Sustainable architecture needs technology and tradition
Photo by Free Images on

In recent years, the debate on sustainable buildings has intensified due to the unequivocal impact of the built environment on climate change. The common response to this challenge is to introduce technological fixes to reduce energy consumption, either through insulation or high-efficiency heating or cooling. However, several architects today argue that we should more radically rethink modern architecture and re-embrace local and traditional designs to make our built environment inherently more sustainable.

Our observations

  • In 2017, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that buildings are responsible for 36% of global final energy consumption and emit nearly 40% of global CO2 emissions. After the industrial sector, buildings have the second biggest impact on climate change and, with energy demand from buildings expected to rise at nearly 3% per year, this impact will only intensity if action falls behind.
  • The global crisis of climate change triggered the debate around sustainable buildings, with a specific focus on reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment. This has led to a triple response of greening energy production (e.g. wind and solar), improving the insulation of buildings and adding high-tech solutions to further reduce energy demand (e.g. smart thermostats and zonal heating).
  • In response to climate change concerns, several sustainable housing initiatives have emerged, such as the zero-carbon house, the passive house. Each of these reflect the tendency of modern architects to turn to high-tech solutions in addition to otherwise conventional, non-sustainable architecture.
  • Before the industrial revolution, architecture was vernacular (i.e. local, traditional and functional) in that it relied on local materials and was based on local designs that suited local (climate) conditions. Following the industrial revolution, steel and concrete allowed for greater freedom to design and build buildings for an advancing society, with a strong focus on cost-efficiency and functionality. From the late 19th century, architecture was further fueled by electric equipment (e.g. electric lights, central heating or air conditioning). As a result, buildings turned into uniform and mostly square shapes that have little concern for air quality, water or energy use. It was only in the last decades that we started documenting the ecological effects of our lifestyle.
  • Among other architects, Sandra Piesik argues that we should re-embrace elements from traditional vernacular architecture, such as shapes that provide natural ventilation, as these allow us to design buildings that are intrinsically more sustainable (e.g. require less energy for heating or cooling). On a different note, Bjarke Ingles seeks to integrate these kinds of ideas with new technology into a concept of hedonistic sustainability in which sustainable architecture does not imply any compromises in terms of cost or functionality.
  • Traditional architecture not only provides clues for saving energy, it can also learn us about dealing with ongoing climate change. This is true for designs that include natural shading or ventilation, but also for dealing with extreme weather events. In Tonga, for instance, traditional curved roofs are able to withstand storms and cyclones due to their aerodynamics properties.

Connecting the dots

The growing awareness of the vast climate impact of the built environment and the subsequent debate on sustainable buildings, homes and commercial property, has created momentum for the development and implementation of sustainable solutions. However, architects are stuck in an architectural lock-in, characterized by the building of basic, cost-efficient, uniform square-shaped buildings that have little to do with local (climate) conditions. As a result, to make these buildings livable or workable, they rely heavily on additional technology (e.g. electric lights and climate control systems) which increases their energy consumption. There has been much progress in terms of improving these technologies, e.g. making them more energy-efficient, and they are very valuable to making the current stock of buildings more sustainable. However, when it comes to new buildings, they can only be one part of the solution. The problem is that these add-ons only address the symptoms of flawed, non-sustainable architecture, rather than the root cause.

Traditional architecture not only provides clues for saving energy, it can also learn us about dealing with ongoing climate change

In response, several architects now argue for a re-embrace of (elements of) traditional, vernacular, architecture that actually takes into account local conditions and local needs. Such design features can include exploiting natural light and ventilation by the specific placement of windows and walls (e.g. mashrabiya, projecting windows that allow cool air to flow in from relatively cool streets, or Iranian windcatchers). Traditional materials can also be used for their intrinsically useful properties (e.g. reed for insulation). One example of a modern building that makes use of such traditional principles is Bjarke Ingles’s skyscraper in Shenzhen (tropical climate). It uses 30% less electricity by playing with dress-like facades to block sunlight from the south, while still maximizing daylight. Beyond single buildings, vernacular architecture also provide clues for smarter spatial planning. In southern Taiwan, for instance, traditional villages were built on an east-west axis to make use of prevailing winds for ventilation and cooling.
To be clear, using elements from vernacular architecture does not mean that modern technology has no role to play. By contrast, the combination of tradition and high-tech would most likely provide the best results. For instance, digital modeling techniques can factor in sunlight, prevailing winds, airflow and turbulence and help optimize designs. 3D printing provides unprecedented freedom to build any design while minimizing materials use. As such, high-tech can actually facilitate and optimize the old wisdoms of traditional architecture.


  • New architectural design principles may have consequences for the architectural supply chain. Materials use can be minimalized and there will be an increasing focus on circular buildings that allow for high-value reuse of materials or even the wholesale reuse of (elements of) constructions.
  • Theoretically, building sustainably on the basis of these principles could result in cost-efficient solutions as less additional equipment is necessary. However, this is not a given per se, since these buildings may require more space or material to be realized in the first place. In any case, the construction costs alone don’t tell the full story of a building’s life cycle and a more comprehensive approach to cost is necessary. More specifically, both architects and project developers will have to take into account the energy costs over the lifetime of a building and adopt a total cost of ownership approach to buildings (something that is probably “easier” for commercial property than for homes).
  • Vernacular architecture is local and traditional. Global warming may, however, call for vernacular design elements in places where those designs were never used (or needed) before and this could result in resistance against such unfamiliar esthetics. Moreover, in some cases there may be a need to change building codes to allow for these new, “out-of-place”, designs.