Sustainable architecture uses building methods that people can go on using with the skills and resources available to them. It defines an approach that seeks to bridge the gap between the declining viability of traditional solutions and the inaccessibility of many modern alternatives. Sustainable architecture is context-specific. It also implies an approach that in a development context goes beyond the project phase. Sustainable architecture recognizes that while the product may wear out over time, the process remains. This process can then be repeated without resort to major external inputs.Sustainable architecture brings together at least five key characteristics:
Traditional planning and building methods were often good examples of sustainable architecture in their time, and represented good uses of local resources matched with local skills. But factors such as demographic growth, shifts from rural to urban areas, natural and human-made resource depletion, and significant changes in expectations and lifestyles, all combine in their various ways to erode the viability of traditional approaches to shelter provision. Local approaches to achieving shelter that have in many instances been sustainable over many centuries are now unable to cope with the sheer concentration of people who require housing or lack of local resources. Taken together, all these changes mean that a building method that worked well in the past in its given context may have now become difficult to afford, build and maintain, and it may no longer meet the desired requirement of the family or community. In this environment, new solutions and approaches that seem genuinely sustainable are hard to find. Where they exist, they need to be encourages to keep pace with growing needs.
The Gaia Group (architects for building biology) pioneers ecological house design, housing developments, and space for human habitation in general.
The "Woodless Construction" Programme in West Africa has gradually introduced the skills to ensure technical and organization sustainability for the construction of vault and dome roofed buildings using simple, hand-made unstabilized mud bricks. Six years after construction began on Ecolonia, a project of 100 demonstration houses in the Dutch town of Alphen aan de Rijn, non-toxic, chalk-composite building blocks, solar boilers and roof-mounted heaters, internal warm walls and natural ventilation systems have quickly become market-place items. But other features like the vegetation-covered roofs, which cost more than traditional tiles roofs and have no added insulation value, are unlikely to gain commercial popularity.
The new Environmental Studies Center (ESC) at Oberlin College, Ohio was designed with the following criteria: (1) discharged no wastewater; (2) generated more electricity than it used; (3) used no materials know to be carcinogenic, mutagenic or endocrine disrupters; (4) used energy and materials with great efficiency; (5) promoted competence with environmental technologies; (6) used products and materials grown or manufactured sustainably; (7) was landscaped to promote biological diversity; (8) promoted analytical skill in assessing full costs over the lifetime of the building; (9) promoted ecological competence and mindfulness of place; (10) became in its design and operations, genuinely pedagogical; and met rigorous requirements for full-cost accounting.
Green building strategies used in the following areas were: