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Making sustainable building design a reality with the right building materials

Sustainable building design has all sorts of different (and sometimes confusing) names, from green building and green construction, to high-performance building and sustainable architecture, to more specific terms such as passive design or Net-Zero construction.

No matter which moniker you prefer, however, all describe a similar activity: The process of creating structures in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly fashion. This includes the full lifecycle – from design to materials disposal – of residential, commercial, and institutional buildings. To this end, sustainably-designed projects and buildings typically share several main attributes:

  • They’re energy and water efficient: From their mitigation of unwanted solar heat gain, to how much power and water these buildings ultimately consume per day, sustainably-designed structures require less resources (and are, therefore, cheaper) to operate than their standard counterparts. Passive houses take advantage of local climate features to passively collect or reject solar energy through passive design and the right building materials.
  • They use sustainable materials: Sustainable design factors in the materials and methods used in construction – including resource extraction/creation – which is one reason why building with wood is so hot right now (mass timber is less carbon-intensive to produce than cement or steel, and also serves as a carbon capture vehicle). Many sustainable projects use recycled, reclaimed, refurbished and renewable building materials.
  • They use renewable energy: This can include solar power either from typical solar panels or building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) / building integrated photovoltaic-thermal (BIPVT) roofs, wind turbines, bioenergy via biomass, geothermal energy, and other types of renewables. Some buildings are so good at producing their own energy they’re officially called Net Zero buildings.
  • They prioritize the health of occupants: Green buildings put a premium on good amounts of natural daylight – a benefit for mental health – and a strong indoor environmental quality (IEQ). This is achieved through use of non-toxic and mold-resistant materials along with zero VOC paints, formaldehyde-free furniture, and other low-emitting materials.

While sustainable building design typically refers to built structures, sustainable design in general can range from big-picture elements such as smart and more efficient urban planning to sustainable furniture and other product design.

Indeed, sustainably designed buildings are also anti-sprawl in that they’re often built on previously developed land (including brownfields) close to bus routes, libraries and other existing infrastructure. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a well-known ratings system for gauging the sustainability of buildings, gives points for proximity to these types of things – because building a sustainable structure is far less meaningful if the occupants also have a long commute.

The roots of sustainable building design

The sustainability movement as it’s known today grew out of the massive oil price spikes of the 1970s energy crisis, which led to significant R&D investments in energy efficiency. Sustainable building in particular began to formally take shape in the 1990s (including the creation of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1993 and its LEED program in 1998), in step with growing public awareness of environmental issues and advances in various sustainable technologies.

But sustainable building design in general has been around a lot longer than that – indeed, some green building elements date back millennia. The Anasazi people in the U.S. Southwest, for example, in the 12th century built homes in south-facing cliffs with large rock overhangs: The overhangs kept the homes cool in the summer when the sun is highest, while their south-facing orientation kept them warmer in the winter.

These days, sustainable design is everywhere. The global green building materials market in 2020 was estimated at US$238B and is projected to reach US$425.4B by 2027 (for a healthy compound annual growth rate of 8.6 percent). According to a 2018 USGBC survey, respondents indicated that around 60 percent of their projects would be based on sustainable design principles by 2021. It’s to the point where environmental marketing language has become so buzz-wordy that some in the architectural and design space have been accused of greenwashing.

Some of the most active countries in the world when it comes to sustainable building design, according to LEED, are the U.S. (with 33,632 LEED projects equivalent to 441.6M sq. m.), Mainland China (1,494 LEED projects equivalent to 68.83M sq. m.), and Canada (3,254 LEED projects totaling 46.81M sq. m.).

The main benefits of sustainable building design

The World Green Building Council lists a range of tangible benefits stemming from sustainable building design, from macro-level environmental impacts affecting the entire world to local and per-building economic benefits. These include:


    • According to this research, green buildings are 14 percent less costly to operate and command a seven percent sale price premium
    • The U.S. “green economy”, led by sustainable building design, employed nearly 10 million people and generates around US$1.3 trillion in annual economic activity


    • Workers are happier and more productive in green, healthy spaces: According to Harvard research, workers in sustainable office spaces score far higher on cognitive testing
    • Workers in thermally comfortable spaces with fewer pollutants in the air record better performance metrics (in some tests, a 16 percent increase in productivity)
    • Natural light has been shown to increase employee satisfaction and retention


  • Global environmental benefits include potential global emissions savings of 84 gigatons of Co2 and energy savings of at least 50 percent by 2050
  • Building-level environmental benefits include significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions and resource usage, with LEED-certified buildings in the U.S. consuming an average of 25 percent less energy and 11 percent less water

The suitability of building materials for sustainable projects are typically measured by builders through a life cycle assessment (LCA), which gauges the environmental impact of a product from its beginning (including raw material extraction) to end of life and disposal.

What exactly are LEED and other certifications?

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a U.S. Green Building Council-created rating system that awards points to building projects if they fulfill certain sustainability criteria. LEED has grown quickly since its creation in the late 1990s to become one of the most popular green building certifications programs in the world, accounting for more than 96,000 projects in 167 countries and territories.

Under the LEED program, building owners must meet certain prerequisites while earning LEED certification points based on sustainability features. There are several different building categories, each of which can earn one of four rating levels: Certified (40-49 points), Silver (50-59 points), Gold (60-79 points), or Platinum (80-plus points).

Other well-known green building certifications include Passive House, Energy Star, BREEAM, and NGBS Green.

Sustainable building design in the community

Sustainable buildings come in all shapes and sizes – from the house down the street, to the latest office or condo building downtown, to some of the most impressive and recognizable buildings across the world.

Some high-profile examples of sustainable building include:

  • Vancouver Convention Centre West(Vancouver, BC, Canada by LMN Architects): Constructed in 2009, the centre was in 2017 the first building of its kind to receive a double LEED certification (LEED Platinum for New Construction in 2010, and LEED v4 O+M: Existing Buildings Platinum in 2017). It includes water-efficient fixtures, a living roof, on-site marine habitat, and a waste conversion rate of around 75 percent, according to the centre.
  • The Shard(London, UK by Renzo Piano): Double-skin facade features 11,000 specially designed glass panels (including a single-glazed outer layer and double-glazed inner layer, along with a ventilated inner cavity), along with its own on-site combined heat and power (CHP) plant which helps reduce transmission losses. The 306-metre tower also features automated blinds to minimize solar heat gain, requires 30 percent less energy than a typical tall building, and 95 percent of its construction materials came from recycled sources. Built in 2009.
  • Shanghai Tower(Shanghai, China by Gensler): The world’s second tallest building was built in 2015 and contains dozens of different sustainable technologies including rooftop wind turbines, rainwater collection, and a double-skin facade, amounting to a reduction of 34,000 metric tons in its annual carbon footprint. Its unique and aerodynamic twist-shape design also reduces wind load by up to 24 percent, a building innovation which saved around 20,000 metric tons of steel during its construction.

Meet and exceed green building standards with the right products

LEED and other green building certifications are much easier to achieve with the right building materials and approaches. Several Unicel Architectural products help reduce energy consumption in support of LEED certification requirements, including Vision Control® advanced louvered glazing technology and RAICO timber curtain wall systems.

Vision Control® insulating glass units with built-in louvers, in particular, can contribute to up to 31 LEED certification credits because they control heat flow resulting from conduction and solar exposure. In exterior applications, Vision Control provides significant thermal performance and substantial energy savings. Vision Control can be used in interior/exterior windows, skylights, swing/sliding doors, and curtain walls.