Sustainable building design: the key principles

When we think of sustainable building design we usually think about achieving three main goals, the 3Ps of sustainable buildings: planet, people and pocketbook.

Firstly, the planet goal – to reduce the consumption of natural resources such as water, energy and raw materials and to prevent environmental damage that can be caused by the construction process.


A wooden residential building

Secondly, to provide a comfortable, easy, safe and productive environment for the people living and working in the building.

Finally, to optimize the construction and operation of the building to reduce costs.

To achieve these goals, each must be considered with equal importance in the design and construction stages.

Six major sustainable building design principles

The sustainable framework is the product of evolving technology and environmental awareness over the past few years. Buildings have long been thought of as ecosystems and, as with all living ecosystems, buildings use resources and generate waste. But, through recent advances in sustainable building design, energy efficiency technology, and construction and facilities management software, resource usage and waste can be reduced.

The National Institute of Building Services developed the Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG) to advance the communication between industry and academia and progress the construction of high-performing facilities.

The WBDG highlights six sustainable building design principles:

  1. Site optimization

Sustainable building design starts from the site selection, including the location, orientation, landscape and parking areas. These parameters affect the local ecosystem and the energy consumption within the building. Site optimization and building design must be complementary.

  1. Energy efficiency

The term sustainability is often closely associated with climate change and energy dependence. Designing and operating net-zero energy buildings is an important step towards sustainable building design. A major aim is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings can play a big role in reducing energy consumption but new buildings must be created with long-term energy efficiency in mind.

  1. Water conservation

The United States is facing increasing freshwater scarcity and sustainable building design should seek to minimize the construction of ground layers that affect the freshwater stock. New buildings should encourage water efficiency and reduce and recycle waste streams wherever possible.

  1. Material optimization

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 minimize toxicity to reduce environmental impact.

  1. Indoor environmental quality enhancement

A building’s indoor environmental quality has a significant impact on occupant health, comfort, and productivity. Sustainable buildings are designed to maximize natural light, facilitate natural ventilation, control moisture levels, optimize comfortable acoustic levels and avoid materials with high volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.

  1. Operational optimization

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 each face unique challenges to meet the demand for new or renovated sustainable buildings that are balanced with secure, healthy and productive environments.

Sustainable building design and construction requires collaboration and clear communication. Strict guidelines need to be established for the design and construction phases 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.

The sustainable building design life cycle

In the Survey of Sustainable Building Design Practices in North America, Europe, and Asia, Kimberly R. Bunz et al compared and contrasted enduring design programs based on the life cycle of a building in North America, Europe, and Asia. The study showed that a sustainable building project passes through several phases to form a complete life cycle.

Programming Phase

The programming phase of a building project, as it relates to sustainable building design, involves the following steps in sequence:

  • Initial predesign meetings with the owner
  • Analysis of similar projects with sustainable features
  • Preliminary ideas and sustainable design features implemented in the project
  • Formation of a design team involved in the sustainable design process
  • Definition of initial goals for the performance of a sustainable building throughout the planning process.

The decisions taken in this phase of the lifecycle affect the entire project so introducing sustainable features at this stage is very important.

Design Phase

The design phase in sustainable building design relates to energy efficiency, water efficiency, indoor environment, field location, material usage, and atmospheric considerations. Many sustainable building guides and measurement programs define a sustainable building as a construction that provides additional energy savings above the minimum local requirements. This stage of the lifecycle usually receives a great deal of attention when evaluating sustainability.

Building Construction

The building construction phase covers most of the sustainable practices employed during the actual construction of a building. Sustainable practices include evaluating and controlling:

  • Waste management during the process
  • Transportation of building materials
  • The impact of the construction process on the surrounding environment.

The construction phase is complex and hard to control but with PlanRadar, documentation, audits and inspections can be recorded at the push of a button. PlanRadar helps to minimize time-consuming tasks while ensuring quality and safety standards.

Building Operation

The building operation stage of a sustainable building involves the operation, maintenance, and control of the building systems in line with its intended sustainable design. PlanRadar can be used throughout construction stages but also into building operation stage too. This facility management software is the perfect companion for operational managers looking to better use resources and ensure sustainable operation.

Building Demolition

The final phase of the building lifecycle is demolition. Sustainable building design should also focus on recycling and waste management procedures to handle the material waste generated during demolition activities. Building assemblies and systems to facilitate removal during demolition also need to be included in the design stages.

To decide if a building is following sustainable principles, you to complete a sustainability evaluation. Approaches now differ from one country to another, but one of the most popular methods is the LEED Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’ evaluation method.

Sustainable design in the United States

In the United States, there are two major sustainable building design initiatives. The first is the LEED, green building rating system and the second is the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers ASHRAE Green Guide.

LEED green building ratings

The LEED rating system was established by the United States Green Building Council as a voluntary rating system to evaluate the environmental performance of a building over its entire lifecycle. LEED certification provides independent verification of a building’s green features and LEED projects earn points across nine key areas:

  • Integrative process
  • Location and transportation
  • Sustainable sites
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Innovation
  • Regional priority.

Based on the number of points achieved, buildings are awarded one of four ratings: certified, silver, gold or platinum.

Programs exist for:

  • Building design and construction
  • Operations and maintenance
  • Interior design and construction
  • Homes
  • Neighborhood development.

PlanRadar can assist businesses to achieve LEED certification by helping to organize detailed tasks at every stage in the project. Workflows can be created to document every single defect and follow its pathway to completion, helping to maximize the impact of sustainable building design and construction and avoid delays and errors.

ASHRAE Green Guide.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) developed the ASHRAE Green Guide. This guide was developed as a reference for use throughout the design process. The ASHRAE guide includes chapters covering the early design process, practical engineering suggestions for green design implementation and post-design tips. The guidelines and recommendations provided by the guide are purely voluntary and are intended to assist in sustainable building design.

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 that exist within the construction process.

In the past, 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, 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 now simplifies the interconnected roles and duties that exist on modern construction sites, helping teams to achieve faster workflows. Digital documentation for defect management is now easily created, accessed, tracked and reported through this smartphone-based app. PlanRadar saves teams on average up to seven working hours per week.

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