What is the Difference Between Sustainability and Green Building?

While a building designed and built to be truly sustainable can also casually (and incorrectly) be called “green”, a truly green building cannot be considered sustainable.  

A common misconception is that a sustainable building and a green building are the same things. While the concepts both derive from the same core philosophy, they represent different approaches.  The philosophy of green development is to conserve the environment by conserving resources, that of sustainability reaches far beyond green development with a goal to preserve the environment for generations to come.

While the terms do have elements in common, they are quite different because they address environmental impact in different ways.  In this article we will discuss the similarities and differences and clarify the distinctions for each type of structure.  

Natural Capital and What It Means for Both Green and Sustainable Buildings

In short, Natural Capital is all the resources of the Earth.  Clean air, clean water, pristine forests, biodiversity, healthy soil, and the continual cycling and recycling of the natural world are all a part of Natural Capital.  Fossil fuels, precious metals, and minerals are also a part of the equation.  But more than this, Natural Capital recognizes the interdependent properties of the natural world. 

From this standpoint, then, Natural Capital assigns a financial value to nature itself since people and businesses make use of the planet’s resources in their day-to-day activities.  Mitigation on the use of Natural Capital is the primary focus of both green and sustainable philosophies.  

Natural Capital and Sustainable Buildings

To preserve natural resources, sustainability strives to integrate the structure into the environment. To mitigate long term environmental impacts, the design must be thoroughly researched.  What this means is that a sustainably designed structure will cost more to design and build than would a standard green home. 

The reason being is that to build a sustainable structure, the focus is to create a self-contained dwelling with systems designed to last for decades.  The several stages of sustainable design have the goal of creating a better living environment for people as well as the environment such that the sustainable building should:

  • Be ecologically friendly in design, build, use and maintenance.
  • Provide a quality indoor living environment.
  • Consume the least amount of energy and natural resources possible.
  • Generate at least part of its energy needs using off-grid methods.
  • Use Local, Repurposed and Renewable materials throughout the design and construction process.
  • Mitigate its impact on local water resources, repurpose the water it uses.
  • Eliminate CO2 emissions and eliminate or integrate waste products into the natural cycle of the home.
  • Integrate into the local environment.

Natural Capital and Green Structures

The development of a typical green structure is not nearly as exhaustive as that of a sustainably designed unit. And this is simply because the philosophy of green design is anchored in today’s concerns.  For instance, as resources become tighter, the goal of a green structure is to conserve such resources as possible.  Heating and cooling is a good example, the energy it takes to heat a home is reduced by using more insulation, double paned windows, heavily sealed seams, etc.  As for heating and cooling, heat pumps are a standard choice for green structures.  Some basic human objectives of a green building are:

  • Be a healthy environment for its occupant.
  • Make efficient use of water and other resources.
  • Mitigate its environmental impact.
  • Significantly reduce operational costs relative to the average home.
  • Create aesthetically pleasing living areas.

Moreover, the environment must be taken into consideration.  Therefore, in addition to the human element, the green building must:

  • Address and mitigate and concerns on erosion during and after construction.
  • Reduce output of CO2 and other pollutants stemming from building operation.
  • Limit the amount of land paved or covered over to reduce impact to the water cycle.
  • Use renewable energy resources wherever possible.
  • To the extent possible, disconnect from fossil fuel consumption.
  • Connect the indoor and outdoor spaces into a seamless whole.
  • Allow for maximum use of sunlight throughout the year.

Ecological Footprint

Simply put, the Ecological Footprint provides an overview of the number of resources required to provide an individual, community, or civilization to live and thrive relative to the capacity of the earth to absorb the waste produced.  Such resources must be considered renewable and, therefore, forests, arable land, ocean fisheries, clean air, and water are all part of the equation.  Some brief examples of considerations around the Ecological Footprint are:

  • The amount of forest land necessary to absorb carbon dioxide emissions.
  • The rate of deforestation vs. reforestation.
  • Cropland and Grazing land.
  • Global fisheries and the rate of exploitation.
  • Land currently developed like cities and neighborhoods.

By far the largest factor in determining the Ecological Footprint are the CO2 emissions and the land area requirements for absorption.  The next major concern is the energy requirement of the structure.

Ecological Footprint and Sustainable Buildings

Sustainable buildings are, by definition, unique to their surroundings.  That is because they are designed to integrate fully into their environment.  A sustainable building located in the desert will look and function differently than a sustainable building in a cold mountainous environment.

Different environments create unique needs that the structure is constructed to address.  Consider a sustainable building to occupy a specific niche in a specific environment.  Sustainable buildings are a long term to permanent answer to ecological concerns.

However, here at Architreecture we want to go further than that. We believe that all buildings should be carbon-negative, that means, that they should be actually give back to the environment. Architecture, like trees, can help restore balance and be part of the answer instead of part of the problem.

Ecological Footprint and Green Buildings

Green structures can be considered as a “one size fits all” type of solution.  Since the fundamental approach of green buildings is the mitigation of pollution and energy consumption.  Toward this end, materials, designs, and products are readily available to be installed as needed. 

A green structure is faster and easier to build and therefore, tends to have a larger ecological footprint.  The green building is an expedient to addressing ecological concerns, it is also much more affordable than a sustainable building.  Being more easily built, the green building serves the purpose of a readily available answer to very near-term concerns as regards the environment.

If Green is the Present, is Sustainable the Future?

Though not couched in such terms, the green movement has been with us from early times.  Around 2000 years ago such diverse cultures as Rome, China, India and Peru practiced soil conservation.  However, present considerations began to take shape in the late 18th century as a backlash against the degradation that unrestrained industrialism wreaked on soil, air and water.  The movement has become more scientific through the years, being able to quantify human impact on the environment.  The scientific advancement has led to the development of the footprint model.

The advancement of science has also led to the development of new products and processes that allow us to conserve energy and materials which would have otherwise been wasted.  Primarily this effort has been focused on housing both new and retrofit, and upon urban areas in general.  Laws are passed, standards required, and public opinion weighed on all things green. And it has had the impact of generating social awareness of our effect on the natural systems that support human beings and their civilizations.

The green of today, that intense focus on conserving and recycling, is rapidly yielding to the sustainability of tomorrow.  However, sustainable only might not be enough. With the impact that all other human activities have on the planet, having at least one part that actually help the environment would be a big game changer for our fight against climate change.

We hope the future will see the beginning of widespread practice of carbon-negative buildings, that actually give something back to the environment instead of taking from it. The land, thus unshackled will be able to breathe again and so wider areas of the earth will be back to work absorbing carbon, filtering water, and providing biodiversity.

Which Notable Businesses Are Implementing Green Building?

While numerous businesses the world over are implementing carbon footprint reducing measures, there are some that stand out from the rest. The Pixel Building in Sydney, Australia generates its own power and water through wind turbines and water collection. The Vancouver Convention Center West in Vancouver is the first to receive a double LEED platinum designation. The Suzlon One Earth Campus generates all of its electricity from natural sources making it a net zero energy building. 

The above are all examples of businesses that are leading the way in green building and are essentially becoming sustainable. One Bryant Park in Manhattan was the first skyscraper to receive a LEED platinum award. The building features waterless urinals, LED lighting, and a power system that has the capacity to generate 4.6 megawatts of electricity. The electricity it produces is completely clean and sustainable. 

Perhaps most notable is The Edge Building in Amsterdam which received a 98.3% from BREEAM, the British Energy Efficiency Rating Agency. The building is essentially alive. The intricate lighting system anticipates lighting needs instead of running at a constant. The employees have control over their workspaces through their smartphones. The building features a shell of solar panels and temperatures are regulated using warmed or cooled water which is constantly recycled.

Again, when you see that a business in your area has added solar panels to their rooftop, that is a prime example of green building. If you have replaced your windows at home with more energy efficient casement windows, you are going green. But that is just it: you are ‘going’ green; that does not mean you are there yet. Sustainable building considers everything from planning to eventual demolition. It is the most efficient use of resources for reducing – nearly eliminating – our carbon footprint. So, you can see there is quite a big difference. 

Basically, green building consists of the individual building blocks to sustainability. Green building takes only the environment into consideration regarding how said environment is being negatively impacted. Like putting a Band-Aid on a wound. Sustainable building on the other hand takes not only the environment into account, but absolutely everything else: the people directly affected by the building, the use of resources in the material, energy consumption – inherently everything involved in the entire process. 

It is the ideal organism; and it can be considered an organism because the structure essentially comes to life. Let us look at the individual characteristics that constitute green building and compare those with sustainable building. 

Reviewing the Characteristics of the Green Building

It does not take much to go green and modern technologies and developments have made it easy and affordable. So, what earns you the right to say you have gone green?

If you collect rainwater that would normally spill into the regional drainage and use it for your garden, then you have gone green. It is a beneficial way of using a resource that would otherwise be wasted, but it makes minor impact on the environment.

If you collect and use that rainwater for your garden AND your toilet water, then you are even greener and you have made more of an environmental impact than before.

If you manage to collect and reuse not only rainwater, but grey water as well, then you have created a sustainable water system that ideally promotes and maintains a sustainable solution to our water problem. 

There are many other contributing factors to our carbon footprint that need to be taken into consideration. The following outlines the ways in which buildings, new and old, can take green steps and earn the right to be considered sustainable:

  • Energy efficient lighting and appliances
  • CO2 monitoring and troubleshooting systems
  • Implementing renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic and wind
  • Use of recycled and recyclable material
  • Air quality and ventilation monitoring systems

However, these are all minimal solutions to an increasingly critical situation. Once again these are only the building blocks to becoming sustainable. 

Is Sustainable Building Achievable?

To clarify, the differences between green building and sustainable building are one of present expediency and future integration. A building can be green, but not sustainable. Yet being sustainable is not impossible as we have seen. Many businesses and homeowners have begun taking responsibility for their carbon emissions and use of resources. 

However, there is one aspect of sustainability that has not been mentioned: responsible use of resources. We have so far mentioned the use of recycled and recyclable material, the use of natural resources, and the implementation of modern technology to reduce the use of natural resources. One key aspect of sustainability is about where the resources are coming from and the limitation of negative impacts on the environment when these resources are extracted. 

If we take a simple example such as the use of wood in the construction of a building, then the question must be asked: Where did the wood come from? How did it get here? Which ecosystems were impacted by its extraction and how much so?

Sustainability considers these questions and eliminates the negative impact resource extraction has on the environment. All potential risk factors are assessed, and it is determined if the risks outweigh the benefits.

As you can see, sustainability is concerned with much more than cost-savings. It is concerned with all areas of savings – including the planet and its inhabitants. Sustainability is becoming much easier to achieve and will soon become standard practice in all building code.

We are Architreecture want to go a step further and start making buildings that help the environment, so that buildings are no longer seen as damaging to the environment, but that are actually helping to restore it.

Ultimately, constructing single family dwellings, neighborhoods, business parks and even entire cities that are sustainable will be the norm.  From our current perspective this may not seem to be the case, but as our awareness of the impact that human activity has on the environment grows, the more the demand for such completely integrated designs will increase. 

Already, intergovernmental entities such as the UN, the OECD and the World Economic Forum are teaming with private enterprise and nonprofits to accelerate ideas and solutions for establishing a human community that is able to give back to the earth more that it takes.  At least that is the hope.  

We are currently building the bridge from inspiration.  It will take many fields of understanding working together and combining expertise for us to reach that far shore of accomplishment.  In an interview with the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Goran Tomsen pointed out how interlinked everything is to everything out, and that to ignore this interlinking is to do so at our own peril, ” For example, we need to produce and distribute food with the smallest environmental footprint possible because our health depends on unpolluted environments, as well as good nutrition. Humans are affected by almost every aspect of the biosphere. Neglecting this fact will have grave consequences for our health.”

Final words

And with this, we have arrived at the end of this post. In this post, we have seen what are the differences between a green building and a sustainable one, and what impact each has on the environment.

We have also explained briefly what our company wants to do, making a paradigm shift and creating buildings that help the environment, like trees do. That is at the core of our mission and that is where our name (a mix of architecture and tree) comes from.

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