10 Architectural Styles that are Environmentally Friendly

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This house in Berkeley Hills, California, built in 1957 and designed by architect Robert S. Chang, is the epitome of mid-century modern design. Check out more pictures of green living.
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Before green living became mainstream, environmentally friendly homes were bulky and utilitarian. They were visibly different from regular houses and were associated with communes or only for hippies. However, green homes have come a long way from their prototypes and stereotypes. Today’s contemporary eco-responsible homes have an elegant usability that combines the best of the old with the technologies of the new.

While any home can be made green with updates and due diligence on the part of the owners, some residential styles lend themselves to being eco-friendly by design. If you’re building or choosing a home, green options are within your reach. You can have an environmentally friendly, eco-responsible, or even zero-footprint house, depending on how much you want to dedicate in money and lifestyle changes to steward the planet and its resources.

If you’re not ready for an all-solar shed with a living roof and nothing but a bike parked outside, take a look at some other eco-friendly options that are as attractive as they are comfortable.

10: Earth Sheltered

Living in earth-sheltered housing doesn’t necessarily mean sharing your space with worms. Earth-sheltered housing takes advantage of the energy efficiency of the surrounding soil and plant life. Architect Malcolm Wells advocated and promoted earth-sheltered architecture until his death in December 2009. He designed multiple underground homes, stadiums, airports, and even bridges, and though many never came to fruition, they forever influenced the green movement.

The bermed home is one earth-sheltered design that has taken hold today. It is built at ground level or dug into the hillside and has earth compacted around two sides, the top/roof, and along the rear. Homes like these have sub-ground living areas with central atriums or large courtyards that provide natural light, cool air, and insulation.

Elevational bermed homes, typically situated partly in the ground with a south-facing wall open to sunshine and heat, may be the most affordable options in earth-sheltered housing, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. They’re easier to construct and often built into hillsides, taking advantage of natural surroundings. Underground earth-rammed homes may be more costly, but they’re not covered with as much earth as you might think – typically less than 3 feet (0.9 meters). Using more than 3 feet doesn’t increase energy efficiency.

9: Recycled Modern

For decades, homes made from recycled materials have gained attention for their non-traditional makeup. Bottles, cans, old tires, and other discarded and found items became building materials for recycled architecture. Many of these structures are green because they reuse available items, but often they go further by incorporating other eco-friendly ideas. Though some have unique designs, others have an air of elegance because of their finished details and traditional craftsmanship.

It is possible to build a recycled modern home without being extreme or newsworthy. The Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA) directories in the United States and Canada help builders find local sources for deconstructing and reconstructing, using recycled materials. This includes using roof rafters from an old factory or insulating walls with old denim. The Phoenix Commotion local building initiative has also gone green and developed affordable housing using found and donated materials. Homeowners are even helping build the houses to make them even more cost-effective. Engineer Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller popularized the half-circle geodesic dome, made up of interconnected triangles that use a minimum of materials to create an open space for living. The yurt, a traditional Mongolian tent, is another organic form of living. Jersey Devil Design Build firm builds in an inorganic-organic style with unique environmental features. Tract housing units across states like Arizona, Washington, and New York are finding investors and buyers who are building eco-friendly from the ground up. Builders are also adding options for energy efficiency and non-toxic features in their pre-built cottage, solar, and modular home packages.

While it is recommended to research the green claims of companies selling prefabricated and tract homes, there is a common quality among many of these companies: they offer greater energy efficiency and a smaller environmental impact, but also tend to provide smaller homes.

6: Pueblo and Adobe Revival

Adobe- and pueblo-style homes are typically associated with hot, dry regions like the Southwestern United States, Mexico, Africa, and the Mediterranean. These homes, made of clay, water, and sand mixtures, can last hundreds of years and provide excellent insulation against hot and cold weather. However, they are most effective in warm, arid climates with regular sunshine to keep the adobe dry and store heat energy. Although adobe has a low R-value, meaning it doesn’t insulate as well outside of its ideal environment, its thickness makes it eco-friendly by keeping heat out. In colder climates, insulation can be added, but it may be more practical to use other materials better suited for the environment.

Adobe- and pueblo-revival homes are most popular in warm regions and combine traditional clay materials with newer insulating and strengthening techniques like concrete and paper composites, as well as exterior plasters. This style began in the 1920s and ’30s, but has continued into the 21st century with modern tweaks and varied rooflines.

Pueblo-style homes are named after the Pueblo Indians and are made of adobe blocks created with clay, water, sand, and sometimes straw. Some adobe-style buildings are not pueblo style, but use adobe techniques.

5: Rammed Earth

While some may imagine rammed-earth construction as crude and lacking in polish, it has been used for centuries in European homesteads, Asian landmarks, and modern Western designs. Rammed-earth construction involves packing soil with a mix of clay and sand tightly into brick form or layering it in wooden molds to create walls that are at least 12 inches thick and often have exterior treatments to increase insulation and durability. Modern techniques like moisture barriers and strengthened concrete mixes can improve resilience in varying climates.

Although building a rammed-earth home can lower energy consumption and costs, it is more expensive than traditional homebuilding due to the time, labor, and transport involved. However, the long-term energy savings and Earth-friendly benefits may balance out the initial investment.

4: Multi-family Sustainable Units

Living in close proximity with shared walls and communal spaces may not suit everyone, but those who prioritize social interaction and sustainability are increasingly drawn towards planned and communal properties. A January 2011 study sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Smart Growth Program found that building and community planning that focuses on multifamily or attached housing with shared walls can significantly decrease energy consumption. Shared walls can hold heat and increase efficiency, while building homes closer together and closer to public transit options, with more energy-efficient construction, could reduce consumption up to 64 percent compared to single-family, remote suburban homes that rely heavily on car travel [source: EPA].

While many people dream of owning a single-family home without shared walls, options like condos, row houses, and cohousing offer private ownership with shared responsibility for resources and a sense of community. Cohousing, where residents share resources, social time, and meals while living in separate dwellings, often faces misconceptions in the United States. However, it encourages a modern and traditional community, with a focus on stewardship and responsibility to each other [source: Cohousing Association of the United States]. For many, sharing walls with neighbors is a preference towards a smaller environmental footprint and a return to knowing their neighbors.

Cohousing and Communes

Cohousing often faces misconceptions in the United States, with communes and collaboratives conjuring up ideas of radical environmentalism and family-style cults. However, cohousing is a modern and traditional community that encourages resource sharing, socializing, and meals while living in separate dwellings [source: Cohousing Association of the United States].

3: 21st-century/Mid-century Modern

Many people in the West are accustomed to living in homes with small rooms connected by narrow hallways, with little connection to the outdoors. However, mid-century modern homes were different, with open plans, natural flooring, and interior courtyards or sheer walls and glass sliders to the outside. Homes from the 1960s by firms like Eichler Homes continue to be popular, and many 21st-century, eco-friendly designs draw inspiration from the clean lines and efficiency of this style. By achieving a hermetically sealed feel with well-joined building envelopes and the circulation of free-flowing spaces and ventilation, some with movable walls and tracks for true indoor-outdoor living, this mid-century modern redux is bringing modern eco-technology to a beloved design style.

Another adaptation of mid-century modern is to multi-unit residential design. Housing developments from the Netherlands to South America show the influence of mid-century modern open planning but in a stacked, urban housing form that departs from the conventional apartment style of connected, closed-off small spaces. Greening this multi-unit building is breathing new life into this common housing design.

2: Small or Tiny

Downsizing is not always a choice but a necessity in the workforce, however, for those who are eco-conscious, it is a deliberate move. The criticism of “McMansions” has given way to more coverage of small, tiny, and even micro-homes. Small spaces are a necessity for city-dwellers in high-density areas like Hong Kong and New York City. However, many people explore building and buying small homes to live more simply and reduce resource usage. Furthermore, some homeowners want to pay less for utilities and shorten their commutes, which makes downsizing good for the wallet. Economic downturns have also led to downsizing, with newly built single-family homes decreasing in size from 2008 to 2009. Some families deliberately choose to live in smaller spaces, such as the Salwen family, who sold their house, bought one half its size, and used the remaining money to help those in need in Ghana. This decision helped them to lessen their negative impact on the planet and others.

Jay Shafer lives in an 89-square-foot house and sells plans and kit homes from as small as 65 square feet in size in traditional and modern styles. Check out Shafer’s Tumbleweed Tiny House Company to get a feel for what downsizing to the extreme is really like.

1: Hybrid, Custom, Evolving

People have started using old shipping containers as homes in London, Mexico City, and the United States. The Keetwonen student dorm complex in Amsterdam is an excellent example of using containers to house more than 1,000 university students. Just like mid-century modern designs by Joseph Eichler, which didn’t take off during their time but have since become models for reproducing and gleaning their best, some of today’s innovative designs may lead to practical innovations in mainstream green and environmentally friendly housing. Architects and designers have grown up with the greening of architecture, so it’s likely to be less of an afterthought and more a part of good, holistic housing of the near future, with or without the miniature size, high cost, and funky functionalism.

Additional Information

Related Articles

  • 10 Innovative and Eco-Friendly Construction Materials
  • 10 Historical Sustainable Homes
  • 10 Tips for Building a Modern and Sustainable Home
  • Exploring Rammed Earth Housing
  • The Concept of Sustainable Communities
  • The Most Stylish Mid-Century Modern Homes

More Useful Links

  • Design and Architecture on Treehugger.com
  • Extraordinary Homes and Offices Made from Shipping Containers
  • The Green Home Guide by the U.S. Green Building Council


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1. What are environmentally friendly architectural styles?

Environmentally friendly architectural styles are designs that prioritize the use of renewable resources and sustainable materials in construction. These styles aim to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings and promote eco-friendly practices.

2. What are the benefits of environmentally friendly architecture?

Environmentally friendly architecture has numerous benefits. It promotes the use of sustainable materials, which are better for the environment and minimize waste. These designs also reduce energy consumption and can save money on utility costs. Additionally, eco-friendly buildings improve indoor air quality and promote healthier living spaces.

3. What are some examples of environmentally friendly architectural styles?

Some examples of environmentally friendly architectural styles include passive solar design, green roofs, and earth-sheltered homes. Additionally, some architects incorporate natural ventilation, rainwater harvesting systems, and solar panels into their designs to promote sustainability.

4. How do architects incorporate sustainability into their designs?

Architects can incorporate sustainability into their designs by using renewable resources and sustainable materials, such as reclaimed wood or bamboo. They can also optimize building orientation for passive solar design and incorporate energy-efficient systems, such as geothermal heating and cooling.

5. What role do building codes and regulations play in promoting environmentally friendly architecture?

Building codes and regulations can play a significant role in promoting environmentally friendly architecture. For example, some cities require green roofs or solar panels on new buildings. These regulations can incentivize architects to incorporate sustainable features into their designs and promote eco-friendly practices.

6. How does environmentally friendly architecture impact the community?

Environmentally friendly architecture can have a positive impact on the community by promoting healthier living spaces and reducing the carbon footprint of buildings. Additionally, these designs can inspire others to adopt eco-friendly practices and promote sustainability in their own lives.

7. How can individuals incorporate environmentally friendly architecture into their homes?

Individuals can incorporate environmentally friendly architecture into their homes by using sustainable materials, optimizing building orientation for passive solar design, and incorporating energy-efficient systems, such as solar panels or geothermal heating and cooling. Additionally, they can incorporate natural ventilation and rainwater harvesting systems to promote sustainability.

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