Sustainable building is a term that’s often thrown around and applied to many different situations, from design to materials and the use of appliances and technology in the home. While this is one of the great benefits of sustainable building, that its application can be customized to meet your needs and create a truly unique dwelling, it also raises the question of whether a building is really “green” or it’s just being applied as a “feel good” term.

It’s estimated that buildings in developed countries account for more than 40% of energy consumption over their lifetime, taking into account the production of raw materials, the energy required for construction, operation and maintenance. That’s a staggering footprint that could be heavily reduced if we were more mindful of how we build and use energy resources in our daily lives.

So what exactly does sustainable building mean and what should new homeowners, builders and architects be striving for?

What Does Sustainable Building Really Mean?

The concept of sustainable building is based on the preservation of the environment, together with development-related issues such as the efficient use of resources and community well-being. Sustainable building is about meeting the housing and infrastructure requirements of today, without compromising the earth’s resources that will be available for future generations. It combines environmental stewardship with social responsibility and economic efficiency to encapsulate something that is working with the environment, rather than exploiting it.

Sustainable Building Design

Sustainable building starts with the design of the building to take into account the natural resources and energy available at the site. It may mean positioning the structure to make the most of the sunlight available or implementing natural ventilation to reduce the need for energy intensive heating and cooling systems. It also means selecting a building site that will lead to the least possible deforestation and land degradation, while also minimizing soil erosion.

Sustainable buildings should be designed to minimize their use of water, particularly in communities where there is a risk of water shortages. Systems can be incorporated that maximize rainwater capture and reduce the amount required for waste removal systems or the use of appliances.

You can also work with your architect to incorporate rooftop gardens or rain gardens into the design of your home. Being able to collect gray water for garden beds is just one way you can reduce your water demands and is particularly important in regions experiencing drought.

Sustainable Building Materials

The choice of materials also has a significant impact on the sustainability of a building, with recycled or reclaimed materials preferable. Rather than exploiting new, raw materials that have a finite resource, recycled or reclaimed materials help to reduce the impact on our natural environment while reducing construction waste at the same time. They use far less energy to manufacture than other building materials such as cement or timber and less energy to transport if they are sourced locally. The durability of these materials should also be taken into consideration, with resilient products that will withstand wear and tear favorable.

Sustainable building is constantly being developed with the innovation of new materials that boast “green” properties, as well as a resurgence in traditional building methods using materials such as mud and bamboo. Many use resources that are rapidly renewable, meaning their stocks cannot be readily depleted, while others have the capability of actually absorbing carbon, helping to reduce the building’s ecological footprint over its lifetime.

Energy Efficiency in Sustainable Building

Once a building is constructed, its commitment to sustainability does not stop and energy efficiency for the life of the structure should be incorporated into the design. One of the most effective ways of doing this is moving away from fossil fuels as your source of energy and making a commitment to renewables, such as wind and solar power.

While wind power is only suitable in settings where the wind speeds are sufficient as a source of power, solar panels are an option in most areas. As new technology has been developed in the last few years, the price of solar power installation has fallen dramatically and combined with subsidies imposed by many governments, it’s become an affordable means of power. In some countries you can actually feed your solar harnessed power back into the grid and reap the financial rewards from utility companies.

In addition to using renewable energy resources, homeowners should choose their appliances carefully and select those that use less energy to operate. In most countries, home appliances now come with a clearly marked energy rating, allowing consumers to make an informed decision before purchasing.

Community and Sustainable Building

Sustainable building is not just about the individual dwelling and meeting the needs of its occupants, but serving the greater community through local environmental stewardship and social considerations. Projects should promote social inclusion at all stages of construction, from initial planning through to its long-term occupancy. The design should adhere to local ethical standards, with values that are shared in the community and empower the local economy. This may mean consulting with neighborhood groups or chatting with people in the surrounding community for their ideas and input.

Sustainable building also extends to the working conditions on the building site, with fair compensation and adequate safety conditions for workers, and no discrimination based on gender, race or beliefs. Builders should also strive for transparency in the planning and approval stages of their projects to prevent corruption at all levels.

Sustainable Building in the 21st Century

Sustainable building doesn’t mean living without your creature comforts or compromising on the opportunity to have an architecturally designed home with the latest technological features. It also doesn’t necessarily mean your structure will take longer to build or cost more. But it does mean that you may need to think outside the box regarding the design, materials and features of the structure and come up with sustainable solutions for each.

Many “green” building techniques, materials and appliances are using cutting-edge technology and feature sleek and contemporary designs. While others draw on long-established building traditions used by tribal communities for centuries that will appeal to those wanting a down-to-earth dwelling.

As sustainable technologies are developed and ancient ideas reawakened, the world of “green” building is constantly transforming and the options for new homeowners are limitless.