Sustainable Architecture Has Economic, Environmental And Social Benefits

by Nicola Temple on March 2, 2012

With a steadily increasing population and the movement toward urbanization, we need to look toward sustainable architecture as a means of reducing the impact our cityscapes are having on our resources and the planet as a whole.

In 2004, the total CO2 emissions from commercial and residential buildings made up 39% of total annual emissions in the US – more than transportation or industry. While industry emissions appear to be levelling off, building emissions are predicted to climb.

Luckily, progressive industry leaders, forward-thinking governments and end-product users that are helping to make sustainable architecture simply the new architecture. The US Green Building Council, in particular, has raised the standard through their LEED certification program.

Sustainable building designs look for the perfect balance between performance and aesthetics. They incorporate techniques that minimize the environmental impact of a building, enhance efficiency (saving money) and create healthy attractive spaces for people.

Upon closer inspection, the benefits of sustainable architecture fall into the triple bottom line of sustainability: economic, environmental and social.

sustainable architecture

The Vancouver Convention Centre West, in Canada, is an example of sustainable architecture that was recognized in 2011 by the AIA's Committee on the Environment. CC image courtesy of Karen Neoh on Flickr.

How a sustainable building can affect the triple bottom line:


There are many financial incentives offered by federal, state and local governments, particularly for LEED-certified buildings. These include property tax exemptions, tax breaks on building materials, tax credits, expedited permitting, grants and low-interest loans.

Occupants/owners reduce annual energy use and reduce overhead and management costs.

There is evidence to suggest that green buildings promote increased productivity both in office environments as well as factory environments.

There is also evidence to suggest that there is improved financial performance within buildings with green features. A study that looked at gross sales of a retail chain with 108 stores, found that stores that had natural lighting were doing better in sales, when all other variables were held equal. The study suggested that based on their analysis, stores without skylights would likely improve sales by an average of 40% if they simply added the natural lighting.


There is a reduction in the resources that go into construction of the building by sourcing renewable and sustainably acquired resources, recycling construction materials, and sometimes minimizing.

Resources are further conserved by incorporating design techniques and technologies that reduce water consumption, increase energy efficiency and reduce waste. The goal is to turn buildings from energy sinks to energy sources by incorporating wind turbines, photovoltaics and other sources of power generation into the design.

Sustainable architecture designs seek to preserve native habitats and in some cases, generate habitat. This is a TED talk by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. He whips through quite a bit of information but with a fantastic sense of humor. I show this to you now because one of the projects he highlights is a terrific example of how sustainable architecture can create habitat. What was proposed as a sterile multi-level car park beside an apartment block, evolved into rooftop gardens and an enormous piece of art. It’s absolutely worth a look:


Green buildings can improve occupant health. Natural lighting, the use of natural fibers and non-toxic paints all help improve the experience for those that use the building.

Sustainable architecture can help create useable public spaces. There is another example in the above video where the design of the building has helped to create functional yet aesthetically pleasing places for people to use, without even having to enter the building.

Of course, there is also significant PR and marketing leverage that shouldn’t be ignored either.

So, with all these advantages, why isn’t everyone building green? Well, that’s a good question. Part of it is that it does come at a bit of a premium. For example, MGM’s 18-million square foot sustainable development in Las Vegas, CityCenter, came at a 3% premium. You can imagine that 3% on this scale of project is quite a lot of money. However, in the video below, you can hear the CEO of the architectural firm Gensler, who was awarded the design, speak about the project. He says that with the financial benefits of the green design, they recovered this premium difference in only three years.

Each year, the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment (COTE) recognizes ten completed projects each year as the Top Ten Green Projects that exemplify sustainable architecture as measured across ten criteria: intent and innovation, community, site, bioclimatic design, light & air, water, energy, materials, long life, and feedback. It’s a wonderful place, if you’re interested, to see some great examples of sustainable architecture and glimpse what the future might hold for our cities.

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