What Is Green Architecture? How to Build an Eco-Conscious Home

This sustainable home movement puts the environment at the heart of building, remodeling, and design. 

Green architecture is an eco-conscious approach to home building and design that aims to reduce the strain put on the environment. This includes how homes are built and outfitted as well as how they function, from the architecture to the building materials and the appliances inside. These green building choices minimize negative impacts on the environment, create homes that work smarter and more efficiently, and make the most of natural and sustainable resources. With green architecture, environmental considerations are just as integral as factors like cost or color. Learn more about the principles of green architecture, plus decorating and design ideas to consider for your own home.

mid century style home with dark wood exterior
Ed Gohlich

Principles of Green Architecture

Climate change, a growing awareness of diminishing resources, and a desire to live more sustainably have brought environmentally conscious building to the forefront. But many of the concepts behind green architecture aren't new. In fact, they're very old—as in ancient-civilization old. Before HVAC systems or even glass windows, living areas were built to produce natural airflow, maximize daylight, and rely on natural ways of heating and cooling.

Today, there are numerous opportunities—large and small, natural and technology-based—for making greener choices. Mary Homa, vice president and design consultant at P.E.A. Builders, a company specializing in sustainable building, shares five overarching design principles of green architecture.

1. Attention to Property Details

Consider the topography of the land. Can the house be built to take advantage of natural features? How can it be constructed with minimal harm to the natural habitat? This includes designing the house for the best orientation to the sun, specifically for windows and solar panels, for maximum heat and light. "In the north, we orient most of the living space (great room, kitchen, dining) to the southern exposure, with most windows on this side of the home," says Homa.

2. Material Selections

There are two facets to selecting green building materials. The first is choosing the best materials, including long-lasting materials that withstand wear and use. "Things like hardwood floors or well-built cabinetry that won't have to be replaced in a few years," says Homa. Or opt for materials that work harder to protect the home, like cool roof shingles that reflect heat in especially sunny areas. Secondly, source materials as locally as possible to reduce energy usage, carbon emissions, and even packaging that results from shipping.

3. Maximizing Space

A "well thought-out floor plan that doesn't waste space" is another key element of green architecture, according to Homa. An efficient layout is more effectively heated and cooled to save on energy over time. Plus, a right-sized (versus oversized) home saves on building materials and energy upfront. Layouts should also be designed to last, with universal design principles in mind, to avoid major renovations down the line.

4. Tight Building Envelope

A home's building envelope is a critical part of green architecture. "Think superior exterior wall systems, efficient windows, and lots of insulation," says Homa. She recommends triple-pane fiberglass windows (or double-pane composite for cost savings), and high solar heat gain glass (or SHGC) on south windows in northern climates.

However, new, efficient windows make less of an impact if the rest of the home isn't insulated, and the same is true for energy-efficient HVAC choices. This principle ensures the whole house is sealed so that climate control isn't wasted by air leaking out of or into the home.

5. Green Technology

Green architecture isn't limited to natural materials. Homa points to things like photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, radiant flooring, and geothermal heating and cooling systems as technology to consider when building a home. Car chargers are another newer element Homa puts in this category. In many cases, green technology is about prioritizing renewable energy sources and making those resources accessible to the home now or in the future. "Every home that we build is solar ready; the PV can be installed at the time of the build or at a later date," says Homa.

sunroom with large glass windows and seating
Akin Girav

Green Remodeling Ideas

"One size fits all" is a big misconception about green architecture, according to Homa. For example, geothermal technology is a common request, but it's not always the answer. "We discuss with clients the pros and cons for their lot, needs, and budget. Geothermal may be the best option, or another heating/cooling system." Similarly, green building isn't all-or-nothing. Inefficient layouts can still benefit from a tight building enclosure, and making smart material selections isn't negated by not having solar energy.

Although many green architecture principles are implemented in foundational elements, green building doesn't only apply to new builds. There are plenty of opportunities to make sustainable, eco-conscious choices in remodeling projects, too.

If you're looking to remodel with sustainability in mind, Homa recommends numerous smaller projects that can make your house more efficient.

  • Install an on-demand water heater. Also called tankless water heaters, these heat water immediately when engaged, so there's no water wasted while waiting for the shower to get hot and no unnecessarily heating a large tank of water just so it's available as needed.
  • Improve the building envelope. Replace windows or add insulation to areas that need it.
  • Update to energy-efficient LED light fixtures and bulbs.
  • Add an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) or HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilator). "We call this the "lungs of the home," says Homa. These can be used to pre-heat or pre-cool air being brought into the home to reduce HVAC usage.

Want more big ideas? Check out The Homeowner's Handbook of Green Building & Remodeling, a free downloadable book from Green Builder. It covers green roofing, windows, siding, cabinets, appliances, and more.

eclectic living room with striped black and white chairs
Brie Williams

Green Decorating Ideas

Decorating presents the opportunity to think green as well. When shopping, look for key labels and certifications that indicate a product is eco-conscious or sustainably produced—you'll likely recognize some of the most common ratings like Energy Star and WaterSense.

Kristin Bartone, creative director and principal of Bartone Interiors, recommends finding Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) building products and furniture. "By selecting products made from FSC certified wood, you are decreasing deforestation, global warming, and increasing conservation efforts by preventing extinction of certain plants and animals important to the rainforest ecosystem," Bartone says.

Slow Decorating and Secondhand Items

Choose long-lasting, locally sourced furniture and decor. Consider slow decorating, a design trend that promotes mindful selection and quality products rather than buying quickly available, low-quality products that fit an immediate need. Or outfit your home by buying secondhand and using architectural salvage, which not only recycles materials but also goes hand-in-hand with buying locally.

Water-Conserving Fixtures

If you're updating kitchen or bath fixtures, look for opportunities to conserve water. "Conserve water by using a dual flush toilet," says Lina Galvao of Curated Nest. "This reduces the volume of water used to flush." You can also find low-flow faucets, water-saving showerheads, and greywater recycling systems, including products that recycle shower and tub water for use in toilets.

Low-VOC Materials

Select furniture and materials like paint that have low or no VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Bartone also suggests avoiding upholstered goods with added flame-retardant chemicals. These steps reduce off-gassing, which can decrease indoor air quality. In addition, Galvao points to Greenguard Certification, provided when an item meets chemical emissions standards.

Energy-Saving Tech

You can also look for ways to make energy-saving upgrades, like occupancy-sensing light switches (so you never have to worry about someone turning off lights) and replacing old appliances with more efficient Energy Star-rated models. Even a smart home system that controls temperature and electricity usage or monitors for water leaks can up a home's efficiency, says Galvao.

modern white house lime green door dogs porch fence gate
Brie Williams

Green Building Terms to Know

Green architecture can also be discussed as green building, green design, or sustainable building. The terminology varies based on the type of project, the professionals involved, or even the local vernacular. When building green, here are a few terms to know:

Circular construction is a concept that includes reusing, sharing, and upcycling building materials. Galvao gives the example of using locally-sourced reclaimed wood for building or in furniture, which diverts waste from the landfill.

A net-zero home, or zero-energy home, produces as much power as is needed to run the house. For example, a house that generates power through solar panels and makes enough energy to run the enitre home.

A passive home is a house built to need as little energy as possible. Not only does it produce its own power, but it also has an incredibly robust building envelope and design intended to minimize required energy usage.

Blower door tests determine how energy efficient your home is by measuring how much air is entering and escaping your home.

There are also terms to note when looking for professionals to work with on green building projects. You might see LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) listed behind a builder or designer's name with other professional credentials, in the description of a completed building project, or in the details of a design firm, architect, or builder. LEED recognizes energy-efficient building practices and projects that meet their energy-efficient standards. LEED is certified by the USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council), and there are multiple levels of certification. However, Homa notes that LEED is more prevalent in commercial design than residential design. There are many other green-related credentials you might encounter, including the National Association of Home Builders' Certified Green Professional (CGP) certification.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles