Distinctions of green, eco, bio-climatic and sustainable design

Provided by Brian Edwards: Emeritus Professor of Architecture Edinburgh College of Art and Associate Professor of Sustainable Architecture, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Although the terms are often interchangeable, there are distinctions that can be made. Although it is often more a case of emphasis than precise definition, it is important that the terms are used in the right context and with the correct focus.


Geodesic dome

The geodesic dome at Expo’67 in Montreal designed by Buckminster Fuller inspired many later green designers to exploit new materials and structural systems. 

This was the term used by early ecological thinkers in the 1980s. It was used to embrace a wide range of resource issues although in architecture the emphasis was upon energy. Green remains a broad concept and includes at one end energy, particularly renewable energy, and at the other biodiversity. Today green has begun to embrace health aspects of design and construction - particularly the links between green building and healthy lifestyles.

As a term, ‘green’ is losing its popularity, particularly in professional circles. To some it is associated with eco-pioneers who created places like Findhorn in Scotland and the ‘Earthship’ community in New Mexico. To others it lacks precision and is hence rather more political or aspirational than measurable.









Eco and ecological

Water treatment plant Grimshaw Croton

Inspired by the water lily, this design in New York State for a water treatment plant by Grimshaw Architects draws lessons from nature. 

These terms, commonly employed in Europe in place of sustainable, put the emphasis upon the biological wellbeing of planet Earth. In architecture eco is used, on the one hand, to signal concern over the impact material extraction and manufacture has upon biodiversity, and on the other, is employed as a modeling tool on the assumption that human systems should mirror biological ones. In this context ideas like ‘Cradle to Cradle’ and ‘biomimicry’ have migrated into architectural design from the ecological or natural sciences. 

One benefit of the term ecological is its quasi-scientific basis. Buildings are systems of resource use, recycling and waste. Ecology allows us to understand the complexity of decision making from a green perspective. The growth in sustainability accounting methods (such as BREEAM and LEED) owes much to habitat analysis in the natural world.



Markets project Abu Dhabi

Central Markets project by Foster and Partners in Abu Dhabi owes a great deal to the bioclimatic design tradition in the Middle East. 

This term refers to the relationship between climate and architecture. It has a long pedigree going back to the work of Le Corbusier with his use in hot climates of ventilating atria, solar screening and thermal mass. Modernism drew inspiration from vernacular climatic practices whether in hot or cold regions. Climate is currently emerging as a new force in sustainable design- whether it be concern over mitigating the affects of climate change or by actively engaging in climate responsive design.

Understanding climate within and around buildings offers the chance to remodel practice and save energy and water.

A key advocate of the approach is Ken Yeang whose architecture in humid hot regions turns climate into a positive force in shaping the plans and sections of buildings and even whole cities. Since climates vary, bioclimatic design provides the basis for a regionally distinctive architecture able to challenge globalization of architecture and its aesthetics.




Early sketch Manchester BDP

The new company office in Manchester for BDP captures the spirit of sustainable design. Sketch by Gary Wilde.

This term has replaced green as the nomenclature of preference for many. It is politically acceptable (whereas green often isn’t) and brings together environmental, social and economic issues into a compact known as ‘sustainable development’. Sustainability means different things to different people but it signals an important direction for current architecture, namely that green technologies are there to serve society and its development. Within sustainability there resides the dominant theme of energy efficiency (through mitigation and adaptation). But there are other drivers such as social cohesion and economic growth. This balance makes the delivery of sustainable development important. Although buildings are critical, the interactions with urban form, transport and landscape are also vital. 





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