Green Building and Sustainable Design – The Way of the Future


Green Building and Sustainable Design – The Way of the Future

A central tenet of the American ethos is the belief that we will always have “plenty of everything”: plenty of land, an everlasting supply of water, plenty of electricity, gasoline, trees and other natural resources. But what about the 60 million buffalo, and the countless swarms of passenger pigeons that once darkened the sky?

Since World War II American building and development practices have produced enormous sprawl, with cities and towns spreading to fill entire counties. The urban cores of many cities have decayed as development has focused on covering prime farmland with suburban housing, each surrounded by large swathes of grass to be mown weekly.

Universal car ownership has made this possible and has been the single most important design factor shaping our built landscape. Is there parking? Are there traffic bottlenecks? A breakthrough idea in commercial design was the drive-through, opening many business operations to easy access by people within their cars.

Public transportation systems have languished as they are unable to cope with the combination of long travel distances between suburb and workplace, light population density, and American pride in car ownership. City, state and federal governments have cooperated by subsidizing cheap gasoline, building roads and extending utility infrastructure indefinitely.

Our design philosophy for decades overlooked any effort to economize: only with the oil shock of the 1970s did energy efficiency begin to be an important design criterion in homes, appliances and buildings. There are still major political hurdles to getting reasonable fuel economy standards in place for automobiles.

Slowly we are waking up to the fact that our planetary resources are finite, and that we must plan and build and design in a way that is sustainable, that wisely uses our precious resources. It is now clear that our technologies must be sustainable: they must use less energy, they must not deplete natural resources, they must not pollute the environment and their products and by-products must be recyclable or reusable.

Sustainable design uses low-impact materials: non-toxic, sustainably-produced or recycled materials which require little energy to process. It emphasizes energy efficiency, minimizing energy usage throughout the manufacturing process. Quality and durability are aspects of design that emphasize reducing the need for replacing products.

Design criteria of reuse and recycling understand that nothing is permanent, and that there is an “afterlife” to everything that is made, whether a milk carton or a building. Using recyclable materials and planning for reuse of components eliminates loss of resources into landfills. Biomimicry challenges the designer to model industrial systems on biological lines, enabling the constant reuse of materials in continuous closed cycles.

Service substitution means, for example, that not everyone has to own a vehicle, but has public transportation or readily available services that provide for car sharing or other more efficient means of transportation. Renewable materials are used whenever possible, and recycled or reused afterwards.

There is a revolution underway in sustainable design and green building. With ingenuity and determination we can significantly alter the ecological footprint of the United States, which at this point rests heavily upon the Earth.

David Yarian, Ph.D. is a practicing Psychologist in Nashville, TN and a lifelong environmentalist. Visit for recommended books and resources on the environment, renewable energy, global warming, green living, conservation, the best nature writing and more. Dr. Yarian also authored The Guide to Self-Help Books an online resource with recommended titles and book reviews.

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