Sustainable architecture: natural materials as a central element

Sustainable architecture: natural materials as a central element

21 March, 2024

Learn about sustainable architecture: definition, examples, basic principles and outstanding materials to ensure energy efficiency and sustainability.

Are you familiar with the terms Passivhaus, BREEAM, LEED, Living Building Challenge or Green Building Council? 

They all refer to certifications or models of sustainable architecture and construction that seek to reduce the environmental impact of buildings.

What is sustainable architecture?

Sustainable architecture is the one that:

  • Uses environmentally friendly techniques and materials.
  • Integrates buildings into the natural environment.
  • Minimizes the environmental impact of buildings through energy efficiency.

Also known as «green», this type of architecture is not only focused on the construction of the structures, but covers the entire life cycle of a building, from its design to its use, including making the best use of resources after its lifetime.

This type of architecture understands the building as a «living organism»  that consumes resources and produces waste and, consequently, must comply with the principles of sustainable development and the circular economy.

→ You may be interested in: Bioclimatic architecture, sustainable living.

Sustainable architecture

When did this term come up?  

Rethinking the way we build and use buildings is fundamental to achieve a sustainable future. 

That is why sustainable architecture is becoming increasingly relevant

Although the term is fairly recent, the origins of sustainable architecture as we know it can be found in Alexandria, Egypt, just over a century ago, when architect Hassan Fathty reviewed traditional construction techniques and the use of natural materials to develop buildings that were more respectful towards biodiversity.  

Applying some general guidelines, Fathty, known for designing affordable housing for low-income people in rural areas, came up with a model that lowered costs, guaranteed excellent insulation and acoustic properties for the buildings, and ensured enormous versatility by using organic design and recyclable materials. 

These principles served to lay the foundations for what we know as sustainable architecture today.

Characteristics of sustainable architecture  

Sustainable architecture projects seek a balance between new technologies, natural surroundings, aesthetics, energy efficiency and respect for the environment. 

In addition to promoting sustainability, green buildings meet all the conditions of health, lighting, and habitability with the least energy expenditure, and are integrated into the environment in a “natural” way causing minimal impact. 

The fundamental elements of sustainable architecture are:  

  1. Energy efficiency. 
  2. Lighting and acoustic comfort inside the houses.
  3. Biophilic design.
  4. Use of sustainable, low-energy or recycled materials.
  5. Use of natural resources (solar energy, rainwater, etc.).
  6. Substitution of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas or oil) for renewable energies such as solar energy, wind energy or biomass.
  7. Incorporation of new technologies to improve the prospecting, design and manufacturing phases of buildings, minimize energy expenditure, take advantage of resources, distribute energy sources and choose the best materials. 

Which materials are used in sustainable architecture projects? 

The choice of materials is fundamental in sustainable architecture projects.

The selection depends on several factors, such as the location of the building, its orientation, its conditions or the climate.

In any case, we should always choose materials that are:

  • Durable.
  • Of high quality.
  • Low processed.
  • Non-toxic.
  • Recyclable.
  • That fit in with the landscape.

In addition, we will try to reduce as much as possible the use of materials whose manufacture requires high energy consumption (concrete, steel, PVC and other petroleum derivatives, etc.), prioritizing those that are natural, help reduce the environmental footprint and have minimal or no impact on the environment. 

As far as possible, materials from the area where the building is being constructed will be used to reduce work time, transportation, and fuel costs or waste generated. 

Some of these natural materials are:

  • Wood. It is used in both structures and finishes. It is important that the wood used in this type of project has the appropriate certifications to ensure that it has no toxic treatments and that it is harvested under responsible principles.
  • Natural slate. It is a mineral, inert and ecological product, which does not require artificial materials, blast furnaces or chemical products. In addition, it is a durable material that blends in well with the landscape and is perfect for covering roofs or facades.
  • Natural stone. It is the most efficient natural cladding for architectural projects based on sustainability. Its production and treatment has a minimal impact on ecosystems, its durability guarantees its useful life with low energy costs, and it can be reused. Useful for interiors and exteriors, natural stone adapts to all types of projects and adds value to buildings. 

Other materials that are also used in this type of projects are: 

  • Cellulose. It is obtained from discarded paper and can be used as thermal and acoustic insulation in such projects.
  • Cork. It can be used as an acoustic and thermal insulator, but also as part of the decoration and design of sustainable housing.
  • Ecological paint. This type of paint has no toxic or volatile components that affect the environment or people’s health. In addition, they are biodegradable and facilitate the transpiration of materials.
Sustainable architecture

Why is it important to use natural and sustainable materials in construction?

The use of natural materials benefits the environment and improves the efficiency of buildings.

In addition, natural materials do not contain toxic chemicals and improve indoor air quality, which benefits the health and well-being of building occupants.

Using natural materials in construction means: 

  • Reducing the emission of greenhouse gases during their production and transportation.
  • Reducing energy consumption in their manufacture and maintenance.
  • Reducing waste generated in the construction and demolition phases.
  • Increase the capacity for recycling and reuse at the end of its useful life.

Regarding the benefits of sustainable architecture are: 

  • Savings. The use of natural resources represents an economic saving in your electricity or gas bills. 
  • Design. Sustainable architecture projects use innovative elements that make these buildings sophisticated and aesthetically appealing. 
  • Low demand. Sustainable architecture reduces the use of infrastructure and municipal services, such as water, garbage collection, etc. 
  • Well-being. Sustainable buildings fit in with the landscape and promote the well-being of their residents by generating good air circulation, reducing humidity and insulating the house from the outside. 

At L’Antic Colonial we have a wide range of natural materials for sustainable architecture projects, discover them on our website!

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