Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
Green architecture has an appealing name for many millennials looking to buy a home and start a family. You might assume that by getting one of these idyllic homes, you’ve met the needs of Mother Earth.
Yet are these homes and buildings really sustainable?
Green architecture can be sustainable, as the idea focuses on using renewable and non-toxic building materials. Still, while it’s a massive improvement to traditional construction, it doesn’t consider the whole environment.
For a home or building to be sustainable, it must be holistic. This sustainability requires taking the local ecosystem, social systems, and energy expenditure. Keep reading to explore whether green architecture can be genuinely sustainable.
How Does Construction Impact the Environment?
Construction can impact the environment in several ways. Some of these impacts may seem obvious, such as resource use.
But others are severe and relatively unknown to the average person. These impacts range from local air and water pollution to wildlife degradation.
Several of the most prevalent causes of pollution from construction include:
- Pollution to local waterways
- Air pollution
- Acidic rain
- Landfill pollution
- Toxic pollutants to the local soil.
On a large scale, construction also carries global environmental costs. These include:
- CO2 emissions
- Biodiversity loss
- Fuel use
- Chemical pollution.
Construction is one of the most environmentally intensive practices impacting the world today. Not only is it resource intensive, but it leaves a lasting and permanent impact on the environment.
The recent impact on the local environment of the Gaza Strip is a perfect illustration of these negative impacts. A research paper published in 2014 found that construction along this strip further stressed already strained local resources.
Land degradation led to further stress on local farmers to produce enough to feed the residential area. Polluted waterways left many residents without clean water for their homes.
Although a somewhat extreme example due to the social and economic conditions of the region, it makes a powerful illustration.
Construction projects place a heavy burden on developing nations, and the quest for sustainable architecture is heavily felt abroad.
Therefore, construction is far from being considered a sustainable and green enterprise. For change to occur, there must be a holistic, all-encompassing alternative to our current practice.
Is There a Difference Between Green and Sustainable Construction?
Green construction differs from sustainable construction in two fundamental ways. These include:
- Environmental focus
- Approach to humans, planet, and resources.
Sustainable architecture takes economic, environmental, and local health into consideration. Green construction considers ecological impact alone.
These methods attempt to be sustainable in every manner possible. Specifically, sustainable construction takes the well-being of the local environment seriously.
This works to:
- Limit local resource consumption
- Decrease land degradation
- Decrease noise pollution
- Promote local economic growth
- Limit negative impacts on local peoples
- Plan sustainable commutes
- Utilize green energy sources.
In comparison, green architecture takes a much simpler approach. Green architecture focuses on making the household environment a green alternative to traditional living spaces.
According to a U.K. study on the subject, green architecture considers the following:
- Green power in the home
- Green appliances
- Natural, sustainable, and renewable building materials.
Green architecture focuses mainly on making a renewable home that does not waste resources.
Even though it’s an improvement upon traditional methods, it’s not as encompassing as sustainable architecture. We will explore several of the shortcomings of green architecture below.
Green architecture does not consider the local commute. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, daily commutes have increased 10% between 2006-2019.
This increase translates to daily commutes of over 30 minutes one way for millions of Americans every day.
According to the EPA, each passenger vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of CO2 annually. Commuting accounts for more than 90% of a person’s yearly mileage, or near three metric tons of emissions.
If a person did not have to commute to work every day, they could decrease carbon emissions up to 2 tons per year.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), changing daily commutes will cut carbon emissions by up to a quarter.
Since green architecture focuses mainly on suburban areas, it does not reduce daily commute. Therefore, people living within green buildings might need to do more to cut their carbon footprint.
Suburban lifestyles are high-energy consumers. From the everyday household utensils to the constant climate controls, suburban homes hardly function with efficiency in mind.
Sustainable homes harness the wind for cooling and the sun for heating. They aim to cut down on wasted energy with:
- Natural vents
- Utilizing solar power
- Implementing energy-efficient devices
- Utilizing natural shade sources
- Maximizing solar lighting.
You can see some excellent examples of these buildings in this Ted Talk by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. Here he deep dives into how sustainable structures give green architecture a run for its money.
Although green architecture attempts to create a renewable sourced home, it stops there. While the home might be natural and sustainable, the wasted energy and power will quickly override this benefit.
Suburban neighborhoods vary to some degree on how water-intensive they are. Some modern communities are more aware of water sustainability and focus on utilizing rainwater and protecting local sources.
However, traditional, upper-class suburban neighborhoods are the most water-intensive residential areas.
While urban and lower-class suburban regions are about average, upper-class suburbs consume up to 10% more water than other living centers.
Water waste in these communities has multiple causes, but most experts link it to landscaping and private pools.
Due to the expensive nature of upper-class suburbs, most homes use private landscaping companies and don’t host public swimming pools.
These massive yards, exotic foreign gardens, and massive pools use a lot of water. Although suburbs such as Denmark’s Nye are leading the way, there’s a lot of work to do before suburbs are water sustainable.
Verdict: Lifestyle Nullifies Green Impact
While green architecture is an improvement, they fail to be considered sustainable.
Sustainable structures are holistic and consider all factors before even laying a foundation. Since green architecture only considers a few factors, one can’t regard the process as sustainable.
But, green architecture does offer the following benefits to the homeowner:
- Sustainably sourced materials
- Minimal to no toxins used in building materials
- Clean waste disposal systems.
Therefore, if you’re considering buying a green home, you can trust that the building is clean. But it’s up to you to make it sustainable as part of the larger ecosystem.
Can Green Architecture Truly Be Green?
Green buildings can be truly green and sustainable if the people within them work to alter their energy use and waste disposal.
Whether it’s a personal home, hotel, apartment, or office space, the way people use these buildings can impact the sustainability of the building.
Offices can install energy-efficient lights, computers, and other electronics. Encouraging carpooling, biking, and public transportation will also reduce the overall carbon footprint.
Families can create a sustainable environment by reusing wash water for their gardens and installing solar panels. Some creative ways you can save water and reuse what you have to include:
- Greywater collection systems
- Recycling aquarium water
- Diverting backwash from the pool
- Collecting rainwater.
The greywater collection system is one of the most exciting options on this list. This system is somewhat new to the green world and aims to reduce water waste used for lawns.
Rather than using your hose to water the lawn, greywater systems collect the wastewater from your house.
It doesn’t come from the toilet, but rather, it comes from the shower, sink, and washing machine, and is stored in a tank until you’re ready to use it.
When you water your lawn, the mechanism uses several hoses to bring the water from the tank to the yard. While this system is not ideal for vegetable gardens, it’s an excellent way to water flower beds and grass.
Alternatively, you can make your system or use buckets. If you choose the bucket system, ensure you’re careful not to spill water or hurt your back while carrying it. I don’t recommend this method for watering the lawn.
I’d only use the bucket method for watering flower beds and shrubs. It’s an excellent workout, though!
Do Green Buildings Use Solar Power?
Green buildings do not use solar panels by default. Although you can request them from your builder, whether you can install them depends somewhat on your zoning board.
While most states and municipalities are okay with them, you’ll want to check. Other factors to consider are the style and size of the solar panels.
While some cities allow solar panels, they may not allow very large or bulky designs.
Otherwise, though, green buildings are not carbon neutral. If you want a green and sustainable home, consider getting solar panels or purchasing carbon credits to offset your carbon footprint.
Carbon credits are an excellent way to neutralize your impact on the environment. These are essentially purchased credits used to fund green energy initiatives.
By doing so, you are helping fund and support the implementation of renewable power.
Some come with added co-benefits as well. These co-benefits are holistic and attempt to mitigate the societal impacts of climate change. These can include:
- Support of Indigenous communities/li>
- Agricultural initiatives
- Soil and biodiversity health.
When you purchase these specialized carbon credits, you’re helping to create a sustainable system. Although we all want our homes to be green and sustainable, purchasing these credits can help make a greener world.
Does Suburban Landscaping Follow Green Standards?
While suburbs often have a green look, they do not adhere to sustainable landscaping standards. While we already spoke about the waste in water, there are other ways one may improve suburban landscaping methods.
Many suburban household gardens have several of the following flaws:
- Harmful fertilizers
- Toxic weed killers
- Invasive species of plants
- Soil degradation.
Land waste and soil nutrient depletion are common issues associated with suburban and urban living. You would need to consistently renew the soil through the breakdown of natural, organic materials.
However, most urban and suburban areas either neglect this system or implement an artificial one.
Most fertilizers used by landscaping companies include copper sulfate. While a naturally occurring element, it’s harmful to many soil diversity systems, as it can kill microbes, bacteria, and insects in the soil system.
Unlike these chemical-based fertilizers, organic fertilizers feed microbes and other organisms.
This system creates a self-sustaining soil renewal, allowing the earth to feed the plants. In comparison, artificial fertilization systems are ineffective if you don’t consistently add them to the plant life.
Roundup and pesticides also kill off the local ecosystem’s organic life. Not only are these chemicals harmful to pets and people, but they are also deadly to local insects and wildlife.
This toxicity allows invasive species to take hold and override the native populations.
To prevent this, you can implement the following methods:
- Save food scraps
- Purchase a composter
- Create a local garden
- Make a public compost center
- Grow local grass varieties
- Purchase flowers and trees native to your region.
Growing plants and trees native to your region helps advance the local wildlife diversity. Invasive bugs and plants tend to outcompete the native populations due to specific adaptations.
If you don’t have space for your garden, speak to local town centers about creating a community garden. Most people love the idea of a community garden, and you’ll be helping to preserve soil quality and diversity.
Green buildings can be better for the environment through a holistic system. While green buildings attempt to do much good, they fall short of mitigating climate change.
Since climate change is multifaceted, it requires a multidimensional approach to mitigate it.
Green buildings must consider the whole environment to be sustainable. While green buildings decrease waste and improve building practices, they do not positively impact climate change.
There’s a lot of pressure on the homeowner to make their home sustainable. But, we must start someplace!
- Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile: An evaluation of environmental impacts of construction projects
- US Census Bureau: Census Bureau Estimates Show Average One-Way Travel Time to Work Rises to All-Time High
- Environmental Protection Agency: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle
- ScienceDirect: Green Architecture: A Concept of Sustainability
- Buffer: Is Remote Work Greener? We Calculated Buffer’s Carbon Footprint to Find Out
- International Energy Agency: Emergency measures can quickly cut global oil demand by 2.7 million barrels a day, reducing the risk of a damaging supply crunch
- TED: 3 warp-speed architecture tales
- ScienceDaily: Home styles linked to water use levels
- State of Green: Nye – a new sustainable and water-wise suburb in Denmark that meets half of the SDG’s
- US Green Building Council: Green Homes 101
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: What is the most cost-effective way to buy carbon offsets?
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