Blog Post

Sustainable Building Design: The Key Principles

05.09.2022 | 9 min read | Written by Alexandra Hasek

When we think of sustainable building design, we usually think about goals in three main areas: environment, people, and costs. The environmental goal is to reduce the consumption of natural resources such as water, energy, and raw materials and to prevent environmental damage caused by the construction process.

The people-oriented goal is to provide a comfortable, easy, safe, and productive environment for those living and working in the building. At the same time, the cost factors aim to optimise the construction and operation of the building to reduce costs.

A wooden residential building

However, the design and construction stages must be considered to make these three goals successful. This article highlights how to design a sustainable building, sustainability in building designs, and how to achieve it.

Six Major Sustainable Building Design Principles

The sustainable framework has been the product of evolving technology and environmental awareness over the past few years. Buildings are ecosystems; just as with all living ecosystems, buildings use resources and generate waste.

However, we can reduce waste and resource depletion rates through recent advances in sustainable building design, energy efficiency technology, construction, and facilities management software to ensure sustainability in building design.

The Architecture of the Future

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Although there are no regulations around sustainable building design in the UK, many groups are championing this cause and developing mechanisms for UK construction firms and architects to focus on creating sustainable buildings. BREEAM and the UK Green Building Council are doing voluntary accreditation and code schemes.

The National Institute of Building Services, based in the United States, developed the Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG) to advance the communication between industry and academia and progress the construction of high-performing facilities. These guidelines bring useful learnings for sustainable construction, no matter the location.

Anyone interested in learning how to design a sustainable building must take these six sustainable building design principles from WBDG seriously:

  1. Site Optimisation

Sustainable building design starts with site selection, including the location, orientation, landscape, and parking areas. These parameters affect the local ecosystem and the energy consumption within the building. Above all, site optimisation and building design must be complementary.

But how can building design stakeholders implement site optimisation? For a start, they must incorporate some very intelligent growth principles into their project development process. Site optimisation is important, whether a project is a large complex building like a campus or a single small building.

Besides, setting a project with physical security in mind is another critical problem when optimising site design. There is a need to consider certain factors like perimeter lighting, locations of relevant access roads, parking, and vehicle barriers.

The point remains that building professionals need to integrate sustainability into building design; whether retrofitting an old building design or not.

  1. Energy Efficiency

Sustainability is often closely associated with climate change and energy dependence. These designs and operating net-zero energy buildings are important steps for reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

Global energy expects demand to rise by 47% by 2050.  It is understandable since fossil fuels will still provide 60% of global energy consumption by 2040, even though experts expect a change in the use pattern to gas and away from coal.

Undoubtedly, this global energy demand is rising because of industrial activity and advances in developing countries and developed nations prioritising sustainability in building design.

Before now, fossil energy sources like oil, coal and natural gas meet the energy demands, but they harm the environment. There are growing concerns about energy security and independence coupled with the adverse effects of global climate change hitting the world harder.

It becomes imperative that sustainability in the built environment incorporates efficient energy sources that don’t harm the environment, such as solar energy and wind energy facility. These energy sources aren’t just efficient; they also drastically reduce energy loads and encourage more people to leverage renewable energy to power new buildings.

Besides improving the energy efficiency of old buildings and reducing energy consumption, it is necessary to consider long-term energy efficiency when designing a sustainable building from scratch.

  1. Water Conservation

New buildings change the hydrological and ecological function of land, which is why sustainability in the built environment is crucial. Sustainable buildings should focus more on minimising the adverse effects of ecology and hydrology on non-built land.

Water conservation is a priority, from the design stage to on-site construction. Different parts of the world are facing increasing freshwater scarcity, and sustainable building design should seek to minimise the construction of ground layers affecting the freshwater stock.

Accordingly, new buildings should encourage water efficiency and reduce and recycle waste streams wherever possible. It is important to spend as little energy as possible when trying to bring drinkable water to households.

Nevertheless, there is potential for well-treated water to get exposed to toxic chemicals. Sewage treatment’s financial and environmental costs are too significant to ignore water conservation.

  1. Material Optimisation

Natural resource consumption is increasing in line with the rapid growth of the world’s population. Integrated and intelligent material use is crucial when supplies are limited. Sustainable building design should look to reduce the use of resources and minimise toxicity to reduce environmental impact.

Achieving sustainability in the built environment via material optimisation is especially helpful when financial resources and the environment need to be conserved. Besides, the consciousness toward sustainable building design will positively spill over into lower waste disposal costs and reduced liabilities.

  1. Indoor Environmental Quality Enhancement (IEQ)

A building’s indoor environmental quality significantly impacts occupant health, comfort, and productivity. Sustainable buildings consequently maximise natural light, facilitate natural ventilation, control moisture levels, optimise comfortable acoustic levels and avoid materials with high volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.

While cost is often an issue building developers consider that causes them to underplay IEQ, it’s noteworthy that the long-term implication of ignoring this principle will cause them more losses. This is mainly because potential occupants will not get the maximum satisfaction they desire and may not be willing to move into such buildings.

  1. Operational Optimisation

Architects and designers can specify materials and systems that reduce maintenance requirements, require less energy and water, and produce less waste. Planning for operation and maintenance during the design phase will improve the working environment, increase productivity and prevent breakdowns.

Building designers, contractors, and owners face unique challenges in meeting the demand for new or renovated sustainable buildings balanced with secure, healthy, productive environments. Sustainable building design and construction require collaboration and clear communication.

There is a need to establish strict guidelines for the design and construction phases is necessary to achieve clear and unified goals. Construction software, such as PlanRadar, can provide the common landscape for effective communication between all project members as they meet daily construction challenges.

How to Design a Sustainable Building: The Sustainable Building Design Life Cycle

Build Up, the European Portal for Energy Efficiency in Buildings, incorporates sustainable building design into a life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology. This methodology incorporates the impact of energy usage in a building’s lifecycle, including the materials and construction methods.

There are three areas of protection: human health, the natural environment, and natural resources. The methodology includes many objectives, such as:

  • Saving energy and water
  • Protecting the climate
  • Protecting natural ecosystems, such as forests, rivers, and lakes
  • Improving air quality
  • Reducing waste.

The LCA methodology created by Build Up has led to the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) putting together a guide on how to use the LCA. It focuses on the benefits of taking a life cycle assessment approach to sustainable building design. Moreover, it guides planning and communication in a construction project.

Sustainable Buildings in the UK

The main sustainable building design initiative in the UK is the BREEAM assessment method, delivered by the BRE group. BREEAM evaluates assets throughout a building’s lifecycle and provides third-party certification of its environmental, social, and economic sustainability performance. BREEAM certification is available for all buildings and incorporates key sustainability issues in nine categories:

  • Energy
  • Waste
  • Water
  • Materials
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Transport
  • Pollution
  • Land use and ecology
  • Management

BRE Group also operates the Home Quality Mark (HQM) certification. Once a compulsory certification, homebuilders now apply for this certification voluntarily—the HQM awards homes with a star rating based on design, construction, and sustainability standards. Additional indicators include cost, contribution to well-being, and carbon footprint.

Challenges For Sustainable Building

One of the first things anyone looking for how to design a sustainable building must do is to familiarise themselves with some of the common challenges building developers and investors face. Here are the top three challenges facing sustainability in building designs:

  • A sustainable building may take up a high initial investment despite the returns being profitable over time. While most people crave a healthy life in a sustainable environment, not many can afford the initial construction cost. Besides, the more sustainable design you want to implement, the higher the cost may be.
  • Another challenge for sustainable buildings is they take a longer time to build since much work goes into designing and planning before building begins.
  • Limited availability of experienced workers to handle material optimisation, water conservation, energy efficiency, and operational optimisation. The available workers might be inexperienced while the experienced ones are either too expensive or too booked.

How Can PlanRadar Help With Sustainable Design?

While current sustainability strategies and initiatives focus on the global view and high-level objectives, they omit the project detail, the practical considerations around decision-making, and the impact of the complex operations within the construction process.

Previously, quality assurance was often difficult to manage, with inconsistencies and information gaps preventing clear communication between internal and external project teams. Inefficient data recording and defect management, using digital cameras, voice recorders, and written plan notes, also often resulted in a confusing flood of information.

This information was communicated and documented via different channels resulting in various versions of documents and, in the worst case, the loss of information. With PlanRadar, these scenarios are finally a thing of the past.

PlanRadar simplifies the interconnected roles and duties, helping teams achieve faster workflows. Digital documentation for snags and defects is easy to create, access and track through this smartphone-based app.

PlanRadar saves teams on average up to seven working hours per week, the equivalent of £8,925 per construction manager per year, based on average salaries in the UK in 2020. Considering the cost of the PlanRadar license, this results in a return on investment of over 397%.


Sustainability building design principles offer concepts that engineers and architects can use to develop better buildings for our environment.

However, when it comes to building, solutions like PlanRadar can support sustainable construction. It helps to optimise work, minimise waste, save energy, and give better results. Try PlanRadar now for 30 days free of charge.

This post was originally published on 9th December 2020 and was last updated on 5th September 2022.

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