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Components of sustainable building

Here you will watch a video of us explaining the key concepts of sustainable building

Sustainable Building can mean different things to different people. For some it means buildings draped in greenery – literally green buildings – with a focus on increasing biodiversity and increasing the health, wellbeing and air quality of the inhabitants. For some it is all about reducing pollution and waste. To others, carbon emissions and buildings’ contribution to climate change. It means all these things and more.

The World GBC says “a ‘green’ building is a building that, in its design, construction or operation, reduces or eliminates negative impacts, and can create positive impacts, on our climate and natural environment. Green buildings preserve precious natural resources and improve our quality of life”. The World GBC provides a useful summary on their website that we can all use as a common starting point [1], but GBC’s across the world generally agree that three areas must be addressed in building a sustainable building:

  • Carbon emissions and climate change
  • Resource use, circular economy/ waste and nature and biodiversity
  • Social impacts, health and wellbeing

We will use carbon emission and climate change, resource use and circular economy, nature and biodiversity, social value and health and wellbeing as lenses to view sustainable buildings on this course, and as ways to understand all the different components of a sustainable building. Often there are co-benefits from looking at where different elements cross over – for example, how much glass a façade has will influence the embodied carbon of a building, but also the light and heat levels within.

This will affect the level of artificial light, heating and cooling requirements, and consequently carbon emissions. There will also be implications on comfort, health and wellbeing, and the productivity of the building’s occupants. Often there are co-benefits of energy or waste reduction innovations so be sure to look for them when exploring case studies and your own work later in the programme.

When talking about sustainable building, we tend to picture shiny or leaf-laden SMART, solar clad new buildings. But it is also important to remember that “the greenest building is the one that already exists” [2] . A report from the Norwegian GBC “Think Twice Before Demolishing” [3] and World GBC’s ‘Starting a Renovation Wave’ [4] outline how retrofitting our existing building stock is by far where the bigger wins are going to come from, and that there is emerging commitment across the EU to tackle this massive challenge. Don’t overlook this option when exploring your project and assignment.

Also considering materials selection for new buildings and taking a ‘whole life’ approach to carbon can drastically alter the design decisions you make before a building’s life has even begun.

In the next sections we will explore the 5 key concepts of sustainable building, starting with net zero carbon.


  1. [page on the Internet], WorldGBC: About Green Building.
  2. [article on the internet], Architects Journal: ‘The greenest building is the one that already exists’; September 2019. [report page on the Internet], Norwegian Green Building Council: Think twice before demolishing.
  3. [report page on the Internet], World GBC: Starting a Renovation Wave; April 2020.
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An Introduction to Sustainability in the Built Environment

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