In brief: a history of sustainable architecture

Provided by Dean Hawkes: Emeritus Fellow of Darwin Collage, University of Cambridge and Emeritus Professor of Architectural Design, University of Cardiff

The association of sustainability with architecture only began after the publication, in 1987, of Our Common Future, the report of the Brundtland Commission. The idea of writing a ‘history’ that covers a period of a mere 23 years is almost a contradiction in terms and this is particularly so in relation to architecture. 

Hardwick hall

Robert Smythson, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, 1597. More glass than wall.

Just over fifty years ago the concept of ‘sustainable architecture’ would have been inconceivable. The issues were simply absent from the agenda. Indeed at that time we stood on the threshold of the period when the most resource-consuming structures in the entire history of building were about to be constructed. Across the globe buildings that were reliant on energy-hungry mechanical systems within sealed envelopes, with permanent artificial lighting and air-conditioning, began to replace the historic dominance of daylight and natural ventilation as the essential mode of environmental provision. The same period, however, saw the modest beginnings of a counter-view of the environmental nature of architecture. In this the emphasis was upon establishing a more deliberate link between buildings and the ambient environment. Such design is known as ‘low-energy’, ‘passive solar’, 'energy-conscious’, ‘green’, among other titles, and, as the movement has grown, a substantial body of significant works now exist designed by a growing band of important architects. There is also a substantial body of related design theory and literature.

The growth of what we may, in the present context, describe as ‘unsustainable’ architecture began, at the end of the 18th century, with the industrial revolution, as more and more new technologies were incorporated into the fabric of buildings.  Buildings for all purposes, residential, industrial and institutional came increasingly to adopt mechanical systems of heating, ventilation and illumination in the quest to adopt the latest technologies in the service of their inhabitants. The subsequent history of this kind of architecture correlates quite precisely with the historical increase in global consumption of fossil fuels and its inevitable complement of the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Chiswick house

Lord Burlington, Chiswick House, 1725. Palladio adapted to the English climate.

Before these developments all architecture, whether noble or humble, was sustainable. From antiquity most buildings employed the properties of material and form to make appropriate adaptations to the relationships between their uses and the climates in which they were set. Their design was based on sophisticated empirical understanding of quite complex physical processes and relationships. From an early date these relationships were often codified in texts and treatises. The most familiar example being Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture. The renaissance texts of Serlio and Palladio adapted similar principles to new and changing circumstances and this process continued in subsequent centuries. The evidence of the many historic buildings that survive to the present day significantly complements all of this ‘theory’. In a broad definition all of these buildings are sustainable. 

Building Research Establishment

Feilden Clegg, Environmental Building, Building Research Establishment, Watford, 1997. The expression of passive systems.

So, in conclusion, we may suggest that the history of sustainable architecture is, in reality, a history of architecture since its modern origins two millennia ago. We now have a body of theory and practice accumulated in the last half century that provides a substantial source for contemporary design. But that short history should be underpinned by awareness of the longer history. There are many lessons for new design that may be learned from the ‘sustainable’ buildings that pre-date the industrial revolution. Recent scholarship in environmental history is making these more available. We should, in addition, not disregard the achievements of those architects and their colleagues in engineering, who fashioned the important buildings of the 19th and early 20th centuries, even when we may now interpret these as ‘unsustainable’ in our modern meaning of the term. From such understanding we may go forward with greater certainty.

Take this further

  • Rayner Banham, The architecture of the well-tempered environment, Architectural Press, London. 1st edition, 1969. 2nd edition, 1984.
  • John Farmer, Green Shift: Changing attitudes in architecture in the natural world, Architectural Press, London, 1999.
  • Luis Fernández-Galiano, Fire and Memory: On architecture and energy, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA & London, 2000.
  • Dean Hawkes, The Environmental Imagination: Technics and poetics of the architectural environment, Routledge, London & New York, 2008.
  • Dean Hawkes, Architecture and Climate: British environmental history from Smythson to the Smithsons, Routledge, London & New York, to be published 2010.