This article looks into some of the key areas that need to be considered in order to make a building as sustainable as possible.

Sawyer Bengtson

It is once again based on the analysis of Simon Sturgis and his excellent book Targeting Zero.

If you look at the chart below from sustainable buildings have the potential to influence carbon emissions in the residential buildings segment, the manufacturing industries & construction segment and the electricity & heat production segment. It is not unusual for buildings to be connected to 40% of a countries carbon emissions. Therefore, a strategy that focusses on buildings that are low carbon in their construction and operational phases is likely to prove to be a successful one to tackle carbon emissions at a global scale.


There are a number of design choices which will affect how sustainable a building is, we will go through each of these in turn.

Existing resources

Simon explains that you should:

Establish which materials, structure and fabric already on site are suitable for reuse within the project.”

Simon goes on to explain that:

Part of the conceptual approach is to consider what the next architect/ engineer would do with your building when it comes to future refurbishment. Can your building be dismantled and recycled in its entirety? Can the components be reused at the same level, i.e. not just at a lower use level? The ideal is for nothing to be wasted, and everything to be reusable.”

This is a level of thinking that needs to become commonplace as soon as possible.

Environmental strategy

Simon begins with the following excellent explanation:

The relationship between operational and embodied emissions and their collective mitigation is key to a low carbon building.”

Simon then explains what services should be omitted to improve the sustainability of the building:

Omitting mechanical systems omits a large part of a building’s regulated operational energy use, and the embodied costs of the plant.

Primary structure

Simon begins by highlighting that:

The key to a low carbon structural system is to select the optimal system not just for the immediate requirement, and for the desired life expectancy, but also for future flexibility.”

Simon then expands on that with the following statement:

Some solutions such as steel or timber can be designed for easy dismantling and reuse. Concrete, using cement replacements, recycled content in steel, and recycled aggregate can be relatively carbon-efficient, particularly if durability and long life are required.

External walls and cladding

Simon explains the key parameters for this area:

These are the initial embodied carbon costs construction, the lifetime carbon costs through maintenance and disposal, the potential for deconstruction and reuse, and the lifetime operational performance costs consequent on the design. The relationship between these parameters depends on required life expectancy and desired lifetime performance. Inappropriate choices can have significant unnecessary carbon costs.”


Simon begins by explaining how interiors can become a carbon hotspot over time:

While the initial carbon cost of fitout may be comparatively small in relation to structure or cladding, the aggregate carbon cost can exceed these large initial capital cost items over the life of a building.”

Simon then explains what should be done about this:

From the outset, interiors decisions need to be strategic from a future maintenance perspective as much as aesthetic and cost driven. Natural finishes such as brick, which do not need a finishing layer or regular maintenance, fit a low carbon strategy on both counts.”

What you need to know

This article looked into the key considerations that need to be addressed in order to design and build a sustainable building.

They each need to be addressed in their own way to ensure that emissions reductions in one area or not replaced by emissions increases in another area.

What should be clear is that globally, buildings are a very significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. This will require significant change in order to make this sector less carbon intensive.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, or reach out to me on social media. What do you think needs to be addressed to create a low carbon building?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

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