Our relationship with our planet is intricately entwined with our buildings, their designs, and their performance. In the extreme cold we supplement our bodies with clothing and an external source of heat. In the extreme heat we seek shade, water and air circulation. Essentially, we add or remove layers of ‘stuff’, including various physical membranes and barriers, to live comfortably in our world and perform our daily tasks.  The design of this “membrane” between us and the natural world, at the scale of the building and its various materials and openings (windows, doors, vents, etc.), is essential in determining the amount of energy we consume and the resultant strain on our natural resources.

Understanding the membrane as solely a protective barrier, however, has also blurred our understanding of the symbiotic potential between building and environment. It can set up a false dichotomy between building and nature, indoor and outdoor, dry and wet, civilized and wild. The need to separate ourselves from the harsher conditions of our planet by designing these membranes has inspired technological innovation and ingenuity throughout the history of the building industry.  However, we have often failed to see the delicate balance between our endeavours and the resources we consume in our search for universal comfort and security.

So how can buildings better respect our environmental predicament? It perhaps starts with the most basic design principles and an emphasis on site specificity. From Renaissance ideals of symmetry to the early modernists’ goals for affordable buildings through industrial standardization, architecture has often neglected the most basic of environmental contributors such as sun angles, climatic patterns, and topographical features. Utilizing these factors in the building’s design allows the natural environment to potentially heat and cool without adding any energy. Once strategies for natural (or passive) heating and cooling have been implemented, buildings require the most efficient building materials and technologies available, strategically designed to minimize the building’s energy use. An awareness of where building materials originate, how they are manufactured and transported, and if there are recycled options, along with responsible construction and waste procedures, are also essential to sustainable approaches. Long-term consideration of the buildings use and the potential to design flexible spaces may also be a worthwhile option. At the urban scale there is a necessity for increasing the density of our cities. Single-family homes are far less efficient than multi-residential buildings and suburban sprawl has stretched our urban infrastructures to their limits. Designing affordable and efficient homes for dense urban areas has emerged as a global priority.

The complexity of the building industry thus necessitates an understanding of the various systems, networks, and forces that have the capacity to reduce the energy our buildings use, and a collective commitment to work together to reduce these numbers.  Meanwhile, from the ancient architects to the most radical of contemporary designers, the physical composition and thoughtful design of these protective membranes and building systems has also revealed the social, cultural, and spiritual potentials of architecture. The current paradigm shift, which is arguably less of a shift than a renewed sense of ecological urgency, thus challenges us to design sustainably, responsibly, and collaboratively, while always striving towards beautiful, meaningful, and engaging places to live.

76% of the energy produced by future coal-fired power plants in the US will go to operating buildings.  (Architecture 2030)

In 2006, residential buildings accounted for 21% of primary energy consumption in the United States ($225.6 billion spent on energy for residential buildings) while commercial buildings accounted for 18%. (US Department of Energy)

There were 86 cities in the world with a population of at least one million in 1950. By 2015 there will be at least 550. (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs)

Stats + Figures


Translator: David Fortin (Bozeman, USA), Assistant Professor of Architecture, Montana State University

Architecture + The Environment

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