Sustainable Architecture – Building Issues

Are we doing enough?

A Debate A Discussion

This topic has become controversial and the phrase ‘sustainable’ and linked phrases, problematic. Initially sustainable architecture seemed to have a groundswell of support as the awareness and discussion of climate change gathered pace. But soon many mainstream suppliers, architects, contractors, etc. were using the phrase – and underlying philosophy – in a glib manner. Naturally they quickly wanted to use the label as it seemed to send the right message, that they cared about the environment and were not part of the problem. But often the words were shallow attempts at window dressing and underneath many practices remained unsustainable.


But the phrase and philosophy has also become controversial not just due to commercial opportunism but because some figures have questioned its very basis. In the UK the writer Austin Williams, former AJ Technical Editor has been highly critical of the sustainable building movement and also of any shalllow co-opting of the issue by the mainstream. Issues such as using local materials and labour have also triggered complex arguments because so many of the issues appear to be difficult to objectively quantify.

Embodied energy is just one of these issues and has provoked discussions about the energy usage in moving materials around the world. You would expect that local materials and local manufacture would be more sustainable provided the extraction and production are relatively un-polluting but to really get an accurate answer you would have to produce a complex matrix. For example, how is the material sourced, cleaned, processed and transported? What powers these activities?

UCSF Institute for Regeneration Medicine Design Architect: Rafael Viñoly Architects Architect of Record: SmithGroup Location: San Francisco, California

UCSF Institute for Regeneration Medicine
Design Architect: Rafael Viñoly Architects
Architect of Record: SmithGroup
Location: San Francisco, California

If you were to compare a specific supply of steel and aluminium, would the apparently ‘more sustainable’ aluminium be the winner when you witness the destruction of rain forest for the plant and access roads, the silting of the rivers from Bauxite extraction, removal of indigenous tribes from the area and massive pollution from driving trucks in and out of the deep jungle?

Initially sustainable architecture seemed to be about quite comprehendable issues such as using ‘natural’ energy eg solar power, lots of wood and high U values. But as the books and conferences have multiplied there are now a whole range of issues that architects are being asked to analyse.

Essentially there seem to be no simple comparisons for materials but there are various websites and specification guides that aim to assist, eg the Green Guide to Specifications (BRE) or NGS.


The key is to consume less whether it be heat, electricity, water or products. Sourcing locally and sustainably is potentially useful but making sure to double check contractors actually build or install what is specified is what makes this beneficial rather than simply looking good on the company profile. Thinking about which product/materials are sustainable prior to specification would help, or indeed showing flexibility in specification, eg maybe specify beech rather than birch or larch rather than western red cedar.

We would welcome your views on this debate. We have a slow forum with texts on issues such as iconic architecture but it would be good to get some feedback on this topic too. Are we spending too much time on ‘sustainable architecture’ issues?

Sustainable Architecture: Text © Adrian Welch, architect

Article Source: Sustainable Architecture – Building Issues