a lifetime,” many more are only intended for 5-15 years.  Even the items which are billed as long lasting are only planned on a scale of 100 years.  This is longevity only according to the timescale of a very young country.  By European standards, buildings, both public and private, are used and re-used over the course of centuries and while the internal components change the structure is not dispensed with.

Building with disposable materials is only one way to fall into the trap of a disposable building culture.  To make buildings that truly last it must be flexible enough to survive its initial user and well built enough to simply stand.  For a designer, creating a truly sustainable building means both of these things must be accomplished.

Ultimately, some of the most effective sustainable decisions are made on paper and have nothing to do with products and everything to do with smart, thoughtful design.