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8 Key Sustainable Building Design Practices

The word “sustainable” gets thrown around a lot these days. It seems like every product, service, and person is trying to be more sustainable, and we can see the trend reflected in building design all around us.


Residential and commercial properties alike are installing solar panels and exploring new avenues of responsible energy consumption. It’s clear that there’s a growing interest among everyday Americans to live and work in sustainable buildings.


But what does sustainable building design actually mean? And what are some of the key practices driving sustainable building design forward?


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Sustainable Building Design Explained

Sustainable building design is the holistic application of sustainable architecture, construction, planning, interior design, and landscaping techniques in buildings to reduce negative impacts on the environment. Building sustainability aims to minimize or eliminate excess energy consumption, reduce waste, and create a balance between the man-made and natural.

Sustainable Building Design Strategies and Goals

The benefits of implementing sustainable design are tremendous. From cost savings to convenience and comfort, buildings designed with sustainable elements can be a joy to inhabit.

Some typical strategies used in creating a sustainable building include:

  • Passive Sustainable Design – Design elements like natural lighting, ventilation, and thermal mass techniques
  • Active Sustainable Design – Design elements like energy-efficient HVAC, electrical appliances and lighting, and plumbing fixtures
  • Renewables – Energy systems that harness natural resources like the sun and wind to provide power to the building

Sustainability strategies such as this all have a similar goal in mind: to reduce environmental impact while creating a functional, beautiful space. Specifically, sustainable building design may have a few goals:

  • Net Zero Building – A building that creates roughly the same amount of energy it consumes annually
  • Carbon Neutral Building – A building that uses no fossil fuels and does not contribute to emissions of  greenhouse gasses
  • Living Buildings – An ambitious accreditation structure for buildings to create their own energy, capture and treat all water, operate using nontoxic renewable resources, celebrate design that uplifts the human spirit, create environments that optimize physical and psychological health and well being, as well as supporting a just and equitable world 

8 Key Sustainable Building Design Examples

There are any number of sustainable design elements that can be included in a building. Not every one of these approaches needs to be incorporated into a building design to make it sustainable. But including any of these key sustainable building design examples can dramatically improve a home or business property’s sustainability quotient.

Natural Lighting Utilization

Designing for optimal sunlight is a great way to drive energy independence and naturally warm an interior space. Starting with the orientation of the building itself, the structure can be placed to receive maximum amounts of light as the sun rises and sets. Windows can be oriented to the north for indirect light or along a south orientation for the most sunlight.

Natural Ventilation

Just as solar heat gain through windows can help to reduce heating costs, natural ventilation helps to cool interior spaces without relying on traditional air conditioning. Wind ventilation leverages windows and rooftop vents to create airflow. Stack ventilation uses the natural convection of air to pull cool air through low inlets while dispelling hot air through chimneys or vents. Regardless of the type, natural ventilation can help to lower emissions and climate control expenses.

Efficient Use of Space

Good building design is about making the most of your space. Through thoughtful design, excess space can be eliminated, which leads to less building materials and less area to heat or cool.

Rooftop decks and terraces are some of the most underutilized spaces in contemporary properties. A flat roof will not only afford space for a deck or terrace but can also provide the opportunity to introduce plants and greenery through a greenroof, which can help cool a building and reduce energy costs.

Environmentally Conscious Stormwater Management

In the natural world, rainwater is meant to be absorbed back into the ground. But pavement and other hardscaping prevent natural rain absorption and forces rainwater runoff to streets and storm drains. Stormwater management techniques like porous pavement and retention ponds can help to reduce runoff and gradually release rainwater into the ground.

Renewable Energy Systems

Renewable energy systems are only becoming more popular as technology innovations drive costs down. Solar panels have never been more affordable, and building owners are eager to explore the cost-saving possibilities of renewable energy. When used in combination with passive design strategies like well insulated building envelopes, natural lighting, and ventilation, renewable energy systems can go a long way in providing reliable, cost-effective energy performance.

Quality Building Materials and Construction

Ultimately, a sustainable building is only as good as the design and construction professionals behind it. Using quality green building materials like lumber, recycled steel, and furnishings from environmentally responsible manufacturers can impact sustainability efforts. Recycled materials can also be incorporated into a building design with tremendous success. High quality, natural materials can also improve the indoor air quality by reducing the amount of toxins released such as VOCs and formaldehyde found in cheaper building materials, such as vinyl.

And it’s also important to remember that working with competent construction professionals will result in a structurally sound building with less energy loss and greater longevity over a building’s life cycle.

Maintaining a Connection to Nature

Smart energy and environmental design can leverage the natural landscape to help with energy use and irrigation needs. Through strategic use of native plants, trees, and grasses, soil quality and water retention can improve. Not to mention, deliberate placement of trees can provide shade to mitigate solar heat gain at the hottest times of day.

Adaptive Reuse

Utilizing an existing building’s materials and reusing or repurposing them for other needs is a great sustainability strategy. Existing buildings can be retrofitted to be more energy efficient through the addition of insulation, better performing windows, and more efficient appliances and HVAC systems.

Why Sustainable Design Matters

As climate change continues to reshape our planet and our civilization, sustainable design will be essential to ensure that the future is habitable for everyone. It’s no secret that man-made structures have contributed greatly to carbon emissions and energy waste. In fact, according to recent studies, the built environment contributes to nearly half of all global carbon emissions annually.

Designing more environmentally responsible buildings and improving sustainability capabilities of existing buildings is imperative for lowering emissions that warm the earth and cause climate disruption. And the good news is that sustainable building design is more popular than ever.

Sustainable building projects have become a major force in the American construction industry and these new construction projects are very attractive for investors and government contractors. These projects not only receive resounding public support but also have tangible cost-saving benefits.

Rowland + Broughton’s Future-Oriented Design

At Rowland + Broughton, we aim to incorporate sustainability into every project and our team is constantly improving our sustainable technologies, materials, and processes.

We root our sustainable practices in reusing and repurposing existing buildings, outfitting residential and commercial properties with energy-efficient components while retaining the soul of the architecture.

From environmentally preferable materials to public transportation access, we evaluate the sustainability of our projects holistically so our clients can enjoy a more sustainable lifestyle.

Learn More

If you’re interested in sustainable building design for your next project, trust the experts at Rowland + Broughton. With an award-winning portfolio of projects, R+B will give you the personalized attention and exceptional service you need for a successful project that exceeds your expectations. Contact us today to learn more.


Features like sustainable building materials, high performing, well insulated building envelopes, renewable energy systems, and planned longevity are all things that make a building sustainable.
While there are many specific characteristics that can compose a sustainable building design, most relate to three main measures ; carbon, well-being, and resiliency. .
Sustainably designedbuildings can improve energy efficiency, conserve water, reduce carbon footprint, enhance indoor airquality, and optimize operational and maintenance practices over the building’s entire life cycle.