Architecture Issues

Green building doesn't directly say anything about architecture, yet it can't be completely ignored because architectural choices often affect the environmental impact of a building.  These choices also affect the environment inside the building, that is how it functions and how it feels.

Most of this section is about function and feel in the belief that a well designed building will more likely stand the test of time which reduces environmental impact. When a design choice has an environmental impact, that is brought up, and suggestions are made as how to minimize the impact, but short-term impact is not the primary concern here. 

The approach taken in this section (compared to the sources it's derived from), is that its main focus is to get you to ask the right questions, give you a list of suggestions ("design patterns") that lead to what is generally considered good design, and let you make your own choices.2  For example, size is one of the biggest design considerations, but since the principle is "just the right size", no specific size is ever recommended.  In fact a person who has no environmental concerns should be able to design a house using these patterns without having to ignore much.

There are literally thousands of decisions that go into a house, many of which interact with each other.  In every layout there are tradeoffs to be made, so idea here is to do them on purpose: if a closet door ends up hidden behind another door, make sure that the alternatives seem worse.

Style & Limitations

Historically, architecture has always been about style, and that's not likely to change. The flip side is that green buildings have historically been about engineering, resulting in buildings many consider them unattractive.  Unfortunately, style sometimes is a barrier to green building, although it doesn't have to be--the key is to use styles that fit your climate, or somehow modify another style to fit the climate.  If your style doesn't help control sun, light, wind and rain, the building will spend its lifetime fighting it instead.  For a more in-depth discussion on aesthetics, Read more here...

While style is a self-imposed barrier to green building, there are external ones also: building codes, zoning, and CC&Rs.  For the most part these are not large barriers, but can be annoying. For more detail,  Read more here...

Guidelines: Patterns for Building1

Studies of occupant behavior show that what people think they want and what they use are often not the same thing.  Another way to look at it is that there is a mismatch between what people want to see and what they actually use.  The following design patterns are based on how people actually use buildings, based on underlying psychology.


Not having a good building site constrains everything else you do, so in that sense its the most important decision you will make.  Everything else you do in building relates to the site and the sites micro climate.  This is a concept that anyone who thinks about solar power is very familiar with, but that few others even think about.  Zoning laws enforce how land is used, but unfortunately they're mostly about imposing uniformity rather than allowing each lot to have the things it needs, like light & privacy.  In fact, the way urban areas are laid out makes it nearly impossible for every lot to get the sunlight it needs.

  1. Choosing a lot
  2. Lot size (discussion on density)
  3. Locating the building


Once the building site is located, start by determining what you want to build.  This is useful for remodeling as well, although there you have the additional burden of converting the spaces you already have into the ones you need in addition to potentially adding more space.

The design guides here are intended to create a list of rooms you need rather than specific square footage.  First start by knowing what you want, then by experiment determine what you need to make an initial list of rooms; then use the remaining patterns, which cover all the common space requirements, to cross check that list.  Finally use the last guide to make an initial guess at each room size--the final size will be determined in the next section as we put the whole thing together into a coherent building.

Size can also be determined by picking rooms from a standard list, which comprises the bulk of this section.  This list can then be correlated with the result of the "needs" exercise to fine tune the final list.  When complete, the determined "size" is in rooms, halls etc, not actual area:  the actual area isn't determined until we arrange the rooms into a coherent building in the next section.

  1. Determine your wants and needs
  2. Room list
  3. Size of rooms/Ceiling Height


Overall Layout

With you needs and desires outlined, the land chosen, and the site on the lot also chosen, you can now start shaping the building.  This shaping is a tug between the needs of individual rooms, and the need to assemble them, like pieces of a puzzle, to all fit into a single envelope.

  1. Building Shape/Orientation
  2. Bubble diagram
  3. Making it all Fit
  4. Roof
  5. Adaptive reuse
  6. Intimacy Gradient/Main Entrance

Room Considerations

There are many things to consider in designed each room, and since some will affect the size, you will need to go back and make it all fit again.

  1. Common Area
  2. Kitchen Work Area
  3. Bedrooms
  4. Bathrooms
  5. Children's place/Office/Place of your own
  6. Storage/Dressing Room
  7. Utilities
  8. Stairs
  9. Flow/Halls/Interior doors
  10. Places on the edge
  11. Windows


Once you have an idea where all the rooms go and what size they are, you need to think about the materials you will built it with and any limitations created by those materials. Many traditional building methods actually started here, with the main limitation being place by what size beams could span a ceiling or floor.  With modern materials this is less of a concern, but by paying attention to the limitations, both materials and money can be saved.

As with every aspect of design, ideally the designer has every tradeoff and limitation in mind while designing, but even then, there is some inevitable round of changes.  Architecture is like a tile game, shoving things around till the desired outcome is achieved.

  1. Materials, Sizes, Toxics,
  2. Thick walls
  3. Wabi-Sabi


With the building built, landscaping also needs to be thought about in all the same ways. In fact a preliminary sketch of what the landscaping is to be should be thought hand-in-hand with the overall layout.

  1. Positive Outdoor Space
  2. Outdoor Rooms
  3. Garden Spaces


1: the majority of the info here is adapted from "A Pattern Language", Alexander, et al, where it appears in much more detail. While the book is well worth it, it is also hundreds of pages, not easy to read, not really in the order you need to do design in, and contains many ideas that will likely be fairly foreign, and possible seem completely unreasonable to many people.  So while most of the ideas are straight from the book, many have been modified in an attempt to make them both easier to understand and more palatable to a wider audience, and the organization is completely different.  I've also tried integrate the "resource saving" aspects of green building into the patterns, which resulted in either toning down or eliminating some of the original patterns, while adding others. 

 While this section is no substitute for the book, the presentation and content is significantly different enough that the hope is to reach a wider audience, and that those people will build nicer buildings (where nicer means that the next owner is more likely to leave it as is).  Other references are below, under resources.

2: The text is also very terse and quite matter of fact, and specifically lacking in "architect speak", possibly to a fault where some may find the text mundane and uninspiring.  I'm assuming most readers would rather the point be kept as short and simple as possible.


A Pattern Language,  Alexander et al, Oxford University Press 1977

Patterns of Home: The Ten Essentials of Enduring Design, Jacobson, Silverstein & Winslow,
Taunton, 2002

The Not so Big House, Sarah Susanka, Taunton, 1998

Creating the Not so Big House, Sarah Susanka, 2000

Not so Big Solutions for Your Home, Sarah Susanka, 2002

How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand

Home, Witold Rybczynski, Viking, 1986

The Passive Solar Energy Book, Edward Mazria, Rodale, 1979

EEBA Builders Guild to Cold climates (etc), Joe Lstiburek, 1998

"Future proofing your building", Environmental Building News, V12 #2 Feb 2003

"Small is Beautiful", Environmental Building News, V8#1, Jan 1999

The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton, 2006