Amid efforts to reduce the carbon footprint associated with the construction industry, there is increasing recognition of the benefits of sustainable and regenerative architecture as a means of lowering emissions. According to the “2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction” report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the sector is one of the world’s biggest polluters and accounts for close to 40% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. In light of this, a greater emphasis has been placed on sustainable architecture in recent years.

Although definitions vary somewhat, sustainable architecture is generally considered to be architecture that seeks to minimise the negative environmental impact of buildings. This is often achieved through the use of environmentally sustainable, low-emissions materials, and site-specific designs that utilise the natural environment to improve efficiency and lower costs related to areas such as lighting and heating.

While much progress has been made on sustainable architecture in recent years, there is still potential for improvement. According to modelling from UNEP’s International Resource Panel, emissions from the material cycle of residential buildings in the G7 and China could be reduced by at least 80% by 2050. This could be achieved through a series of material efficiency strategies, such as building with fewer or alternative components, or recycling more construction materials.

Modernising Materials

Some emerging markets are taking the lead when it comes to sustainable architecture, often by incorporating traditional designs and materials into construction. For example, in March 2022 Diébédo Francis Kéré, an architect from Burkina Faso, became the first African to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize for his work designing sustainable and collaborative buildings in Africa.

Kéré modernises traditional construction techniques and integrates buildings into the natural environment in order to improve their effectiveness and energy efficiency in terms of light, heating and cooling. His first major project – a single-storey schoolhouse in his home village of Gando in Burkina Faso – features a filtered light system that allows natural light into the building while keeping the interior cool. He has since designed schools, health centres, assembly halls and public buildings in other African countries such as Benin, Mali, Togo, Kenya, Mozambique and Sudan.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, local design and building company Hand Over has been a forerunner in sustainable construction in recent years. Using a technique known as rammed earth construction, which deploys ecofriendly materials such as gravel, mud and sand, plus a small amount of cement, the company has constructed a number of sustainable housing and building projects across the country. The technique has been shown to reduce heat and dampness in a building, leading to an estimated 30% reduction in carbon emissions on the back of lower energy usage.

Regenerative Architecture

There has also been discussion around the benefits of regenerative architecture. The principle behind this practice is to design buildings that adapt to their surroundings, reverse damage and have a net-positive impact on the environment.

One example is the Ilima Primary School in Tshuapa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Located between farmland and jungle, the school was designed to act as a bridge between the two landscapes. Using mud bricks and locally sourced beams, the school also features woven and dyed vines that grow around the building, to keep the interior cool. The school’s construction emitted 307 fewer tonnes of carbon than the global average for schools of the same size.

The Sahara Forest Project Pilot Facility in Qatar is another example of regenerative architecture to enable restorative growth in desert areas. Since its opening in December 2012, the saltwater-cooled greenhouse has attracted various birds, grasshoppers, butterflies and rodent species in an area that was once barren desert.