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Sustainable Buildings

Sustainability is one of the most hotly debated subjects of our time. Almost all aspects of our lives need to be made more sustainable. The construction and use of buildings is no exception to this.

Buildings account for some of the highest use of resources around the world. For example, the graph below show the large share of various resources used in buildings in the United States. With future generations in mind, these figures are unsustainable.

(Source EPA and WBDG)

Context Within NORA

The topic of sustainable buildings fits very well into several of the specific areas of NORA. How exactly sustainable buildings relates to these specific areas is discussed in more detail below.

Relationships to Needs

Clean air to breathe: All living things have the need to breathe clean air. As the graph above indicates, buildings account for 38% of the total CO2 emissions in the United States; energy supply to buildings can also cause substantial emissions of other pollutants. Sustainable building design aims to reduce such emissions. It also needs to assure good indoor air quality.

Clean water to drink: All living things need water. Human beings need water for drinking, cleaning and for cooking. Buildings can waste a great deal of water; sustainable building design aims to make better use of water.

Shelter/Housing: Sustainable building design must be adapted to site characteristics as well as the culture of a place and the specific needs of people using or living in the buildings.

Being at home and Health: Sustainably designed building should help create a healthy environment in which people are likely to feel at home,

Relationships to Organizational Forms

To ensure that buildings are designed with the needs of their users in mind, it is best if the builders and/or architects maintain a long-term relationships with the future users of the buildings; this can best be done in forms of committed services or sales, or of community solidarity. Construction of buildings is usually paid for by currencies in markets. The continued care and maintenance of buildings usually involves a high degree of self-provisioning as well as shared use.

Knowledge about sustainable building design can be made available through organizational forms of the free knowledge cluster.

Relationships to Resources

Sustainable building design aims at more efficient use of water and energy resources, as well as of the materials used in building – that ultimately means more careful use of living things (e.g., from sustainable forestry) and of mineral resources. Reduced energy use should also lead to less pollution of the air and atmosphere.

Buildings are examples of physical human-made assets; sustainable design aims to ensure that these assets are of high quality.

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Principles of Eco-design

Eco-design involves designing a product with special consideration of its impact over the course of its entire lifecycle. With regards to buildings, this involves being environmentally friendly and resource-efficient throughout the building's entire lifecycle, from its design, construction, and maintenance to its eventual demolition.

There are many basic principles of eco-design when it comes to buildings. This page specifically features efficiency of energy and water use and reducing solid waste.

Making Buildings Energy Efficient

Energy is a huge factor in making buildings sustainable. Two aspects must be considered: the first is how to construct new buildings that are as energy efficient as possible, while the second is how to make existing buildings more energy efficient. Both have the same overall aim of providing a significant reduction in the amount of energy needed in heating and cooling the building.

Constructing new buildings

Bioclimatic Architecture
          This involves taking into account the local climate and environmental conditions in order to achieve thermal and visual comfort inside while using as little energy as possible. The shape of the building is designed to reduce the amount of surfaces in contact with the exterior and the building is given an appropriate orientation. For example, in northern hemisphere temperate regions, buildings are oriented to the south to maximize the warming effect of the sun.

Air Tightness
          Leakages of air through cracks in the building work left during construction can have a large negative impact on energy efficiency. For example in the winter when central heating use is at its highest,leakage of warm air increases the need for heating. Giving extra attention to the issue during the design stage of the building can reduce air leakages. During construction, careful attention must also be paid to the building’s “air barrier” and to ensure that all cracks in the building work are properly sealed.

Thermal Insulation
          This is a simple, low-cost approach that can save both money and energy. If installed properly, thermal insulation can create energy efficiency across the entire building. Thermal insulation works both ways: it keeps the hot air out during hot summer months and keeps the building warm during colder times.

          Having proper ventilation involves controlling both the influx and outflow of fresh air throughout the building. When twinned with appropriate insulation technology, it can prevent the condensation of moisture inside the building, and hence the growth of mold.

Making old buildings more energy-efficient

          As discussed previously, proper insulation can save both money and energy. The most straightforward ways of insulating older buildings usually involve adding insulation to suspended floors and roof spaces. The three main types of insulation that can be added to older buildings are mineral wools, oil-based products such as polystyrene, and lastly organic products such as flax and cellulose.

          As with new buildings, care should be taken with regards to draught proofing. Older buildings must have a good ventilation system in order to allow moisture to evaporate so that mold and fungi do not have the chance to grow. This is important as mold growth can contribute to health problems, especially for people suffering from allergies or asthma, causing symptoms such as eye irritation, coughing, skin rash and itching. 

Renewable Energy Sources

          Adding sustainable energy sources in and around both old and new buildings is a sound way of making buildings more energy efficient and sustainable. These can include wind-powered generators, solar panels and photovoltaic cells.


Protection and Conservation of Water

Reducing water consumption and protecting the overall quality of the water are some of the most important factors with regards to making buildings more sustainable. All facilities should therefore attempt to maximize the collection and re-use of water on site. Measures to consider include:

  • Recover and use as much grey-water as possible for purposes such as toilet flushing.
  • Attempt to improve the overall quality of water by eliminating the number of lead-bearing products in potable (drinking) water.
  • Improve the efficiency of water pipes and features by reducing leaks.


Reducing Solid Waste

Every year, millions of tonnes of waste are generated in homes, communities and workplaces across the industrialized world. This has a direct effect on climate change. What many people do not know is that there is a huge amount of solid waste generated through the construction, renovation and demolition of buildings.

Waste in all these areas can be reduced through careful methods of demolition and renovation that allow the recycling of materials in new construction. Construction itself can be designed in such a way as to maximize possibilities for recycling when the building is renovated or demolished.

During the lifetime of a building, simple solutions such as providing compost bins in local communities can help reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill.

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Useful Links

Duncan Graham-Rowe (The Guardian). December 2010. How to make buildings more energy-efficient: simple and effective measures to save energy and money.

National Institute of Building Sciences. Accessed July 2013. Whole Building Design Guide: Sustainable.

Norfolk County Council. Accessed July 2013. Making Old Buildings Energy Efficient.

Rocky Mountain Institute. Buildings.

US Environmental Protection Agency. Green Building.

Focusing more on what you can do without major changes in your house (from a commercial retailer based in Florida):
Del Mar Fans & Lighting, Energy Efficient Heating and Cooling



Green Retail Decisions. Accessed July 2013. Sustainable Building.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Accessed July 2013. What's Energy Efficiency?

McLaren, Warren (Treehugger). August 2001. US Buildings Account for 40% of Energy and Materials Use.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory. March 2009. Fact Sheet: Strategic Energy Management through Optimizing the Energy Performance of Buildings.

Towards Sustainability. Accessed July 2013. Sustainable Building.

US Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed July 2013. Sustainability.




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