Sustainability in Architecture: How Design Affects Impact

Welcome to the Architecture Plus blog! Our aim is to elucidate the design process for those looking to build their dream residential or commercial space here in Charleston, South Carolina. We explore a myriad of topics, including: where to build, what to build, how to build, and who to build with. Of course, we hope you’ll choose our dedicated team for your design needs and use our blog as a resource for inspiration and up-to-date architectural information. 


One of our primary concern in the design process of any project is the environmental impact on the surrounding community and its occupants. ‘Sustainability’ is a popular buzzword right now, but what does sustainability entail? How is sustainability measured? Further, how can you choose the best architect for your sustainable building?

What is Sustainability and Why is it Important?

The word “sustain” means  to endure. Therefore, sustainability is a resource’s or process’ ability to endure the foreseeable future. If a particular resource is finite, then it’s continued use isn’t (technically) sustainable forever. The aim of sustainability is to meet both our current and future needs. The aim of  sustainability in architectural design is “to construct a well-designed building and site environment that is healthy for the occupants, has minimal undesirable impact upon the environment, is effective in the use of natural resources, and is economical and durable.” (‘Sustainability in Architecture,’ Cordero). 


Other names for sustainable architecture include green building, high-performance building, and environmentally conscious. Be sure to utilize these terms in your search for a sustainable architect.


The metrics used to define sustainability (and their corresponding optimal quantity) are still in flux. However, there are numerous organizations which specialize in measuring the sustainability of a building project and any ecologically conscious architect should be eager and willing to incorporate sustainable strategies into their design plan. Sustainable design must, in its own way, address the global challenge of resource availability, water quality, and compounding pollution. Sustainable design must also ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the surrounding community.


Right now, the building sector accounts for twenty-five to forty percent of global carbon emissions and thirty-six percent of the world’s energy consumption. Those numbers are staggering and only expected to increase over the coming years. 

Aspects of Sustainability in Design

Contrary to assumption, sustainability is actually conducive to a quick turnaround and cost effective. Presuming you’ve chosen a skilled, knowledgeable architect. Your architect should take the following aspects into account:


A Holistic Viewpoint

Much like an ecosystem, every aspect of a building’s design directly influences every other aspect. For example, an architect who chooses to use natural ventilation and daylighting must account for the resulting effect on the increased usage of HVAC units in the building across the building’s entire lifespan. Even minor decisions can increase or decrease your building project’s environmental footprint; as well as affect the quality of life for those who choose to live and work there. 

One way an architect might evaluate the impact of a certain building material is to conduct a life-cycle assessment. Life-cycle assessments (or LCAs) measure the environmental impact of a material throughout its entire life-cycle–from its inception to its eventual degradation. These assessments can give a good overview of which materials will consume the most energy and, thus, which materials are best for the environment.

Conservation Effort


The conservation of resources must revolve around the big three: water, energy, and emissions. 


Water conservation is most effective at the design level, since the architect is capable of optimizing the waterways and building in water recycling systems. If your project is a renovation of an existing space with existing waterways, another avenue would be to choose water-efficient plumbing fixtures (i.e. ultra low-flow toilets and shower heads, water-efficient dishwashers and washing machines, leak detection systems). 


There are numerous ways to conserve energy in the design of your project. Planting deciduous trees is recommended, as these provide shade in the summer months and allow sunlight to enter in the winter months, offsetting heating/cooling costs. As well, limiting the use of artificial lighting in favor of skylights can help to cut down on electricity usage. 


Utilizing a combination of life-cycle assessments of materials and waste projections, an estimation of emissions can be determined before the project has even begun. It is up to the architect to find a way to eliminate material waste, where possible. This process can sometimes include using more material, such as in the case of continuous insulation, to ensure less carbon emissions in the future.

Aspects of Sustainability in Building

Likewise, a skilled, knowledgeable builder is also necessary in order to realize the vision of a sustainable building.


Use Local and Recycled

Using locally sourced materials results in less transportation which results in less emissions. As well, locally sourced materials are often cheaper than their internationally sourced counterparts. Choose a builder who is well-connected in the area you’re building and who has experience with a variety of materials. Including recycled materials

The most common recycled materials are: concrete, metal, asphalt, barn wood and untreated timber, glass, paper, cardboard, gypsum, masonry, vegetation and trees, plastic. Recycled materials can be sourced from other construction sites, tear-down sites, and donation centers. 

Using sustainable, as well as recycled, materials is important. The most common sustainable materials are: bamboo, straw bales (as insulation), rammed earth for building blocks, timbercrete (a form of concrete composed of sawdust), and ferrock (a form of concrete composed of steel dust).

Conservation Effort


Conservation in the construction process comes down to detailed planning and skilled execution. You’ll need a builder who can expertly follow the design laid out by the architect, manage materials without wastefulness, and use optimal strategies in the actual building process to cut down on emissions. Of course, renovating an existing building will result in the least production of emissions as there is an existing infrastructure in place. 

Embodied carbon is the net amount of all greenhouse gases produced in the lifecycle of the construction of a building. The first step of reducing these emissions is to keep track. Then, establish a baseline. After this, a builder can set targets and parameters and do their best to stay within set guidelines.


There are a few certifications available for buildings (both residential and commercial) which have proven their commitment toward sustainability and clean energy. The most prominent and influential of these is the LEED certification. Provided by the U.S. Green Building Council, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification certifies a building as safe, efficient, and optimized for the health of its occupants and community. There are multiple ratings within the certification for both residential and commercial buildings. Keep in mind, a certification of this degree requires extensive proof and accountability. If you are looking to obtain a LEED certification for your building project, you must be committed to a process of proving your building is indeed qualified for the title. 


Another well-known certification is the Energy Star certification offered by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency. To qualify, your building project must be at least fifteen percent more energy efficient than a comparable, traditional building.


Other certifications include BREEAM, GreenGlobe, Living Build Challenge, and more. Each has their own standards and qualifications. 


Certifications aren’t necessary. However, they signal to prospective buyers and occupants that the building is safe and beneficial for the planet. 

How to Choose a Sustainable Architect?

Choosing the right architect for your sustainable building project comes down to experience. Are they well-versed in the best sustainable design practices? Do they have sustainable builds in their portfolio? Are they open to working with you to develop long-term quantifiable metrics for ecological and human health factors? Are they willing to be involved in the qualification process for certification? If not,to any of those questions, you might continue with your search for a sustainable architect.


One of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable” by 2030. For this goal to become a reality, we’ll all need to do our part. Sustainability can and should be viewed as the amalgamation of many small changes to affect a much larger sum. One seemingly miniscule alteration in the design or construction of a building does affect the world at-large. The architect you choose to work with should be cognizant of this fact and committed to helping our local and global community. 


We here at Architecture Plus are cognizant and committed to sustainability in design and are willing to work with you–whatever your project parameters–to ensure a final product which is beneficial to both its occupants and the world. Don’t hesitate to reach out for more information! We are available to answer any questions you might have. Remember to return to the Architecture Plus blog for indispensable architecture knowledge and the latest trends!