An Archive of Contemporary Thought in Sustainable Architecture


Venice 2000



Sustainable Architecture: A primer

(draft 5/08)


(sus- under + tenere, to hold) to keep in existence; maintain or prolong

(archi-, chief + tekton, carpenter) the science, art, or profession of designing and constructing buildings, etc.




Sustainable Architecture



Sustainable Architecture process

Vernacular Architecture

Environmental Design


See also

External links


Sustainable Architecture


The following is a collection of thoughts on Sustainable Architecture.





Sustainable Architecture, from the Latin and Greek word origins, is in part, the enduring production of space, as described by Lefebvre. Architecture, to be retained from the past, must have value (perhaps beauty too), which distinguishes it from building, and defines its sustainability. The Parthenon is the place that is the oldest and most used of all.


Illustration 1. Parthenon.


This fine example of the elusive sense of place is the production of space and endures. Sustainable Architecture applies the ideals of Vitruvius: "Éthree levels on which human activity functions, those of: necessitas (necessity), commoditas (commodity), and voluptas (aesthetic pleasure)." Vitruvius has been interpreted, "A Green Vitruvius".

Two fields related to Sustainable Architecture are: 1. Vernacular Architecture, a sub- field the following specifics of which are included for purposes of this discussion- (natural building and ecological design); and 2. Environmental Design, also a parallel field the following specifics of which are including for purposes of this discussion- (green architecture, sustainable landscape, sustainable planning, sustainable urban design and regional resource conservation)


(Pluralism in architecture allows this multi-part, multi-form version of reality.)


Ideally, Sustainable Architecture:

is artistic;

is functionally effective;

is low-cost;

is low-tech; simple solutions

is equitable; - allowing architecture to be accessible to everybody now and in the future and not just the current wealthy elite;

and it should be minimise resource use being materially durable or renewable and

minimise negative impacts on the environment;

and it should be designed for low or zero energy consumption through its occupation;

and it is designed to be reused(adapted) or recycled as a whole or in part at the end of its (long) life.




Sustainability requires a paradigm shift:

Sustainability requires a shift towards a new environmental paradigm (Milbrath), a new way of thinking: Much of contemporary architecture and building practices today are too often the result of high cost consumerism, productivism, and scientism that keep us trapped in what is typically done. Alternative ideas and methods exist to design and build effective, artistic, low cost and low or zero energy use houses, landscapes and cities. Sustainable Architecture within a western world context requires, as Derrida and others suggest, the end of history. That is the end of a certain concept of history. In the future of an unfinished universe, higher levels of organization (consciousness for example) may irrigate the field with unimagined possibilities. This then is the future challenge for the art of Sustainable Architecture.


What we are attempting to sustain:

From an architect's viewpoint, are we attempting to sustain architectural-artefacts, the built environment, the (existing) human eco-system, human life, or human culture? Obviously we are trying to sustain all of these &endash; in reverse order. That is, human life and culture (material and immaterial); then the human-ecosystem; then the built environment and lastly individual architectural artefacts. The site no longer defines the scope of the architect's responsibilities (Watkins 1992).


Architects and sustainable development:

Sustainability and sustainable development are used almost interchangeably. Dovers is more careful in his use of these terms and differentiates 'sustainability' (an end) from 'sustainable development' (a process of achieving that end). Sustainability can be understood as the (goal of) on-going and long-term maintenance of humans and ecosystems. Green architects are therefore immersed within the process of sustainable development, and are key decision-makers given that for example, in Australia, approximately three-quarters of capital stock is located in the built environment, making it, the most important designed/manufactured element in the human ecosystem. "...30% of capital stock is in the form of housing, with a further 45% in non-housing and infrastructure." (from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian National Accounts, Capital Stocks 1988-89, ABS, Canberra 1990)



Maxims towards a sustainable architecture:


1. The first maxim of sustainable architecture is that buildings should exemplify principles of conservation, living/existing in synergy with nature/human ecosystem: By conservation we do not mean maintenance of the status quo, but a moving target. The idea of maintenance demanded by the definition of sustainability does not imply a static-state-of-affairs kind of permanence, but rather permanence of human-ecological processes. Similarly, sustainability does not necessarily imply the conservation of the status quo, or static and stable end states. Rather, the process of sustainable development must seek resilient ecological systems which take ecological threats into account by making allowance for a greater level of risk in the expectation of surprise.


(On practical terms this might imply built solutions ranging from permanent-durable- monumental through to impermanent-renewable with many levels of adaptability between. Gordon's ideas of long-life loose-fit and low energy are all still relevant)



Illustration: Renewable building , Adaptable building, Permanent Building



2. This leads to the second maxim of sustainable architecture in that buildings and the built environment must be resilient and have the (designed) capacity to adapt to change whether cultural or environmental. The process of sustainable development, following the ecological metaphor of resilience, should seek out heterogeneity and appropriate scaled systems. A resilient architecture operating at a level of risk that allows for incomplete knowledge while having the capacity to absorb and learn from surprises. The quest for simple stability should be abandoned in favour of dynamic systems which take ecological risks into consideration. The ideal function of sustainable architecture, beyond design and building, is to render future possibilities that accomplish in the words of Francoise Choay: "BuildingÉa new medium for the accommodation of pleasure and the unforseen."



(An example of a resilient approach to energy generation would be the installation of autonomous power supplies on a plethora of geographically separate buildings, rather than the reticulation of power from one large central station to each of them. The single station is at risk of calamitous ecological surprise (or terrorist attack for instance), whereas low-tech/cheap separate scattered supplies would remain in operation and be easier to repair or relocate if a catastrophe eventuated). Resilient ecological systems do not have singular weak points as can be identified in the ubiquitous western 'think big' projects. As Schumacher so eloquently stated 'small is beautiful')



3. The third maxim of sustainable architecture relates to its context of bioregionalism, or the concept that all life is community oriented - that future shelter technology must function within bioregional patterns and scales;


Architecture cannot be deemed sustainable without some analysis beyond that of the individual building. An understanding of its location and impacts within the wider human ecosystem-built environment is required - namely a recognition of its 'eco-spatial context'. As Common states, the first issue to investigate in any environmental problem is its spatial extent. Because of the global capacity of the ecosystem to absorb human actions, not all buildings need necessarily meet strict environmental standards. Given a socio-cultural context it can be recognised that some allowance should be made for the existence and construction of large scale culturally significant buildings, despite their ecological impacts extending across many ecosystems. Large scale buildings can be legitimised as sustainable architecture only if an equitable, bottom-up process of development is followed and if their ecological impacts can be offset against the construction of low impact architecture elsewhere (i.e. taking a 'net impacts' approach). All other buildings, to be sustainable, must be necessarily low impact, with these impacts being restricted to the smallest of eco-spatial scales, and with the Autonomous House being a northern hemisphere of design benchmark; Pole House Kauai being a tropical example; Wellington City Ecohouse Project being a temperate southern hemisphere example.


Illustration . Autonomous House.



Illustration . Hotten House Kauai



Illustration . Wellington City Ecohouse



The fourth maxim of sustainable architecture is that architectural process should be ethical and equitable. If sustainable development is about making people better off, then architects should create building and environments that leave future generations increased potential for future development. Thus sustainable architects are obligated to future generations, with their actions being guided by the principle notion of 'intergenerational equity', the bequest from present generations to future generations, based on the requirement for 'fairness' in distribution of (natural) wealth between generations. Of course if one recognises the rights of equitable treatment of those who do even not exist (yet), to be ethically consistent one must also recognise the right to equality of those peoples who exist now. Thus if one adopts a principle of 'intergenerational equity', one must also adhere to a principle of 'intragenerational equity', based on the requirement for 'fairness' between persons within the same generation.


The wealthy and powerful must balance their (illusion of) affluence against ecological destruction which may deprive future generations of sustained development; and moreover intragenerational inequality at home or aboard as a consequence of natural disaster, poverty and war. Architects Societies involved with the promotion of peaceful environments include ArchPeace and Architects for Nuclear Disarmament.


The consideration of the issues related to ethics and equitability is a significant ask for architects dealing with the immediacy of design decisions related to a specific building site. The architect must at the very least understand that her/his decisions have consequencesÉ and that they should interrogate what the potential effects of their actions are likely to have on others and the environment. (An example of sustainable sourcing of building materials is the Ecotimber program run by Greenpeace in the Solomon Islands)





Sustainable Architecture process


Sustainable Architecture is characterised as "deep" design, taking into account all aspects of a project throughout the life of the project. Purpose in Sustainable Architecture is the organization of material necessary to produce a successful project combined with the element of art. Meaning in Sustainable Architecture is the evolution of form from the flux or time.


Sustainable Architecture contains the two subfields of Vernacular Architecture and Environmental Design.


Vernacular Architecture


Vernacular archiutecture &endash; the real stuff--


natural building, Frank Lloyd Wright;


Illustration 5. Wright House


and ecological design, Glenn Murcutt, 2002 Pritzker Prize winner. "Go gently on the earth."


Illustration 6. Murcutt House



Environmental Design, emphasized by environmental site analysis work in the 1960's at U.C. Berkeley's College of Environmental Design and energy transfer materials testing in the Engineering Department that was the foundation for low and zero energy autonomous Sustainable Architecture.


green architecture, James Wines, SITE;


Illustration 7. Wines Project


sustainable landscape, xeriscape,


Illustration 8. Xeriscape


native plant revegetation; sustainable urban design, current Dutch and French projects;


Illustrations 9. and, 10. Dutch and French


regional resource conservation.


Illustration 11. Conservation


These projects are often stand alone, off the grid, with autonomy from the local infrastructure.





Steps that might be in a Sustainable Architecture process:

Visualization of goals

Environmental assessment

Checklist of environmental design goals

Design synthesis of aesthetic goals


Twelve things that can done to build effective low cost houses and cities:

There are six historical principles (vernacular trends) to improve the energy efficiency and thereby effectiveness and useability of dwellings. They are: 1) siting and vernacular design; 2) shade; 3) ventilation; 4) earth shelter, 5) thermal inertia; and 6) air lock entrances. To this list can be added six new techniques of environmental design (technologies, methods of effectiveness, and design synthesis): 7) scale (footprint), insulation, design of future alternatives; 8) on site water collection and waste disposal; 9) solar water heating panels; 10) photovoltaic electricity generation; 11) recycling and use of local and durable materials; and 12) on site growth of food, fuel and building materials. These twelve principles can be combined, as suitable, into synthesized solutions for various locations, users and climates that meet cultural needs with available materials under local conditions, towards the end of poetic, effective and self-sufficient buildings.


Artistic, effective, low cost and low or zero energy Sustainable Architecture works well with an integration of historic principles and new technologies and methods. Some of the benefits are:

Conservation of natural and building resources

Increased building durability

Increased user comfort and satisfaction

Energy and material savings

Elimination of waste and pollution

Savings from recycling





Sustainable Architecture then, is the enduring production of space with artistic, effective, and low cost and low or zero energy use architecture. It frees ecological, social, and economic resources from the illusory, and "black hole", surplus economies of consumerism, productivism, and scientism, and effects a result that can, after Francoise Choay "accommodate pleasure and the unforseen."



See also



Landscape architecture

Urban design




External links


Sustainable Architecture archive ( HYPERLINK "",


Environmental Design Library

Green Design / Sustainable Architecture: Resources (













Different Paper altogether related to autonomy and arcnarchy





This archive represents these ideas on Sustainable Architecture through the effort of the architect as a hacker or abstractor of information (from Wark, "The Hacker Manifesto").


Wark comments: (030.) "As peasants become farmers through the appropriation of their land, they still retain some autonomy over the disposition of their working time.

Workers, even though they do not own capital, and must work according to its clock and its relentless methods, did at least control their free time. Information circulated within working class culture as a social property belonging to all. But when information in turn becomes a form of private property, workers are dispossessed of it, and must buy their own culture back from its owners, the vectoralist class. The farmer becomes a worker, and the worker, a slave. The world becomes subject to the extraction of a surplus from the producing classes that is controlled by the ruling classes, who use it merely to

reproduce and expand this spiral of exploitation. The whole of time, time itself, becomes a commodified experience."


Further: "These are times of an emergent global instability. The proliferation of communication vectors creates a virtual geography of events which is the opposite of the rational and transparent space promised by 'cyberhype'. This virtual geography is an event-space of both great danger and great promise. Great danger, in that a new ruling class, based on control of strategic and commercial vectors of information, a vectoralist class, is coming to power. Great promise, in that a new subversive movement also arises, not to challenge but to evade this new order. This I call the 'hacker class' &endash;named after its leading elements in software and hardware engineering, but which really includes all creators of the 'intellectual property' that the vectoralist class seeks to monopolise. The challenge for the hacker class is to destabilise the unity of property and representation proposed by the vectoralist order of commodified information."


Education (070) "To hack is to express knowledge..."

To abstract is to express the virtuality of nature. The sustainable architect, through these abstractions, expresses the concepts, perceptions, and sensations.

Nature, another name for the virtual.

Production, Wark, Production is the repetition of construction and deconstruction of objectivity and subjectivity in the world. Lefevbre, The Production of Space. Hillier, Space is the machine. Place the objective.

Property "Within the gift relation, nature appears as endlessly productive in its differences, in its qualitative, not its quantitative aspect." (205)

Surplus, Wark, class emerges out of surplus. From the resources of land, capitol, and information come the farmers, workers, and hacker. Out of the surplus of these efforts emerge the classes of pastoralists, capitalists, and vectoralists. Surplus is the mechanism of the abuse of consumerism, productivism, and scientism. They cannot exist without surplus. )



These two fields of knowledge effectively eliminate that surplus:

Vernacular Architecture, Sustainable Architecture process, without surplus; and

Environmental Design, low or zero energy Sustainable Architecture, balance.



Autonomy as anarchy


These alternative ideas are often expressed as autonomous architecture and represent a silent anarchy. The philosophers Foucault and Baudrillard defined such "ecstatic disappearance" and posed: "Why bother to confront a "power" which has lost all meaning and become sheer simulation?" The alternative is sustainable architecture; Philippe Stark's kit cabin;


Illustration 2. Kit Cabin


Suburban agricultural collectives or ecological villages;


Illustration 3. Eco Village


and parts of some Dutch cities that are surprisingly like "city states" in their autonomy and function in the international market independent of their surroundings.


Illustration 4. Dutch Town


These constitute (TAZ's) "temporary autonomous zones", from Hakim Bey, and are becoming a visible anarchy. Ultimately, when culture necessitates Sustainable Architecture it means architecture of necessity.


Dovers, S and Handmer, J. "Uncertainty, sustainability and change" in Global Environmental Change, December 1992, p275

The shift of research emphasis away from 'permanent' materials to life cycle analyses to a certain extent acknowledges the notion of continued but changing maintenance, as opposed to static permanence.

Common, M. Sustainability and Policy: Limits to economics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1995, p56

(i) Pearce, D. Markandya, A. and Barbier, E., Blueprint for a green economy, Earthscan London 1989; (ii) Tisdell, C. "The nature of sustainability and of sustainable development" in Moving towards global sustainability, policies and implications for Australia, proceeding of a national workshop August 1990 at ANU, Canberra 1990, pp7-12, and (iii) Caruana, V "Sustainable development for future generations" in the Future Generations Journal, 1992, pp6-7 & p26 copyright 1988-2015 robert hotten - all rights reserved