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Literature Review on Sustainable Building and Design Practices

Posted on:November 21, 2021 at 11:00 AM

On an island nation-state situated in the heart of Southeast Asia, a revolution in building design is taking place. Singapore, long known as the trading and financial capital of the region, has entered the foray of constructing elaborate and environmentally-minded buildings. The most recent and well-known structure to have been completed is Jewel, an immense, torus-shaped mall and entertainment complex connected to Singapore’s renowned Changi Airport. The facade of the building is formed by over 9,000 high-performance glass panels, selected for its ability to transmit daylight, be energy efficient and minimise heat gain in tropical weather (Ping). From the glass roof descends a 130-foot-tall waterfall that cascades straight through the center of the building into water filtration systems that recycle and pump the water back up (Ping). A lush, expansive indoor garden takes in the mist of the waterfall, calming residents and travellers as they amble through the 22-acre mall (Ping). Many sustainable technologies and design principles were employed in the construction of this building, and have influenced many more developments across Singapore including PARKROYAL COLLECTION Pickering, the National Gallery and Oasia Hotel Downtown.

Though these are rather lavish examples, they demonstrate Singapore’s vision of an eco-friendly city, where nature is allowed to permeate into urban spaces and emissions-mitigating technology is freely implemented. Given that much of the urban world depends on large and complex buildings for work, habitation and leisure, there is a great opportunity to tackle urban carbon emissions by constructing and retrofitting buildings sustainably. Though some aspects of environmentally-minded architectural and engineering philosophy are broadly implemented across the world, there is not enough of an emphasis on significantly reducing humanity’s carbon footprint. The past and current literature on sustainable building and design practices suggests that there is much to be gained by communities, city-planners and governments who embrace these principles.

Sustainable design is a relatively new field that has its origins in architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright coined the term ‘organic architecture’, describing it as “a sentient, rational building that would owe its ‘style’ to the integrity with which it was individually fashioned to serve its particular purpose” (Wright, 28). This design philosophy would prove to be influential over time as the concepts of hygiene, safety, scientific design and regard for the surrounding climate moved architecture for the first time into the bioclimatic realm (Attia, 7-8). Environmental architecture emerged in the 60s and 70s with a higher regard for nature and biology, which would give rise to the early concept of sustainable architecture, a philosophy to conserve as many resources as possible in the design phase (Attia, 8). The distinction between conserving resources and reducing one’s ecological impact would come at the turn of the 20th century with the emergence of green and carbon neutral architecture paradigms, based on the ideas of the Kyoto Protocol that called for wider environmental considerations (Attia, 9).

It was around this time that a greater consideration for the environmental impact of buildings was minded. It became clearer after the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that human activity related to buildings has a palpable effect on global warming, as it was shown that buildings accounted for a sizable 19% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 (IPCC, 47). Additionally, it was agreed upon with high confidence that buildings have the potential to significantly influence energy demand and that decarbonization of the buildings sector of the economy is thus projected to take longer than that of the energy sector (IPCC, 98-99). The report recognized that technological advancements and improvements in performance and costs in the building sector would make low-energy construction and retrofitting an economically viable option in the coming century (IPCC, 102). Through the IPCC report, governments and organizations across the world began to recognize the significance in sustainable construction, even if they did not commit to it via a binding agreement.

Today’s buildings are architectural and engineering feats that we largely take for granted. There are multiple challenges that need to be solved by developers across a building’s timeline for it to be habitable, from its construction to its grand opening and beyond. As such, a lot of the challenges with decarbonizing buildings actually lie in decarbonizing these individual processes. These processes largely fall into embodied and operational emissions; while embodied emissions represent energy spent in the conversion and flow of raw materials to the building, operational emissions are those released over a building’s life span (Ibn-Mohammed, 234). Embodied emissions typically relate to the extraction and processing of building materials, transportation, construction, maintenance and deconstruction of the building, whereas operational emissions are largely driven by electricity, steam and natural gas emissions used to power heating and cooling, ventilation and lighting. (Ibn-Mohammed, 234). As a result, solutions to climate change via the building sector need to consider a variety of engineering problems that may arise in the course of developing a building.

Sustainable building materials are notably important in reducing emissions across the building sector. While operational costs are largely covered in the mainstream discussion of building emissions, the embodied costs of building materials are relatively understated. Though the traditional material of choice, cement, is highly important for contemporary construction, it is extremely energy demanding and resource-intensive to produce (Wasem, 2). In order to produce a ton of cement, about 4.7 million BTUs of energy is consumed, the equivalent of 400 pounds of coal (Wasem, 2). This process, in turn, produces an almost equivalent amount of CO2 as it does cement (Wasem, 2). As a result, it is important to consider alternative materials that can be used. Of course, there are alternative forms of concrete that use a combination of recycled materials such as crushed glass, wood chips or slag (Wasem, 3). Although these additions do not drastically alter the process of making concrete, they utilize materials that would otherwise go to waste and hence reduce emissions to some extent (Wasem, 3). Crucially, alternate materials exist that are less toxic to the environment and that contain less embodied energy compared to wholly artificial materials. In particular, rammed earth, a compacted mix of gravel, clay, sand, concrete and lime or waterproofing additives, is a sturdy, load-bearing and long lasting material used as a building exterior (Wasem, 3). Other low-energy alternative materials include straw bales rendered with mud, aerated autoclaved concrete and compressed stabilized earth block (Wasem, 3). Although each of these materials has its own specific use cases, there is no doubt that innovations in sustainable material design are taking place across the board and that attempts to supplement concrete with sustainable building materials will help lower emissions in the long run.

Focusing towards the operational costs of a building, one of the most significant areas of importance lies in the problem of air conditioning. Typically, electrical devices installed in buildings such as heaters and AC units take a significant amount of energy to operate; 11.4% of the U.S. electricity consumption in 2010 was used for cooling (Oropeza-Perez, 531). As 27 of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the world are located in developing countries with warm or hot climates, the need for low-emissions cooling systems will be key as development scales across the world (Oropeza-Perez, 531). Active cooling methods, such as fans, evaporative coolers and heat pumps, are the most widely implemented systems today to facilitate heat transfer between indoor and outdoor air (Oropeza-Perez, 532-533). Though they range in affordability across the market, they are relatively efficient in providing thermal comfort to users. However, sustained use of active cooling methods can lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, as they largely rely on electricity and heat as a power source (Oropeza-Perez, 532). Alternatively, passive cooling methods consist of technologies or designs developed to cool buildings without a constant reliance on energy sources (Oropeza-Perez, 533). Buildings can be designed with shading systems in mind to passively control solar radiation using the orientation and shape of the building, generally by implementing static or semi-mobile components such as overhangs, eaves, or rolling shades (Oropeza-Perez, 533-534). Alternatively, materials and processes that support heat transfer, such as phase change materials, passive cooling shelters, heat sinks and materials with high thermal capacity, have the potential to passively store and release heat as the environment heats up or cools down (Oropeza-Perez, 534). Finally, ways to optimize active cooling methods and shading systems, such as eco-evaporation cooling, natural ventilation, solar-assisted AC and kinetic facades, have the potential to reduce overall air conditioning energy consumption while still providing the same level of thermal comfort (Oropeza-Perez, 535-536). While passive cooling methods have arguable economic feasibility, they nonetheless have the potential to significantly reduce the energy consumption of a building for the heating and cooling purposes.

An often overlooked aspect of mitigating carbon emissions from the building sector is green and biophilic design. This discipline serves to both address mental well-being in urban environments and utilize biology to meet infrastructural goals. A wide range of evidence from environmental psychologists has shown that the use of natural features in urban areas can provide positive outcomes for many purposes and stages (Hidalgo, 535). Perspectives originating in biological science have now been aimed at refining energy efficiency, clean industrial production, product innovation and design methodology in constructing urban spaces (Hidalgo, 537). This philosophy has manifested itself in nature-inspired structures, biomimicry and restorative architecture to minimize a building’s profile in nature, as well as daylighting and natural ventilation and sounds to blend in with its surrounding environment (Hidalgo, 538). Additionally, there is potential for biological solutions to infrastructure problems in urban spaces. Policymakers looking to replace grey infrastructure with more sustainable options can look to green infrastructure, the practice of placing vegetation and natural features as opposed to traditional concrete structures. For example, as opposed to building concrete channels for stormwater that exacerbate flooding downstream and spread pollutants into waterways, bioretention basins can be implemented to capture and filter stormwater underground, with plants that intake excess phosphorus as a nutrient (MacAdam, 6). The multiple uses from a diverse array of fauna can be combined to solve urban infrastructure problems from both an environmental and aesthetic approach.

Though the methods aforementioned to cut down on a building’s ecological footprint are largely focused on the building phase of a new project, there are still optimizations that can take place on older, existing buildings. Retrofitting at the city level is necessary to adopt energy-saving technologies at a large scale and to deal with the mounting pressures of climate change (Dixon, 131-132). This concept requires the marriage of both the technical and institutional fields in order to make decisions as to how to make societal and environmental progress as smoothly as possible (Dixon, 132). Though the contemporary view of a city has shifted from a mechanistic system to that of a spatially complex and connected system, there is still a mismatch between policy making and global environmental concerns (Dixon, 133). As such, specific frameworks and city visions have to incorporate a balance of sustaining and disruptive technologies in order to weather any potential roadblocks to implementation. For example, even if disruptive technologies such as vacuum insulation panels to conserve heat and energy cannot be implemented due to policy, existing infrastructure, such as energy grids, and micro-generation, can be optimized with smart, sustaining technologies (Dixon, 137). Many relevant energy-saving methods can be applied in both sustaining and disruptive manners; in order to deal with water-related emissions, one can either enact sustaining policies of installing low water-demand fixtures, water metering and recycling systems, or invest in disruptive micro-hydro technology to offset water use by generating energy (Dixon, 138). In any case, there are a variety of options that exist to retrofit existing buildings, and these options are flexible enough to both blend in with existing architecture and significantly disrupt status quo practices.

In addition to the environmental impact that various tactics to mitigate emissions from the building sector have on communities, one must also consider the social and economic benefits to sustainable design. Though one of the main arguments against it in the political sphere is that there is little economic and social return on implementing these policies, the truth is precisely the opposite when we consider urban areas as interconnected ecosystems. As mentioned above, sustainable design contributes to an improved sense of comfort and well-being. Inhabitants respond positively to increased daylighting and tend to perceive better ventilation as better air quality in the building (DOE, 3-4)1. Additionally, sustainable design provides opportunities for better health among building occupants. Increased ventilation, air filtration and reduced crowding among inhabitants are linked with mitigating sick building syndrome, allergy and asthma symptoms, and the transmission of infectious diseases (DOE, 3-2). Sustainable design also provides chances to heighten occupant safety and security as spaces can be redesigned to reduce entry of airborne hazards, facilitate a rapid evacuation and provide blast resistance (DOE, 3-8).

Among developers considering the economics of sustainable design, many of its implementations seem to have an unreasonable upfront cost. However, these products can eliminate reliance on other systems that would otherwise be in use, thereby lowering costs in the long run (DOE, 2-2). Sustainable design projects take into account optimal site orientation, eliminating unnecessary features, avoiding structural overdesign, and energy system optimization in order to cut costs in the long run while not compromising on the environmental impact of their project (DOE, 2-2, 2-3)2. Additionally, energy-saving features were shown to reduce annual energy costs by 37% in a particular study (DOE, 2-7). Though the first costs predictably increased, the savings-to-investment ratio was determined to be 1.5, demonstrating the superior payback of sustainable technologies (DOE, 2-7). Finally, a key economic benefit manifests itself in lower absenteeism and improved productivity due to a positive mental and health response to sustainable design as detailed above (DOE, 2-20). Thus, there is certainly a socio-economic case to be made for sustainable construction and design technologies.

Pivoting to real-life examples of sustainable building and design, we can consider cases where this philosophy has been implemented successfully and where it still struggles to gain a foothold. Returning to Singapore and its endeavors in sustainable building and construction strategy, we can see how this practice gained a foothold in the nation-state. Given that it has one of the highest population densities and practically no natural resources at its disposal, the government announced the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint in April 2009 to improve the quality of life for its citizens (Anggadjaja, 2). The Building and Construction Authority in Singapore undertook five strategic thrusts that broadly pushed the government and private sector to adopt sustainable construction, built up supporting industry capabilities and raised legislative and public awareness about the issue (Anggadjaja, 2). As a result, Singapore was able to complete projects that made use of a high dosage of Recycled Concrete Aggregates, a closed-loop zero-waste construction, and attained carbon neutrality (Anggadjaja, 1). These early successes set the stage for the growth of sustainable construction and the increased popularity of sustainable design in the country.

Elsewhere in the world, the framework for sustainable building and construction is being laid. The South Australian Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure reports in detail about the selection of environmentally sustainable building materials. The department considers there to be two important streams to consider when selecting green materials associated with the life cycle of a building, that they conserve or preserve earth’s natural resources and contribute to keeping inhabitants safe and healthy, primarily via air quality (DPTI, 2). Under the first stream, resources for buildings must be selected with care for their extraction efficiency, waste reduction, longevity and renewability (DPTI, 3). Considering the second stream, with a higher emphasis on human health, materials that are selected must be non-toxic, non-flammable, and must produce non-toxic emissions (DPTI, 3). The document also provides a list of resources listed by embodied energy and information on green, building and material rating tools that allow developers to measure their impact on the environment (DPTI, 6-9). By providing guidelines to work within, the government of South Australia is ensuring that developers are aware of options to make environmentally-minded construction choices.

Though much of the world is making steady progress towards embracing sustainable design, some countries like South Africa are still experiencing roadblocks. For one, the demands of all the stakeholders in a project, including investors, developers, consultants, manufacturers and tenants, need to be balanced (Emuze, 4). As a result, sustainable design tends to get buried under other demands, especially when the demands of the country are trending towards imported, sophisticated material at a much higher carbon cost (Emuze, 4). Additionally, stakeholders are reluctant to actually pay the increased upfront cost related to sustainable design, so clients themselves have to drive demand for a chance to realize the project (Emuze, 4). Other barriers to sustainable development include a lack of emphasis and education on sustainability, coupled with political and policy issues that tend to snub socio-economic and environmental issues in favor of certain political interests (Emuze, 5). As detailed, there is still progress to be made in terms of making sustainable design accessible to the world. These concerns and challenges may need to be addressed by policymakers who seek to advocate and popularize sustainable design.

Sustainable design and building practices are gaining traction among developers, governments and the public. There are a multitude of methods and approaches to reducing a building’s environmental impact by seeking to reduce embodied and operational emissions alike. These solutions are multidisciplinary in nature, ranging between architecture, material science, engineering and biology. Additionally, there are a number of economic and social reasons to support sustainable design, covering better mental and physical health, lower costs in the long run, and increased safety for inhabitants. Despite the challenges that certain countries might face on their road to adopting sustainable design, the groundwork is indeed being laid for urban society’s transition to a healthier, happier and mindful civilization.

Works Cited

Anggadjaja, Edward, and Yvonne S. Leng. Sustainable Building and Construction in Singapore. Building and Construction Authority, Singapore, 2010, Accessed 21 Nov. 2021.

Attia, Shady. Regenerative and Positive Impact Architecture: Learning from Case Studies, Springer, 2017,

The Business Case for Sustainable Design in Federal Facilities. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), 2003, Accessed 21 Nov. 2021.

Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2015.

Dixon, Tim, et al. “Urban retrofitting: Identifying disruptive and sustaining technologies using performative and foresight techniques.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change, vol. 89, 2014, pp. 131-144.

Emuze, Fidelis, et al. SUSTAINABILITY IN THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT: EXPLORING BARRIERS IN SOUTH AFRICA. Central U of Technology, 2015. Accessed 21 Nov. 2021.

Environmentally Sustainable Building Materials. Government of South Australia Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure (DPTI), 2017,

Hidalgo, Ana K. “Biophilic Design, Restorative Environments and Well-Being.” Conference: Colors of Care: The 9th International Conference on Design & Emotion, Oct. 2014, pp. 535-544,

Ibn-Mohammed, Taofeeq, et al. “Operational vs. embodied emissions in buildings—A review of current trends.” Energy and Buildings, vol. 66, Nov. 2013, pp. 232-245,!.

MacAdam, James. Green Infrastructure for Southwestern Neighborhoods. Watershed Management Group, 2012.

Oropeza-Perez, Ivan, and Poul A. Østergaard. “Active and passive cooling methods for dwellings: A review.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, vol. 82, 2018, pp. 531-544.

Ping, Low S. “The Architecture And Design Of Jewel Changi Airport.” PORTFOLIO Magazine, June 2019,

Wasem, Jaher, and AKM H. Nine. “Climate Change and Low Carbon Emission Green Building.” Greenie, Civil Engineering Fest 2016, vol. 1, 21 Oct. 2016, Accessed 21 Nov. 2021.

Wright, Frank L. Frank Lloyd Wright: The Complete 1925 “Wendingen” Series. Courier Dover Publications, 1992.


  1. Note that pages in this document are marked by section and page number

  2. Information cited spans pages 2-2 and 2-3