13 Principles of Sustainable Architecture

As “consumers” we are frequently confronted with life style decisions that can impact our environment. There are a few choices in this life that can make a big difference in what the quality of life will be for those who follow us. Going with the flow of our culture is hard to avoid, and unfortunately the flow is not in the right direction for evolving a sustainable future.

One of the most momentous choices that any of us will make is the kind of house we live in. I have come up with a list of thirteen principles of sustainable architecture that can guide you in your housing choices.

Small is beautiful.

The trend lately has been toward huge mansion-style houses. While these might fit the egos of those who purchase them, they don’t fit with a sustainable life style. Large houses generally use a tremendous amount of energy to heat and cool. This energy usually comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, depleting these resources and emitting greenhouse gases and pollutants into the air. Also, the larger the house, the more materials go into its construction; materials which may have their own environmental consequences. A home should be just the right size for its occupants and their activities. My wife and I (and our two dogs) have happily lived in a forty foot bus for the last four years. The key to this is efficient use of space, good organization, and keeping possessions to a manageable level. We do look forward to spreading out some in the passive solar, earthbag home we are building.

Heat with the sun.

Nothing can be more comfortable for body and mind than living in a good solar-heated house. I say “good”, because proper design is crucial to the comfort of such a house. You may have gone into a solar house and felt stifled by the glaring heat, or perhaps you shivered from the lack of it. Good passive solar design will provide just enough sunlight into the rooms to be absorbed by the surrounding thermal mass (usually masonry materials), so that the heat will be given back into the room when the sun goes down. The thermal mass is a kind of “heat battery” that stores the warmth, absorbing it to keep the room from getting too hot during the day. Equally important to thermal mass is insulation (such as straw bales or crushed volcanic rock) that will keep that heat inside. Thermal mass materials need to be insulated from the outside, or else they will just bleed that warmth right back out. A rock house might have tons of mass, but be uncomfortably cold because of this energy bleed. So a good solar design will utilize materials of the right type in the right places, blending thermal dynamics with utilitarian design. There is much more to be said about solar design, and there are many good books on the topic.

Keep your cool.

As I suggested above, a well designed solar house is both warm when you want it, and cool when you want it; that is to say, the temperature tends to stay fairly even. A good way to keep your cool is to dig into the earth. If you dig about six feet into the earth, you will find that the temperature there varies by only a few degrees year round. While this temperature (about 50-55 degrees F.) might be too cool for general living comfort, you can use the stability of the earth’s temperature to moderate the thermal fluctuations of the house. If you dig into a south-facing hillside to build, or berm the north part of the house with soil, you can take advantage of this. The part of the house that is under ground needs to be well insulated, or the earth will continually suck warmth out of the house.

Let nature cool your food.

In the old days people relied on pantries and root cellars to help keep produce and other provisions fresh. Ice boxes made way for refrigerators, which are obviously much more convenient, but somehow the use of cool pantries and root cellars also fell by the wayside. This is too bad because these spaces have functions that a refrigerator simply can’t replace. Root cellars can store large quantities of produce from the time of harvest until the next summer. Cool pantries can store some produce, but also all manner of other foodstuffs and kitchen supplies can be kept there. Cool, dry storage is the best way to preserve most food. The cool of the earth can keep a totally bermed pantry or root cellar cool; the night air can also be used to cool a storage room. The convenience and security of having ample provisions at your finger tips can not be beat.

Be energy efficient.

There are many ways to conserve the use of fossil fuel. Using the sun, wind, or water to produce electricity is one. If you choose to do this, you will be forced to be careful in the way you use your electricity because it is limited. Whether you get your electricity from alternative sources or from the grid, it pays to choose energy efficient appliances. Front-loading clothes washers, for instance, use much less electricity, water and soap than the top-loaders. Compact florescent lights use about a third of the electricity of standard bulbs. Many appliances use electricity by just being plugged in (known as phantom load); be sure to avoid this.

Conserve water.

The average person in the U. S. uses between 100 and 250 gallons of water a day. I know it is possible to get by just fine on one tenth that amount. The use of low water capacity toilets, flow restrictors at shower heads and faucet aerators are fairly common now. More radical conservation approaches include diverting gray water from bathing, clothes washing and bathroom sinks to watering plants; catching rain water from roofs and paved areas for domestic use and switching to composting toilets. These can be very effective and safe means of water conservation if done carefully to avoid bacterial infestation. Landscaping with drought tolerant, indigenous plants can save an enormous amount of water.

Use local materials.

There are several benefits to using local, indigenous materials. For one, they naturally fit into the “feeling” of the place. For another, they don’t burn as much fossil fuel to transport them, and they are likely to be less processed by industry. An example of building materials found in our corner of Colorado would be rocks, sand, adobe and scoria (crushed volcanic rock).

Use natural materials. Again, naturally occurring materials often “feel” better to live with. When you step onto an adobe floor, for instance, you feel the resilient mother earth beneath your feet. A major reason for choosing natural materials over industrial ones is that the pollution often associated with their manufacture is minimized. For every ton of portland cement that is manufactured, an equal amount of carbon dioxide is released into the air. And then there is the matter of your health; natural materials are much less likely to adversely affect your health.

Save the forests.

Having lived for many years in the Pacific Northwest, I can attest to the appalling degradation of national and private forests. While wood is ostensibly a renewable resource, we have gone way beyond sustainable harvesting and have ruined enormous ecosystems. Use wood as decoration. Cull dead trees for structural supports. Use masonry, straw bales, papercrete, cob, adobe, rocks, bags of volcanic rock, etc., instead of wood. Unfortunately it is difficult to get away from lumber in making a roof, so consider making a dome from materials that can be stacked. Domes are also more energy efficient and use less materials for the same space as a box. A conventional straw bale house only diminishes the amount of wood used by about 15%!

Recycle materials.

If the materials already exist, you might as well use them, because by doing so you are not promoting the creation of more of them. You might also be keeping them out of the landfill, or keeping them from being transported for further processing. Wood that is kept dry does not degrade much, nor does glass. All kinds of things can be used in a house. We’re using old metal wagon wheels to support the window openings in our earthbag home.

Build to last.

There is an attitude in this throw-away society that an old house might as well be replaced by a new one. Unfortunately this is often true, because of shoddy construction or poor choice of materials, or lack of maintenance. A well made house can last for centuries, and it should. Moisture getting into a building can lead to ruin, and it is hard to avoid this, whether from the outside environment or from condensation from within. For this reason I am partial to the use of materials that are not degraded by moisture.

Grow your food.

Why not ask your house to help nourish you? With all of that south-facing glass, you might as well devote some of it to a greenhouse. Herbs and salad greens can be grown year round. What a pleasure!

Share Facilities.

A basic tenet of sustainability is to share what you have with others. Doing this can diminish the need for unnecessary duplication of facilities. In this way a group of people can not only have fewer tools or appliances or functional areas, but at the same time they can have available a greater variety of these facilities. This benefits both the environment (through less industrial activity) and the individual (by providing more options for living.)

5 thoughts on “13 Principles of Sustainable Architecture”

  1. I have a Solariom attached to my house (in Nova Scotia) which we use as an additional heating source for three seasons of the year …roughly on a ESE line it heats our whole house while the solar hot water system is a backup for washing…

  2. Thank you for this very valuable reminder of some fundamental principles that we all need to embrace. We should know these by now, but it is so easy to overlook them.

    I like your recommendations about minimizing newly-harvested wood, and instead reusing timber that has had a previous use. It is tragic that so much wood in the Western world goes to landfill or is burned just to dispose of it – the use of shipping pallets must be a prime example, although there are many ideas on websites such as “Instructables” for re-using pallets.

    So thank you for this excellent article, and I greatly look forward to your next contribution on this forum.

  3. I was totally shocked to see the massive clear cutting of forests when flying over the Pacific Northwest about 17 years ago. It might be even worse by now. Or maybe the logging activity has shifted to Canada. Either way it’s clearly not sustainable. It’s sad to think most of the lumber will go toward mass produced tract housing with relatively short life spans.

    By the way, my computer is on the blink for one or two days. Should be back online soon.


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