In an article about eco-friendly architecture, a city decorated with plants and moss sits against a pink sunset sky.

Eco-Friendly Architecture Can Help Us Live Sustainably

The planet is in the midst of an ecological crisis. Employing more environmentally safe infrastructure alternatives can help humanity reduce its carbon footprint.
July 21, 2021
8 mins read

How sustainable is the way we live?

The population boom of the 20th century was complemented by a massive increase in global energy use, with the consumption of fossil fuels like petroleum and natural gas increasing exponentially in the century’s second half. From cars and trains to air conditioners and home lighting, these energy sources still fuel the vast majority of the machines we use today. Despite their versatility, however, non-renewable energy sources are having a catastrophic effect on Earth’s climate — and we’re using up our supply at a frightening rate.

Global Warming vs. Humanity

Life as we know it is about to change. Industrialization was the harbinger of an era of productivity unlike any humankind has seen before, and yet for all its bounty, our reliance on fossil fuels has an ugly head to rear. 

What does this mean? Experts estimate that, given our current progression, our planet will cross the global warming threshold in six to 20 years from now. This means that the average temperature all across the globe will have risen two to four degrees Celsius, spelling irreparable disaster for a sizable portion of Earth’s ecology. Not only will much of our planet’s flora and fauna likely be unable to survive in their natural habitats, but disasters like floods and fires will increase in size and magnitude. 

While the effects of global warming can seem like a distant, abstract fear to the average consumer, its consequences are already causing fallout for millions of people. Pollution and climate change impact the health and safety of many, though people may not even be aware of their effects. 

Air pollution is regarded as a primary cause of respiratory damage and premature death, and the World Health Organization estimates that 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air. In China alone, 20 million people are made ill from pollution-related respiratory diseases every year, 300,000 of which die from complications. 4.2 million people are killed by pollution each year. Annually, that’s the same number of mortalities as the coronavirus pandemic.

Why Doing Your Part Can Feel Overwhelming

These facts are a heavy burden to bear. The hopeless futility that accompanies a dying ecosystem is enough to open even the most confident optimist to cynicism. Oil-soaked seagulls and colorless coral reefs are familiar topics of many a news story, and in the face of a seemingly insurmountable challenge, it’s not difficult to become jaded and desensitized to the progression of the state of our planet. After all, just 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of emissions — so what’s the average urbanite supposed to do?

The everyday person is no doubt familiar with some commonly heralded planet-saving propositions. Recycle, conserve water, use public transport and on the list goes, but in the face of massive climatic change, these small adjustments don’t always feel like enough. “I’m doing my part,” says the environmentally-conscious concerned citizen. “But it doesn’t seem to be doing all that much.”

While the single person’s good intentions might not have a monumental impact on our carbon footprint, a more environmentally aware society ready to make the necessary changes at large most definitely would.

Since urban, industrial areas are the main source of most carbon emissions, their revision should be prioritized. Infrastructure is costly to the environment. Lighting, heating, air conditioning and electricity use up a monumental amount of energy, causing a sizeable increase in our carbon footprint. However, these amenities are necessary for many Americans. Decreasing our energy consumption by too much at once might be sustainable for a few extraneous eco-enthusiasts, but it would negatively impact the majority of people for whom assets like electricity are fundamental in everyday life. 

Eco-Friendly Architecture

Eco-friendly architecture, also called sustainable architecture, seeks to address the issue of excessive energy consumption while still allowing people to be their best, productive selves. How, for example, could we reduce the amount of energy needed for heating while still keeping people warm? A good place to start is with the foundation of a building itself.

Most houses are under-insulated and not properly airtight, meaning that purposely heated and chilled air finds its way out through cracks and gaps in walls. This means that more energy has to be expended in order to cool buildings in the summer and heat them in the winter. Not only does this have adverse effects on the environment, but it can damage your wallet, too. Heating just isn’t cheap. Properly insulating one’s house and closing up any drafts promotes architecture that is not only eco-friendly but cost-efficient as well.

Ideally, the energy sources by which eco-friendly architecture would maintain itself should be not just efficient, but also renewable. Sustainable energy currently makes up only a small portion of our total energy sources, but a solar, wind and hydroelectric-based energy generation has been growing in popularity in recent years, with renewable energy surpassing coal use in the United States in both 2019 and 2020. There are, however, options available for people who want to make individual efforts to go green.

As solar panels become less costly to install in homes, more people are considering them as a friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Nearly 3 million systems using solar energy are used across the United States, and the industry hopes to generate 20% of all electricity by 2030. This means that one in seven homes will be powered by solar energy.

Since solar panels are often installed on the roofs of buildings, this means that they are more space-efficient. If your electricity bill is hefty, the use of solar panels can make a great complement to — or, with the appropriate weather — replacement for your current electricity source. They may be a bit of a pricey investment to make, but solar energy could save you money in the long run.

For those who are themselves interested in architecture and building design, sustainable building materials are worth a mention. Bamboo, straw and cork are just a handful of the options considered as alternatives to concrete. Adobe has been a material used traditionally for house-building by people living in warm climates. Puebloans, native to the Southwestern U.S., used it as a primary building material for a thousand years, and adobe is still a popular building material today due to its insulation properties.

However, not everybody has the resources or ability to make their place of residence greener. Many Americans are renters, meaning the installation of external appliances is off the table. Since eco-friendly architecture can be costly to install, that makes it a luxury few can afford. Nonetheless, there are still a few things one can do to make the way they live more sustainable. Limiting heating and cooling use when possible saves you money and energy — and being conscious about the energy one consumes is a good place to start. 

Being environmentally aware can be frustrating. It feels like our planet is headed down a fixed path, and the consequences of human actions can seem inevitable. No individual person can save the planet, true, but many people just might be able to. Making adjustments to architecture is an important first step, but it’s only a fraction of a larger picture. If the damage is to be undone, humanity as a whole must make a concerted effort to save itself from extinction.

Beth Nipper, University of Iowa

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Beth Nipper

University of Iowa

Beth is an art major who hopes to one day be an FX animator. She loves art, history and art history. Beth is thankful for libraries.

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