What is Sustainable Architecture?

But what exactly is Sustainable Architecture?

In general, nowadays, when you think of Sustainable Architecture, you think of buildings powered by renewable energies and highly energy efficient technological solutions.

What if I told you that it takes zero technology to make sustainable architecture?

First of all, it is important to remember that when we talk about sustainability, we talk about a concept that encompasses much more than ecology. Because to be sustainable, it is not enough to bet on environmentally friendly solutions when economic and social factors are not covered.

For example, a building that uses ecological materials, but that does not remunerate its workers with dignity or does not respect the cultural traits in which it is inserted, will not be a sustainable building.

We will then talk about the three factors of sustainability (ecology, society and economy) applied to the architectural landscape:


N í v e l  E c o l o g i c o

When talking about ecology applied to architecture, building materials are the main subject. These can be analyzed thanks to their manufacture or their durability.

Any material that undergoes industrial processes requires the extraction of certain raw materials and an emission of CO2 during its manufacture. The production of concrete, one of the most used materials in conventional construction, in addition to the consumption of a lot of water, requires a large amount of sand that, when extracted intensively, not only destroys the landscape, but also the ecosystems of the extraction sites.

In addition to these factors, the concrete manufacturing process is responsible for large CO2 emissions which, together with the transport of this product and the factors mentioned above, make it a highly unsustainable building material, although quite cheap and widely used in Worldwide. There is a lot (and well) talk these days about the impact of reducing meat consumption on global CO2 emissions. But what if we also talked about reducing concrete consumption?

N í v e l  C o n o m i c o

In economic terms, we can look at architecture as a potential generator of employment but also as a consumer area, since it requires the use of so many materials.

As a generator of employment, it is important that the staff employed are properly remunerated and that they empower the local economy whenever possible. As for the materials, an important factor to take into account is their provenance.

Just as today, more and more people are aware of buying clothes from local/national brands (check out the 14 degrees website!), the same should be reflected in the construction sector.

Another way to enhance the economic part of a building is to bet on artisanal techniques that value the worker more than the material. Instead of investing money in items manufactured in series, with little personality, we can apply that same money in people who, through their art, will be able to repay us with unique pieces, made to measure and bearers of an incomparable character.


N í v e l  S o c i a l

Architecture is above all a symbol of identity for its community. It is also through its buildings that a particular culture asserts and defines itself. For this same reason, it is important that the design of a certain building takes this into account and that it respects its surroundings.

When we invest in construction methods that value workers more than the material, we also have the opportunity to directly contribute to their education, which in the future will be able to use the techniques learned in other projects.

This is how we contribute to the use, propagation and progress of traditional building techniques that, being adapted to contemporary needs, will still know how to respond to questions of heritage maintenance and restoration


But then how can I make my building sustainable?

I believe that the most correct way to make a building sustainable is to use natural materials that are abundant at the construction site, such as earth, wood, fibers or cork.

In addition to the ecological factor that appears from the fact that they are materials that do not need to be manufactured, they also have the great advantage of being easily returned to nature without causing any damage, remembering that buildings do not have and will not serve their purpose for always.

By using local materials, you will also save on transport and you can also invest in local construction techniques that are based on these same materials and that normally respond excellently to the climatic problems of the area.

For example, the rammed earth (compressed earth block construction method) in Alentejo, with its thick whitewashed earth walls, allows for a great interior thermal quality.

During the summer, it keeps the rooms cool, and during the winter it insulates these same rooms from the coldest months, obtaining a stable indoor temperature throughout the year without the aid of any technology.

"I am an advocate that the use of land as a constructive material would be the greatest constructive solution for a sustainable architecture at a global level. This is because, it is a free raw material, easily available almost all over the world that contains countless architectural advantages."

Due to its flexibility, it can be applied in the form of different techniques and can adapt to numerous cultural identities. It also brings benefits to human health as it significantly improves the air quality of interior spaces and is a material that adapts to both colder and warmer climates.

Actually, building with earth is nothing new, much less in Portugal. It has been part of the architectural history of many countries since the dawn of humanity. Unfortunately, building materials such as earth, fell into disuse thanks to the ease of acquiring materials such as concrete or brick after the industrial revolution and with this evolution, all the benefits of natural materials have been lost.

Buildings alone are the second largest consumer of energy in the entire EU, only surpassed by the food sector (EU, 2019) and this is why talking about sustainable architecture is so important. It will be up to everyone to change this scenario and I hope that my words have helped you to gain a new critical sense about your home, your city and our planet!




Written by Bárbara Miranda

Architect by the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto, intern at Studio Anna Heringer and finishing a postgraduate degree in Sustainable Architecture at Kunstuniversität Linz. Instagram: @barbara_cmir




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