Y’all, we are starting to dwindle down to the last bits of architectural history – aren’t you excited? Today, we’re looking at a smattering of architectural types that center around the idea of sustainability and being responsible with the Earth’s resources.

Quick History

Gained traction with all those Hippies but went through (and still is) a revival period in the 2010s. I specifically remember Al Gore’s book, An Inconvenient Truth, being quite a big deal. Many of my college design projects were centered around the idea of sustainability. More recently, you’ve probably seen Sweden’s Greta Thunberg give passionate speeches about climate change.

man putting together a model in an architecture studio
Figure 1 Design IV Crit Day, photograph by Janelle Horst

Per Architecture 2030, “buildings generate nearly 40% of annual global CO2 emissions” and “building materials and construction are responsible for an additional 11% annually”. Covid lockdowns in cities across the globe showed what lessened vehicular traffic could achieve in terms of air quality improvement.

There are several strands of sustainable design and much like Art Deco and Art Nouveau, they can be difficult to differentiate. So let’s break it down.

Sustainable/Green Architecture – think LEED. These can be any aesthetic you want because it’s more about creating efficiency in the HVAC and plumbing systems, optimizing location, and using locally sourced/recycled materials. You might also see some buildings incorporating an abundance of plant life. There are several programs similar to LEED, but LEED is the most well-known – a short explanation can be found here.

American Public University
Figure 2 We achieved LEED platinum for the APUS IT Center.

Earthship – think Hobbit hole. Perhaps the Hippiest of all styles listed here. If you’re looking for a truly self-sustaining home, this is something you should look into. They are typically made of natural and recycled/upcycled materials like old tires packed with earth. Michael Reynolds created the style – check out his website: Earthship Biotecture.

home built into the side of a hill
Figure 3 Wikipedia Creative Commons; “Earthship Brighton Front”, photograph by Dominic Alves

Natural/Organic Architecture – think Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. This is all about integrating and harmonizing with the natural world.

Falling Water
Figure 4 Falling Water, photograph by Janelle Horst

Did you know there is a government-sponsored competition for college students called the “Solar Decathlon”? In 2011, I had the opportunity to attend and walk through the homes created by college students. They also publish how each house did along with the project manuals and construction documents so you can see how they did everything.

collage of images from the solar decathlon
Figure 5 Clockwise: Solar Decathlon signage; University of Calgary; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Southern California Institute of Architecture & California Institute of Technology; all photos by Janelle Horst

I remember liking Middlebury College, Appalachian State University, and Massachusetts College of Art and Design/University of Massachusetts at Lowell best.

You may have noticed that I didn’t talk about the style as much as in previous blogs. The difference with this type of architecture, I find, is less about the style and more about the philosophy. Each type seeks to better the world, but they differ in their approach.

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