An Archive of Contemporary Thought in Sustainable Architecture


Canal Siren, Venice 2000


Restricted Access Information


Published by Seadog Press, PO Box 243, Monterey, CA 93942 E-mail

© 2004 Robert D. Hotten, and Dr. Peter Diprose

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ISBN 0-9728097-0-8


Sustainable Architecture and Urbanism Course: Syllabus


Sustainable Architecture - 12 Things You Can Do

To Build Effective Low Cost Houses and Cities

© 2000 Robert Hotten


Section I. History, theory

Section II. Ecology, materials, and construction

Section III. Environmental design methods and studios





Sustainable Architecture

A Primer

R. Hotten, P. Diprose 1994-2006, all rights reserved




(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, 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 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

should be designed for low or zero energy consumption through its occupation.

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)



Shifts in scope from an ancient indigenous approach (Strehlow, Myers), to a modernist approach (Harries), and to a post modernist approach merit a look. Roughly unpacking:


1. Strehlow illustrates how complex and unique each development of "country," or culturalized space can be. The Aranda of Central Australia can have a thousand verb stem suffixes each with a unique meaning for a word like "to root;"


2. Myers comments on the "transformating landscape into narrative;"


And 3. Leach proposes, supported by Lacan, Cuaquelin, Bell, and others that:


"The rhizome has been an important analogy here, conveying as it does an image of movement that can come to temporary rest in new places while maintaining ongoing connections elsewhere. " In this sense , "belonging" comes close to the rhizomatic sense of "becoming" described by Deleuze and Guattari. And like "becoming," "belonging" remains an actative process, not a given stateÉ.For just as identity itself is today no longer a fixed condition but an ever-renegotiable site of individual expression, so "belonging" offers as equally flexible concept that can accommodate the transitory nature of contemporary existence. In a realm whose paradigmatic figures include the "wanderer," "the migrant," "the refugee," and the "exile," the notion of "belonging" offers a more sympathetic framework for understanding contemporary modes of identification with place."





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 Kwai being a tropical example; Wellington City Ecohouse Project being a temperate southern hemisphere example.


Illustration . Autonomous House.



Illustration . Hotten House Kwai



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 (,


Environmental Design Library

Green Design / Sustainable Architecture: Resources (







Section I. History, theory

Pedagogical Objective 1: Hypertext visualization of goals

Vernacular architecture: Satisfying cultural needs, using available materials, under local conditions.

Vernacular, and trends through history: Malaysian pole houses; Asian wood frame pagodas; Southwest earth sheltered houses

Derrida; deconstructing and reconstructing futures; sustainable concepts: 1. synergy with nature; 2. bioregional fit; 3. ethical foundation

Architecture Uncanny: Transparency, Post Urbanism (Vidler)

Four aesthetic principles (Wang 2003), Architectural profession equals fatalists (Wang 2003)

Sustainable architecture- meaning (The Cultural Landscape: Meaning in Eco Design), form, function, economy

Sustainable urbanism- elements, patterns, boundaries, energy flow


Section II. Ecology, materials, construction

Pedagogical objective 2: Environmental assessment

Environmentalism- modernist metanarrative, aims universal, means response to individual (local) conditions (Hagan 2003)

Ecology- patch, edge, corridor

Materials- durable. low embodied energy, non-toxic

Five material principles (Wang 2003)

Eight consequences (Wang 2003)

Construction- landscape and architecture (inside and outside, openess and enclosure)


Section III. Environmental design methods and studios


Poetic objective 3: Checklist of environmental design goals

Five reasons: for environmental design: 1. intellectual- operations of nature superior; 2. practical- new generative strategies, new ways of construction, (pyrotechnics/consistency); 3. technical- "radiance", environmental computer software, computer analysis and simulation; 4. economic- lifecycle cost; 5. pedagogical- merge nature/culture. (Hagan 2003)

"Guidelines... keeps us continuallly trapped in what is typically done." (Addington 2003)

"Collaboration... pre-defined outcome subordinates that knowledge to produce the desired solution: e.g., the sustainable building... disciplinary knowledge is problem-based, and not solution-based... " (Addington 2003)

"For what purpose do we heat, cool, or light a building?" (Addington 2003)

LEED rating checklist


Poetic objective 4: Design synthesis

Total Design (Wigley); space is the machine; Venus Flytraps

Monumental Conceptual ( )

Studios: 1.) Visualizing the imaginary place; 2.) The sustainable house;

3.) 3 times landscaping city (3xl); 4. CEC, green design student competition; 5.) The 3rd Millenium City


Sustainable Architecture



"Imagine...the day when we will walk a site and simply absorb it. Next we check our computer for the data files about the "vertical layers." On the monitor's screen we sketch a perspective of what we want a site to look like, transformed to its new use. Then the computer lets us walk through our creation so that we can modify it as we go. When we are finally pleased with this "horizontal view" we will request a two-dimensional computer drawing from which someone else can build what we have envisioned." (Wells 1997).

Architecture and building practices today are high cost, fatalistic solutions, that keep us trapped in what is typically done. This is simply because designers, suppliers, and builders, as well as tax, insurance and real estate brokers and banks, i.e., everyone, makes more profit when houses, infrastructures, processes, and components cost more. Alternative ideas and methods exist to design and build effective low cost houses, landscapes and cities.

What follows is a typically sustainable building process that involves these steps:

There are six historical principles (vernacular trends) to improve the energy efficiency and thereby effectiveness and useability of dwellings. They are: 1) siting and 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 and planning (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 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. The following begins to describe these methods and technologies and is an outline of twelve things one can do towards the end of poetic and self-sufficient buildings.


12 principles of sustainable architecture and urbanism (natural design)


Historical methods of design with energy efficiency, vernacular architecture

These six principles follow from logical use of the elements: heat from the sun, insulation of earth, cooling of breezes and shade.

1. Siting and vernacular design


For effective passive solar heating, a building should face within 25 degrees of north (in the southern hemisphere), and be well integrated with the landscape and topography of the site.


Vernacular Architecture

"It may be helpful to start from a process-oriented rather than a product-based viewpoint. Vernacular architecture is based on a knowledge of traditional practices and techniques; it is usually self-built (perhaps with help from family, clan or builders in the tribe), and reveals a high regard for craftsmanship and quality. Vernacular structures tend to be easy to learn and understand. They are made of predominsntly local materials. They are ecologically apt, that is theyb fit in well with local climate, flora, fauna and ways of life. Vernaculer buildings are never ssself-conscious; they recede into the environment rather than serving as self-proclaiming design statements. Tehy are human in scale; frequently the process of building is more important than or equally important as the end product. This combination of good ecological fit, human scale, craftsmanship and striving for quality, together with a strong concern for decoration, ornamentation and embellishment, leads to a sensuous frugality that results in true elegance."

"Six Explanations- ...vernacular architecture is the result of multiple causation

1. The Methodological Explanation; 2. The Dispersion and Convergence Explanation; 3. The Evolutionary Explanation; 4. The Social-Environmental Explanation; 5. The Cultural Explanation; 6. The Formal Aesthetic Explanation."

"As mainstream architecture itself begins to change in response to new ecological challenges, we must collect more information and start on a classification of what we alreadly have to provide a database so that the lessons of the vernacular are accessible to both architects and users. This will be an adventure of discovery to shape the forms of tomorrow through the wisdom of the old." (Papanek 1995)


Discovering the Vernacular landscape

Environmental planning and management allow conservsation of both the environment and developed facilities and long range risk control. Effective site design accomodates methods 1 through 6.

Sustainable design can limit the scale of the building and recognises traditional, vernacular and cultural values and art.

2. Shade

Site topography, vegetation and awnings are the simplest forms of shading. Technological shading devices for both the exterior and interior of dwellings are available. These were developed by the building industry since most commercial structures suffer from unwanted heat gain.

3. Ventilation

In the tropics houses are raised and open toward prevailing breezes. Windows, ventilators, and vents ensure air exchange.

4. Earth shelter

Earth shelter design is one method of building a house (passive heating design) that will need no other heating or cooling energy input to remain comfortable year round.

5. Thermal inertia

Thermal inertia in the from of an on grade floor slab can be heated by sunlight passing through north (in the southern hemisphere) facing windows. This middle of the day heat gain (passive solar heating) is then retained by the mass of the concrete and warms the house continuously. This heating, with normal insulation and construction, is adequate without any other energy input for most temperate climates.

6. Air lock entrance

This principle simply relies on a double door system, where only one is opened at a time, to reduce heat loss or gain as from an open single door.


New principles (technologies and methodologies of effectiveness), environmental design and planning

These six principles follow from recent developments in standards, technology, and design methods. Integrated dwelling systems can be synthesized combining historical principles, modern aesthetics, and new technologies, into artifacts of environmental design.

7. Scale (footprint), insulation, design of future alternatives

Aesthetic principles, cultural footprint (Wang 2003)

"The most significant determinant of building energy use- size," (Addington, Energy, Body, Building, 2003)

What size of dwelling is enough? Conservation of all resources is well served by limiting the size or scale of house design. Many traditional designs are of compact, functional and pleasing forms. Perhaps a standard range from 60 sqm to 120 sqm is enough for most families.

Insulation installed in the walls and roof can, with earth shelter or thermal inertia, produce a house that needs no other energy input to heat or cool it.

8. On site water collection and waste disposal

Catchment water collection is adequate in many tropical and temperate areas. New developments in filters insure freedom from contamination.

The Clivis Multrum composting toilet very handily takes care of human waste without water. Most wash water can be directed into grey water systems and used for irrigation.

9. Solar water heating panels

There are many types of solar water heating systems ranging from simple pre-water heater boosters (passive heating system) to high technology panels with fuzzy logic controlled heat pump systems (active heating system).

10. Photovoltaic electricity

Continuous gains in photovoltaic electricity generation technology and use are making these applications usually more attractive than grid electric power. Two recent developments are the panel with an AC inverter and pushing excess power back into the grid.

11. Recycling and use of local materials

Many fine recycled building materials are available. Local materials from river rock to timber are often available. Use of indigenous materials saves on processing, storage, wholesaling and transporting costs.

12. On site growth of food, fuel and building materials

A significant amount of food for a family can be grown in a small intensive vegetable garden and many fruit trees do well at the homestead scale.

Wood for cooking and heating is easy to grow. Weeds and brush can be used for heating or biomass generation.

Growing trees for timber requires some planning and special attention. Copicing can fairly easily produce a variety of sticks and poles for use or sale.



Effective livable and sustainable building design works well with an integration of historic principles and new technologies and methods. These are some of the benefits:



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