Sustainable Design in Action

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In the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry, it can be argued that the design stage is the most instrumental when it comes to sustainability. The design determines how the project will affect the environment through the use and transport of raw materials, construction activities, usage and maintenance of the project after it’s completed, and its disposition at the end of its useful life. Most of a project’s impact on the environment is decided in the design phase.

Circular economy; image: Fractory.com

It’s a fact of life that buildings and construction consume resources and generate waste. Pavement and rooftops also increase runoff, affecting the ability of the land to function normally in the hydrologic cycle. Sustainable design practices create a circular economy that is aimed at decreasing these impacts in order to conserve water, reduce waste and promote air and water quality. Additionally, as a TurboFuture blog article points out, sustainability is “also about meeting human needs.”

Sustainability strategies have one or both of the following objectives:

  1. Use fewer resources
  2. Prefer eco-friendly alternatives

Nearly all resource choices for a project are specified or affected by its design.

Pixel Building; image credit: Roger Wong/Moment Editorial/Flickr Vision/Getty

Highlighted by CNN in a 2020 Earth Day article, the Pixel Building in Melbourne, Australia is one example. It generates all the power and water it needs onsite, and its features include:

  • multi-colored panels that optimize light and shade as needed;
  • wastewater processing;
  • rainwater capture; and
  • wind turbines.
Bullitt Center, Seattle; image: NicLehoux

Over its nine years of existence, the Bullitt Center in Seattle, Washington has derived all its energy needs plus a surplus from renewable sources onsite, featuring 575 solar panels. Radiant heated floors, a toilet composting system and greywater treatment round out the building’s sustainable features.

Vancouver Convention Centre West; image: LMN Architects

As described by LMN Architects, the Vancouver Convention Centre West accommodates natural ecosystems on its roof and beneath its base. On the living roof are hives of honeybees and nearly a half-million native plants and grasses. Under the third of the building that extends over the water, colonies of crabs, shellfish, starfish, salmon, and other native species live on and around the structural pilings and a five-tier custom-designed marine habitat skirt.


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These are just three examples of projects that utilized sustainable design practices, the most widely used of which include:

  • Incorporating green spaces into site plans.
  • Minimizing or eliminating non-renewable energy consumption.
  • Using environmentally preferable components and raw materials made from recycled or locally obtained resources.
  • Taking steps to conserve water by specifying dual-flush toilets and low-flow water fixtures.
  • Remodeling or retrofitting existing structures so they don’t have to be demolished and rebuilt.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for sustainable design are widely recognized in the AEC industry. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED provides a framework for green building design, construction, operations, and performance. According to the LEED website, “Nearly 100,000 projects are participating in LEED across 180+ countries and territories, comprising over 24 billion square feet.”

Looking to the future, schools like the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design are nurturing the next generation of architects and engineers through academic mentoring and professional internships and apprenticeships. There are a number of colleges that now offer sustainability studies degree programs, with hundreds of students entering the industry every year.

The trend toward sustainable design is growing, and the circular economy that results will result in water conservation, reduced waste, better air and water quality, while human needs continue to be met.