Literature Review: Defining sustainability in architecture

As in every sustainable document, defining the term sustainability is paramount and therefore it becomes clear that the architect must understand sustainable concepts before they can practice. Consequently defining sustainability could be considered a vital part to developing green design principles in order to provide clarity and scope for sustainable architecture and to bring about a collective understanding that architecture can be both attractive, inspiring and efficient and environmentally friendly.


Many terms are used to describe the similar notion of sustainability, such as green, environmentally friendly and holistic, but their foundations lie in sustaining the world we live in for future generations. The most common definition in the literature is The Brundtland commission who define sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future” (1987, as cited in Appleby 2011). The Brundtland is a broad definition of the aims of sustainable design and is hard to apply to architecture. Hosey, (2012) similarly explains that sustainable design encompasses the total environment and all of its associations and therefore it works not only to preserve the natural environment but embrace the cultural environment as well. This implies that that sustainability encompasses the whole natural, social and cultural environment and is not just about reducing CO2. Similarly Yeang and Woo, (2010) believe that “the principles of sustainability can stimulate technological innovation, advance competitiveness, and improve quality of life-all desirable factors. Adding to Van der Ryn, (1996) and Meclennan, (2004) ideas that sustainable concepts expand the ideas of good design.


Mclennan, (2004) believes that “Sustainable design is a design philosophy that seeks to maximize the quality of the built environment, while minimizing or eliminating negative impact to the natural environment”. Rovers, (2008) add that sustainable design should maximize the well being of people. Similarly to Van Der Ryn, (1996), who states “ecological design can be defined as any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with the living process”. All of which prove the misconception that Ingels, (2012) depicts, describing sustainable design as aiming to improve life quality whilst minimising environmental impact.


Rovers (2008) believes in an equilibrium and states that “sustainable building involves the balanced use of resources on a global scale e.g. Energy, materials, water and land” alike Yeang and Woo (2010) who describe the basic principles and concepts of sustainability as balancing a growing economy. RIBA (2011) agree using the same categories, plus life, in their proposed sustainable design strategies. Sustainable design therefore can be thought as encompassing a whole design approach in which it addresses all the needs of the current climate. As (Raymond, 2012) believes that architecture is a pervasive activity and is not just the act of designing a building to be simply energy or eco efficient. Sustainable architecture is the act of doing more with less (Schwarz, 2012).

Literature review: Assessing sustainability in architecture  

A key issue in integrating sustainable design into architecture is few perceive sustainability as a means of innovation and as a new interesting way of designing successful buildings (Van Hinte, Neelen, Vink and Vollaard, 2003). It appears that most perceive it as an expensive add on to tick government regulation boxes. Often design teams do not have a collaborative approach to design and therefore cause problems and badly resolved issues. Sustainability is often one of these issues and it is usually solved with a ground/ air source heat pump and solar panels (Mclennan, 2004). Therefore if sustainability and architecture were not perceived separately this argument would not exist and buildings today would be both beautiful and efficient. Sustainable building can be combined with modern architectural statement.

Mclennan, (2004) asks “What is sustainability other than a poorly used misunderstood word that is hindering itself with misconceptions?” Ingels, (2012) believes too that there is a common misconception about sustainability, that of how much of our current life style are we willing to sacrifice? This common misconception is ingrained into the public mind, a negative view on a positive design change. As Ingels, (2012) agrees stating that sustainability shouldn’t be a moral sacrifice or political dilemma, but similarly to Van Der Ryn, (1996) it has to be a design challenge. A challenge that architects should embrace as an exciting way to solve design issues with the environment in mind. However, “Almost every architectural and engineering firm today claims, to some extent, that it practices sustainable design or at least has done a few ‘green’ buildings, while in reality, most have little true understanding of the subject” (Mclennan, 2004, p. 2).


Mclennan, (2004) considers that “Most of the barriers to a sustainable future are not technological but are fear and ignorance based.” Which may stem from the misconception Ingles, (2012) depicts. Or architects may have become overwhelmed by Van der Ryn’s, (1996) concept that sustainable design is a whole new way of thinking. Mclennan, (2004) agrees saying that, “Sustainable design is expanding the definition of good design.” Explaining that sustainability looks at a wider set of factors compared to traditional design could be another reason why architects have suppressed the subject for so long (Mclennan, 2004). RIBA similarly has identified that sustainable design addresses a wider set of principles, and they are currently working on the green overlay that applies to the plan of work. It is a proposal of a design procedure that works with the current plan of work, as an overlay to make sure that at every step in the design process sustainability has been consulted (Peel 2011). Therefore the green overlay may be seen as a break through as it has established that sustainable design expands and betters traditional design and that also it should be considered throughout the whole design process by all professions involved as something that informs the design. In turn it can erase the fear of a whole new design process and make architects realise that sustainable design is an enhanced process. It might encourage architects to recognise the current environmental social and economical needs mean that architects should be designing with the environment in mind, and that it is achievable for all practices.

Literature review: The application of sustainability in Architecture, the need for change

“Every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule, discussion and adoption”

(Mill, n.d as cited by Mclennan 2004).

The sustainable movement has been ridiculed by many since its emergence in the 60’s (Van Hinte, Neelen, Vink and Vollaard, 2003, p.7) and the literature suggests that it has only been in the past few decades that the discussion about sustainability in architecture has really started, and has become a popular topic during the past 5-10 years.

The purpose of this literature review is to assess the current level of sustainable concepts integrated into architecture. To determine at what stage sustainable architecture is currently at.

There is an environmental need for the building sector to develop and widely adopt the concepts of sustainability. Van der Ryn, (1996) states that we cannot design in the image of the machine anymore, an image of an energy consuming mechanical building. This implies a need for change in architectural design and calls for architects to start designing for the future. Henriques, (2012) describes that change at all levels depend on a new sustainability culture becoming commonplace. Similarly Schwarz, (2010) believes that “the sustainability revolution is in essence a revolution of culture.” However, Vaze and Tindale, (2011) argue that all public policy involves a cultural change and that often it takes something extreme and drastic that affects the public directly to implement change. Thus, the views of Vaze and Tindale (2011) can be interpreted as posing as “a very Faustian choice: whether to accept our corrosive and risky behaviour as unavoidable, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic” (Wilson, as cited in Vaze and Tindale, 2011). Therefore this literature review will discuss whether architecture can influence a change in perception of sustainability in architecture and inspire people to take action, it will also address architects responsibilities in implementing sustainable concepts into architecture.

Mclennan, (2004, p.6) believes that sustainable design implies “responsibility and a far-reaching respect for natural systems and resources, respect for people and for the cycle of life” and therefore implies that architects who impact directly upon the landscape have a responsibility to make sure their work responds delicately to the environment. As Wilson and Bryant, (1997) similarly state, architects decisions directly impact upon the environment on which other people depend. Architecture influences our every day lives; it impacts and controls everything we do.

Consequently Design therefore may be a powerful tool that could be used to influence a cultural change and help the drive toward a sustainable Britain. As McDonough, (2007) states, “Design is the first signal of human intention.” Likewise Van Der Ryn, (1996) states that the environmental crisis is a design crisis and it is the design process that needs to be tackled before true adoption and understanding of sustainability can arise. “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” (Winston Churchill as cited in Kats 2010). Butters, (2008) agrees, In assuming that the problem has to do with resistance to change, he states that architects have the ability through design to implement social change. However, Raymond, (2012) points out that design itself cannot provide the solution but never the less can be a force for change.

The need to raise awareness and popularity about sustainability now may be greater than true sustainable design, because for acceptance; Pelsmakers, (2012) believes that architects need to be inspired by successful sustainable design. Architects solve problems creatively (RIBA, 2011) and the efficiency of architecture is a problem that can also be solved creatively. Successful projects that achieve efficiency creatively, that maximize life quality and minimize environmental impact may lead to an increase in popularity, and therefore could lead to acceptance of sustainable concepts on a larger scale. (Hosey, 2012) agrees long term value is impossible without sensory appeal, because if design doesn’t inspire, it is destined to be discarded.

However Hosey, (2012) argues that sustainability, through its emphasis on efficiency has lost emphasis on aesthetic. Hosey, (2012) states that because sustainable architecture has focused on environmental impact and not aesthetics, we are left with numerous unattractive sustainable buildings, which in turn does not lead to public popularity. Hosey writes, “Originally, the concept of sustainability promised to broaden the purpose of contemporary design, specifically by adding ethics to aesthetics, but instead it has virtually replaced aesthetics with ethics by providing clear and compelling standards for one and not the other.” Hosey, (2012) points out that beauty should be a fundamental component of sustainability and that an ugly building is more likely to be torn down and replaced, he states that “something that does not last is by definition unsustainable” (Hosey, 2012). Attractiveness is not considered essential to sustainable design (Hosey, 2012). In addition Hosey, (2012) states, “Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern- it is an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.” Realising the importance of aesthetic in sustainable architecture is key in the successful implementation of sustainable concepts in architecture. Hosey, (2012) asks, “can we be as smart about how things look as we are about how they work?”

There is a contradictory argument of attractive design vs. efficient design in sustainable architecture, as beautiful form can develop from ultimate efficiency. Nature, for example, can be used as a precedent with the most beautiful forms that are definitively the way they are due to efficiency, use and habitat; very similar to architectural design: use, users, context, and form. Nature can be thought of as the most beautiful and sustainable design that provides all its own needs through natural form. Hosey, (2012) agrees saying, “If sustainable design is intended to act like nature, it should knock your socks off.” Nevertheless in understanding form and sustainability architects can design buildings that are efficient, environmentally friendly and beautiful. Understanding form creates beauty and efficiency, of which both are critical to sustainable architecture.

Beautiful iconic buildings by famous architects inspire the profession and the public, so there is potential for beautiful sustainable buildings that focus on the design as a whole, with in-depth thought on aesthetics combined with efficiency to do the same. The environment opens a door for architects to be creative in a new manor not form follows function but form can create efficiency. If sustainable concepts were applied creatively it can in fact increase beauty and formal elegance within a project rather than hinder architectural quality (Hosey, 2012). Beauty, however, is in the eye of the beholder, and Alter, (2012) describes beauty as design that moves the head and the heart; which coincides with Pelsmakers, (2012) idea that inspiration can inform change.

RIBA appear positive about a transition and too believe sustainable design can enhance creativity in design. However, as a representative body of architects their beliefs appear to not transcend to the wider body of practices or in education (Mclennan, 2004). RIBA recognize that the architect’s role in the sustainable design of buildings is an extremely important one. As Brady, Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) president (as cited in Sullivan, 2012), states, “as architects we know that good design improves our quality of life, in all areas of work rest and play and impacts on our health. Our work as professionals seeks to create a healthy built environment, which enhances the natural environment, society and our economy.” Similarly implied by Sullivan, (2012) and Raymond, (2012) that the architect’s role should in fact be sustainable by definition as “The role of an architect is to respond to environmental social and economical needs”. Which corresponds with the three principles of sustainability (Raymond 2012). Sustainable design falls within all aspects of the architect’s role yet it still seems to be over looked. Van Der Ryn (1996) claims that sustainability was the mantra of the 90’s, and for many architects and designers it continues to be a mantra to this day. Almost everyone can be considered aware of the need for sustainability, and it appears most are now beginning to incorporate sustainability into their lives and profession, but to what extent is subject for debate.

Is building with glass sustainable?

I have recently joined London Sustainability Exchange (LSx), as a Project Volunteer and have been tasked to write a monthly ‘Sustainability in Architecture’ article to be included in the LSx news bulletin.

For my first article I chose the subject of glass and briefly assessed the rapid development of glass skyscrapers in the City of London. 

See my article below and view the LSx Bulletin via this link:

Sustainability and Architecture- Glass BuildingsPicture6







The recent development of iconic, entirely glazed skyscrapers changing the London sky line, including The Shard, The Cheese Grater and The Walkie Talkie, prompt the LSx to question how sustainable is building with glass?

Glass is a high energy, high cost material and as the construction sector develops towards transitioning to a more efficient design and building process we question is there still space for glazed buildings? The recent discussions led by architect Ken Shuttleworth and Arup engineers about whether the glass sky scraper is a thing of the past prompt the LSx to review the rapid development of glass skyscrapers in London, and wonder what the future holds for London’s landmarks.

In the 1920s Mies Van Der Rohes Glass sky scraper concept defied laws of materials and was a vision of a technological future. The Ideology of glass depicted then was of simplicity and ultimate modernism. Ninety years on we continue to heavily use glass, especially in iconic London landmarks. Despite glass being expensive and high in manufacturing energy it is still seen as modern and is vastly used in building today. In the current environmental context, the construction sector should be developing and using new innovative materials as an alternative to glass, that have a positive impact on our environment and society; materials that lay the foundation for a sustainable future.

Picture1Manufacturing glass is a high energy process and it requires extremely high temperatures. The energy used to produce glass for the entire facade of the Shard for example was on a tremendous scale. The shards white glazing means that the transparency of the building is a prominent feature however; the internal appearance appears messy and disorganised, drastically affecting its crystal shard like appearance. Furthermore, due to the particular white glazing used, the solar gains are vastly increased and require complex internal environment control.  However, The Shards glazing system is passive and is coated with a colourless solar-control coating, Ipasol made by Interpane and an integrated solar blind system claims to reduce solar gain by 95%.

Fundamentally, glass lets a lot of heat in and out. The preventive method to reduce solar gains and heat loss in glazed buildings is a tremendous feat of engineering and design. The Leadenhall building nicknamed The Cheesegrater, similar to The Shard, has a technical three tiered glazing system with integrated solar blinds. Despite being a very clever and innovative solution to overheating, from an Picture2environmental and economical viewpoint, it may have been better to design efficiency into the building rather than having to expend time, money and energy to mitigate the negative impacts on internal environment caused by glazed curtain walling. Architects are fixated on glazed facades; planners desire glazing and the public enjoy the iconic stylised designs. In order to achieve efficiency in building and develop toward a sustainable built environment glazing needs to be reduced.  

Despite the obvious environmental problems with building with glass, many more glass skyscrapers are planned to be completed in the City of London over the next five years. The reality is that iconic landmarks and quirky shapes dominate architectural design, prioritising aesthetics over efficiency and sustainability and it seems the vision for the future of the City of London is wholly ‘glass skyscrapers.’



Future glass sky scrapers in the City of London: 

20 Fenchurch Street- The Walkie TalkiePicture3

Completion:2014, overdue






52-54 Lime StrePicture4et- The Scalpel

Completion: 2017











The Bishopsgate Tower- The Pinnacle

Completion: construction on hold since 2012

Wilkinson Erye- The Crystal

The integration of sustainable design and modern architecture is long over due. So it is amazing to see innovate architecture that has sustainability rooted within the scheme and the design process.


The crystal by Wilkinson Eyre is a great example of the future of sustainable architecture as it is a scheme that realises stand out modern architecture can be efficient and that sustainable design doesn’t hinder creative flair but it can increase it.

Sofie Pelsmakers however disagrees in her review of the build in On Office magazine, her last paragraph states that the design is unlikely to become a prototype of sustainable urban design due to its inability to adapt to different contexts and its high cost of £4000/sqm. She goes on to say that it might give the impression that this is what sustainable building is all about, when more efficient buildings on a lower budget can be delivered. (pages 25-33)

I however feel that the point of this building has been missed throughout the report, and that it is in fact exactly what the current sustainable climate in architecture needs- A stand out piece that shouts to architects who fear sustainability with a cry of you can still produce modern architecture and be sustainable too.

It may be drastically expensive but today architects need inspiration to adapt and integrate sustainable design into their work and practise, I personally feel this design is a breath of fresh air and although not a model for the future it is a huge stepping stone into and efficient beautifully design built environment.

Sustainability and beauty combined in architecture.