Sustainable architecture: innovative and inspiring building design
From amazing abodes to centres of care and hard-working offices, we chart some of the world’s best examples of sustainable architecture, buildings that not only look good but also do good
Ilulissat Icefjord Centre by Dorte Mandrup
The spectacular Ilulissat Icefjord Centre sits on a craggy seashore on the edge of the UNESCO-protected Greenland wilderness. Designed by Danish architect Dorte Mandrup, the scheme, some 250 km north of the Arctic Circle, feels at one with its landscape. Its purpose is strongly connected to nature too, as it was conceived to highlight the ‘dramatic consequences of climate change on this remarkable landscape.’ A year-round visitor centre, as well as place to meet for locals, the building snakes around the hilly terrain telling, through its displays, activities and presence, the story of ice, nature and humankind. ‘The Icefjord Centre offers a refuge in the dramatic landscape and aims to become a natural gathering point from which you can experience the infinite, non-human scale of the Arctic wilderness, the transition between darkness and light, the midnight sun, and the Northern lights dancing across the sky,’ says Mandrup.
Casa Numa by Red Arquitectos
A home designed to use as a personal retreat for the client, as well as a holiday rental, Casa Numa is the brainchild of Red Arquitectos. Nestled in a fairly moderst spot in Holbox Island, Quintana Roo in Mexico, the building is almost entirely created in coconut palm wood and is supported by sapote tree piles that come from the region’s jungle. This way, the project has a light impact on its sandy terrain and remains respectful to its surroundings, the architects explain. ‘The palm is considered the tree of life, since human existence could be sustained with everything that comes from it. It is a natural insulating material that offers a pleasant climate due to its thermal properties, allowing less energy consumption and natural cooling,’ says the team. The structure becomes a fine example of wood architecture and its main shell was created in a mere three months.
The Hilda Solis Care First Village by CRATE Modular
This LA-based project is dedicated to homelessness services and includes 232 units, a mess hall, and an administrative building. Created by CRATE Modular and named the The Hilda Solis Care First Village, the scheme was made almost entirely out of recycled shipping containers - each of which contains two sleeping pods. Looking sleek and modern, while keeping costs and construction impact to a minimum this clever project works hard for its money - prioritizing modular, sustainable architecture and building.
Bundeena House by Tribe Studio Architects
Taking its cues from modest fishing village cottages, this home is a prototype of a sustainable retreat cabin by Tribe Studio Architects. Set in Sydney’s seaside community of Bundeena, the project is cost-effective, environmentally-aware and supportive of local trades, explains the design team. ‘We could have had glorious views from a second storey, however we felt that reinforcing the local vernacular of single storey timber cottages was important, and that an introspective garden diagram was preferable to outward looking in this context,’ says studio director Hannah Tribe. ‘This house is an attempt to achieve a high level of architectural and sustainable outcomes at a low cost. It is an experiment in delivering a more thoughtful kit home.’
House Under Shadows by ZED Lab
Created by Delhi based architects Zed Lab, this expansive home is a near net-zero residential structure. Called House Under Shadows for its perforated external shading that creates mesmerising shadow-and-light plays on its large terraces, the home was ‘an architectural response to the extreme weather in North India,’ explain the architects. ‘[The structure] achieves reduced solar direct and diffused radiation by 65% through digital modelling using parametrics and passive design strategies,’ says the team. The architectural approach combines elements from the local vernacular and modern, sleek style, while enabling natural ventilation and daylight.
AirBubble playground by ecoLogicStudio
A strange circular structure has appeared in a green architectural garden at the centre of Warsaw, Poland, outside city’s the Copernicus Science Centre. This is the world’s first biotechnological playground integrating air-purifying micro-algae cultures, say its architects, London-based architecture studio ecoLogicStudio, led by Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto. The open air structure creates a purified microclimate where children can play. Merging biotechnology with archtiecture, the structure comes accompanied by a temporary exhibition on site. ‘There is untapped value in bringing the bio-intelligence of natural systems into cities, turning buildings into living machines that produce energy, store CO2 and clean the air. To achieve this, we need to think about the living world as a part of the current digital revolution: nature becomes part of a new bio-smart infrastructure,’ says Poletto.
House with Three Pavilions by Grounded
Combining a contemporary design approach with sustainable architecture, this home in a rural location in Goa was created by GROUNDED, the Indian architecture studio led by Anjali Mangalgiri. ‘The house attempts to leave a minimal or zero-impact on the functioning natural ecological cycles at the site that pre-date the new construction,’ she says. ‘It contributes positively by fostering biodiversity and recharging the underground water table.’ Created as a second home, the structure occupies a small fraction of its wider site. Natural materials the connect the building to its surroundngs play a key role in the design, and include terracota tiles, teak wood and a natural Indian stone in a blue-green colour.
Timber House by Gbolade Design Studio
A 1960s home in Chislehurst, Kent, in the UK, has been transformed with a dramatic extension by London based Gbolade Design Studio. Headed by Tara Gbolade, the architecture practice created a bold new design, Timber House, which goes beyond pure aesthetics to enhance the building’s sustainability credentials and the architecture’s overall functionality. Clad in stylish dark timber and featuring a defining pitched roof, the house results from a commission to refurbish and extend a family home. The new structure may have changed the home’s spatial experience but it doesn’t feel alien within its context; in fact, its new shapes and size are proportionate, respecting its surroundings and the existing building. Inside, however, the space has been significantly upgraded, with the addition creating soaring double-height ceilings, angular feature interiors (which reflect the original and new pitched roofs), and an open-plan arrangement that encourages interaction and flexiblity for the residents.
Torvbråten Primary School by Link Arkitektur
This school in a rural spot within the Norwegian forest has just been completed to a design by locally based architecture studio Link Arkitektur. Guided by sustainability principles, theTorvbråten Primary School has become Norway’s second school to achieve the highly-regarded Nordic Swan Eco-label for best environmental practice. The building’s eye-catching curves have been clad with Kebony wood, the sustainably modified, durable timber. The result is not only a boost to the structure’s eco-credentials, but a highlight in its overall striking visual aesthetic too. Additionally, the school has been designed according to the passive house standards and is equipped with 800 solar cells and energy wells (geothermal heating). Now, it caters to some 470 students and 46 permanent members of staff between its classes, offices and multi-purpose hall.
Lemvig Klimatorium by 3XN
The town of Lemvig, on Denmark’s west coast, may be small and far away from the capital, but it aspires to play a vital role in the nation’s efforts to fight climate change. Aggressive storms and rising sea levels have heightened the risk of flooding, prompting the town to redevelop an old industrial area on its waterfront: adding a flood wall, installing a new promenade, spaces for new businesses, and most importantly, an international climate change centre, Klimatorium, to offer a meeting point for residents and tourists, educate the public about the climate emergency, and support Denmark’s role as an exporter of climate solutions. Commissioned by the town council to create this centrepiece, architects 3XN devised a two-storey building that makes a visual statement while keeping to a limited budget and environmental footprint. The landmark feature is a wave-shaped wooden pocket, caving into the southern façade of the building and facing a skate park by the Copenhagen-based studio Effekt, completed in 2013. Clad in local pine, the wave is smoothly contoured for the most part, but tiered at the base to provide seating. As Jan Ammundsen, senior partner and head of design at 3XN explains, the initial intention was simple: to create a sheltered spot that would be available to both the building’s users and passers-by, bathed in sunlight but protected from westerly winds across the water. ‘We are hoping to create a small possibility for them to sit, enjoy the moment, and speak to each other,’ says Ammundsen. ‘It’s a way for the building to give a little bit back to the town.’
Modular initiative by MiTek and Danny Forster & Architecture (DF&A)
There’s a new kid on the prefab block; welcome the joint modular initiative of provider of innovative construction-based software, services, and engineered building solutions MiTek and Danny Forster & Architecture (DF&A). The scheme, which has been created by the digital systems specialist (who is owned by multinational conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway) and the New York based architecture firm, was conceived to champion prefabrication and flexible, sustainable building. Central to the initiative is the creation of a Modular Activation Platform (MAP), which will help simplify working with and designing modular buildings. ‘This will democratize modular – which means revolutionising the building industry,’ says DF&A principal Danny Forster. ‘Modular has such clear advantages, but for your average commercial builder, the risks are too high and the learning curve is too steep. Our activation platform will change that.’
‘Structure’ by Better Shelter
Social enterprise Better Shelter creates emergency and temporary sustainable housing for communities displaced by the climate crisis. With pilot sites for its shelters, called ‘Structure’, currently in India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Rwanda, its short-term solutions provide a sustainable response to the climate crisis that has left millions homeless. The company, based in Stockholm, Sweden, delivers modular homes in flat packages that can be speedily assembled without the need for tools or electricity. Equipped with a lockable door and a solar-powered lamp, they are created using materials local to their site, such as bamboo, timber and wattle and daub, and have the potential to be adapted by their occupiers for longer use.
Khor Kalba Turtle and Wildlife Sanctuary by Hopkins Architects
This cluster of low, round buildings on the edge of the water in the Gulf region is the brand new Khor Kalba Turtle and Wildlife Sanctuary facility at the Kalba mangrove reserve in the UAE. Designed by Hopkins Architects, the project is an important sanctuary for rehabilitating turtles and nurturing endangered birds in this richly biodiverse part of the world. The project was commissioned by Sharjah’s Environmental Protected Areas Authority (EPAA). It encompasses education and visitor facilities too, helping to raise awareness of its important work in its field. ’Designing for a site like this is an incredible opportunity,’ says Hopkins’ principal Simon Fraser. ‘The pioneering circular forms we designed for the Buhais Geological Museum, are also perfect for this rich ecological location as they touch the ground lightly. We have adapted them using soft scalloped precast cladding made from discarded shells found in the local area which responds to the marine environment and which softens the external appearance of the project to harmonise with its surroundings.’
Kaj micro-hotel by Barbara von Haffner and Toke Larsen
The Copenhagen architecture scene is full of must-sees – from modernist masterpieces to contemporary marvels, such as OMA’s BLOX. Yet there are also some smaller gems that bring a sense of architectural experimentation to the everyday for the discerning visitor – such is Kaj, the town’s latest sustainable micro-hotel, which has been designed as a boutique, one-room boathouse you can rent. It all started when owners and partners in work and life Barbara von Haffner and Toke Larsen spotted a gap in the market. With the help of architect Karl Smith Meyer, they decided to put a plan into action. ‘We have often been contacted by people who wanted to rent our houseboat or asked what it is like to live on it,’ they say. ‘The idea for KAJ Hotel arose in the wake of these questions, which were almost impossible to answer unequivocally, as the experience varies depending on wind and weather conditions, as well as what time of day – or year – one stays there. One has to try it out for one self – and every moment has its own charm.’ Now, set on Copenhagen harbour and built literally on the water, Kaj is created primarily in recycled wood. Its structure was partially prefabricated (on the deck of the couple’s houseboat) and craned directly into the site. Von Haffner also leads Undercover Copenhagen, a company specialising in recycled and sustainable fabrics, while the couple’s own home was created using environmentally friendly ways, so looking at this project from an eco-friendly angle came naturally to the pair.
Cowboy Modern Desert Eco-Retreat by Jeremy Levine
Nestled within desert flora and rocky hills, the Cowboy Modern Desert Eco-Retreat is architect Jeremy Levine’s personal getaway – a stylish and entirely off-grid property with no water, sewer, or mobile service. Dramatic as this might seem, this sustainable home is as visually and technologically sophisticated as they come, featuring sleek contemporary forms and eco-friendly systems. Set in Southern California’s Mojave Desert near Pioneertown and Joshua Tree National Park, the two-bedroom residence is surrounded by mesas and low desert vegetation. Inspired by this beautiful natural landscape, the architect composed a home that acts as a flagship for sustainable living, both in terms of its building methods and its connection with its surroundings. Large openings, locally reclaimed weathered lumber for all interior and exterior wood, and a roof pitch that echoes the context’s angles, mean this retreat is very much in sync with its locale.
Tambacounda Hospital extension by Manuel Herz
A brick extension to the Tambacounda hospital in Senegal by Switzerland-based architect Manuel Herz is a true project of collaboration, rooted to the local community. ‘I received an invitation from the Albers Foundation and Le Korsa to take part in the competition for a new maternity and paediatric unit at Tambacounda Hospital,’ explains Herz. ‘I put a lot of thought into it and responded that the best approach was not to create a so-called architectural design “solution”. Instead, our entry took the form of a proposal embedded in research and collaboration; not a building, but a suggestion of how to approach the project.’ Herz’ considered thinking won the competition. The design is defined by the striking geometric bricks that make up the main façade. ‘I undertook a lot of research into the region for my book, African Modernism, the architect explains. ‘I also looked at responses to climate and elements like brise soleils, which became quite prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s.’ The porous veil of bricks is a relatively common façade treatment in the east of Senegal, with the bricks themselves typically made on site. ‘What I brought to the project was the specific shape and geometry of the bricks,’ Herz says. ‘With every building I design I try to come to learn something new and try out new things.’
The Voxel by the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia
The Voxel is a unique prototype designed by students and researchers of the Master in Advanced Ecological Buildings and Biocities (MAEBB) of the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) under the direction of Daniel Ibáñez and Vicente Guallart. It was created as ‘an advanced ecological building’ made of natural KM.0 materials and industrialized techniques within the natural park of Collserola in Barcelona, Spain. Part of the project is researching wood and its structural and thermal abilities, as well as its capacity to store CO2 in buildings. Using wood sourced through sustainable forest management, the team experimented with the Japanese Shou Sugi Ban charred wood insulation technique to protect the material and structure in an environmentally friendly way.
SLAK Campus by Kéré Architecture
Turkana County in Kenya is a large expanse of beautiful yet arid land of low bushes and occasional trees, home to Lake Turkana, the country’s largest landlocked body of water and the biggest desert lake in the world. Termite mounds, buzzing with activity and up to several metres high, are dotted around the region’s gently undulating landscape. It was these tall structures that first caught the eye of Berlin-based architect Francis Kéré when he started researching the area for one of his latest commissions – a sustainable education campus on the lake’s banks. Celebrating the local context and the termite mounds, tall towers support natural ventilation ‘by extracting warm air upwards, while fresh air is introduced through specially designed low-level openings’, says Kéré. Electricity is produced on site, using solar panels.
TECLA by Mario Cucinella Architects with WASP
Mario Cucinella Architects has built the world’s very first 3D printed house made entirely from raw earth. Named ‘Tecla’, and built in collaboration with specialists in the field WASP, the structure demonstrates the point where natural materials meet technology and has just been unveiled in Italy’s Massa Lombarda region, near the city of Ravenna. ‘Adopted from one of Italo Calvino’s Imaginary Cities, one that is forever taking shape, the name ‘Tecla’ evokes the strong link between past and future combining the materiality and spirit of timeless ancient dwellings with the 21st-century world of high-tech production,’ say the architects.
Casona Sforza by Alberto Kalach
Known for its sandy beaches, green setting and surfing spots, Mexico’s Puerto Escondido now has one more card up its leafy sleeve: a new hotel with strong sustainability credentials, designed by acclaimed Mexican architect Alberto Kalach. Casona Sforza, conceived by the entrepreneur Ezequiel Ayarza Sforza, has just opened its doors and combines an eco-approach with striking architecture and state-of-the-art hospitality and interiors. Set in La Barra de Colotepec, facing Mexico’s Pacific Coast, the hotel’s distinctive form represents its strong ‘ecological commitment’, says the team. Composed of a series of round-roofed brick volumes, the flowing structure feels natural and uses the country’s ancient techniques of brickwork, arch and vault building. This approach not only feels appropriate to the project’s context and the region’s history, but also makes the most of the fine anti-seismic properties of the vaulted shapes.
Haycroft Gardens by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects
Engulfed in a wild, leafy garden, a new multigenerational home in north London is designed to be functional and inclusive. Haycroft Gardens, created by architect Sarah Wigglesworth and her team, may appear humble, but it takes sustainable architecture to the next level. Commissioned to work on an infill site in Kensal Green, Wigglesworth was invited to create a single-level, three-bedroom home that would accommodate the needs of a young family and an elderly parent within the same domestic scheme. ‘The long-term requirements of the occupants, such as mutual support, accessibility, comfort, energy use and adaptability’, were crucial in the design solution, explains the architect. The project was built according to Passivhaus principles. A specialist timber frame manufacturer was involved, while an air-source heat pump and MVHR (mechanical ventilation with heat recovery) provide heating and ventilation respectively. The aim was for the house to have a very low energy usage.
Elephant World by Bangkok Project Studio
Elephant World’s architecture nods to both human and elephant needs, showcasing a strong sense of social sustainability but a respect to the environment too. The Wallpaper* Design Awards 2021 Best Sanctuary winner is a design by Thai architect Boonserm Premthada and his practice, Bangkok Project Studio. Premthada worked with local labour and materials to create a complex dedicated to the wellbeing of humans and animals, including an observation tower, a museum and a multifunctional event space. The design blends with the landscape and uses natural materials. For example, the bricks used for the museum were created on site by local workers using loam found in the area.
Powerhouse Telemark by Snøhetta
This ultra-sustainable workspace is a building that actually creates more energy than it will consume over its entire lifespan. Architecture studio Snøhetta, together with collaborators R8 Property, Skanska and Asplan Viak, has recently completed the project, Powerhouse Telemark, the fourth energy-positive building in its Powerhouse portfolio. Located in the city of Porsgrunn, the project creates much needed office space. It features solar panels on its roof; natural shading is promoted, while plentiful insulation ensures heat is retained where possible; and heat is stored in the building elements, to be released slowly, while a geothermal well supports heating and cooling. As a result, Powerhouse Telemark was awarded a BREEAM Excellent certification.
Anandaloy by Studio Anna Heringer
German architect Anna Heringer’s Anandaloy project in rural Bangladesh is a successful example of sustainable architecture, both in terms of social and environmental responsibility. The community centre and textile workshop in rural Bangladesh contains a therapy hub for people with disabilities on the ground floor and a fair-trade textile manufacturing workshop for local women on the first floor. Made out of rammed earth and bamboo, the structure explores age-old local building techniques and materials in soft curves and textures that connect with its place and the region’s vernacular. The building recently scooped the prestigious Obel Award for 2020.
Treehouse by Olson Kundig
US architect Tom Kundig, of Seattle practice Olson Kundig, is behind this sustainable teak holiday house in Costa Rica. Called the Treehouse, the private home is built predominantly out of locally harvested teak, and is open to the elements. This makes sense for Kundig’s clients for two reasons: as avid surfers, it gives them a chic version of a basic surfer’s hut; and as environmentalists, their new home ticks a number of sustainability boxes. Spanning three floors, the building is designed to operate passively, and slatted panels keep it open to the outdoors. ‘Our aim was to create a home that is very leaky to the view and light and air,’ says architect Tom Kundig. The structure also has its own rainwater collection system.
Bahareya Village by ECOnsult
Egyptian architect Sarah El Battouty, head of local studio ECOnsult, led the sustainable design of Bahareya Village, an eco-friendly compound for farm workers in the country’s Western Desert. Created to be home to the farming community engaged by organic tea producer Royal Herbs, the complex uses gravel manufactured from recycled construction waste for the base of its minimalist concrete structures. Cacti scattered throughout the campus offer splashes of greenery without compromising on a commitment to water efficiency. And a technique El Battouty borrowed from desert communities – raising the foundations of the buildings to create distance between the floor and therefore the rising heat from the land – reduces indoor temperatures by eight to ten degrees.
Cold Spring Residence by Alloy
This minimalist and highly eco-friendly house overlooking the Hudson River Valley is the country home of New York-based Alloy’s principal, architect and developer Jared Della Valle. Named Cold Spring Residence, the house sits on the land as lightly as possible. Della Valle worked with passive house sustainability standards to create his retreat, including solar panels for year-round energy, a well-insulated building envelope and careful management of the site’s water resources. The building is also partly sunken and cannot be seen from the street, aligning with its creator’s desire for a ‘a degree of modesty’, so that the architecture doesn’t compete with the striking surrounding natural landscape.
Copper Hill by BIG
The Amager Resource Center in Copenhagen, also known as Copenhill, is one of the city’s latest initiatives that put climate action to the forefront. Designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the building is essentially a rubbish burner; yet it’s also so much more than that. The structure houses an artificial ski slope, recreational hiking area and climbing wall on top of the waste-to-energy plant. Built using aluminium blocks, this piece of infrastructure aims to treat 400,000 tonnes of waste annually. The result is supplying 150,000 Danish households with district heating and 70,000 with electricity from non-recyclable waste.
Flying House by Martand Khosla
Created by architect Martand Khosla for a Delhi-based family of four, this weekend retreat in India’s Dharamshala is rooted in traditional materials and techniques. Set between farmland and a lush forest on the Dhauladhar mountain ranges of the Himalayas, Flying House has been built using local resources – stone, stabilised mud brick, slate and pine. A lot of the earth and stone dug out from the site during the foundation excavation went back into the construction. Building site wastage was minimised and a lot was recycled, making this house quite literally of its place. The construction uses stabilised mud brick, a method local workers were taught, using equipment from Development Alternatives (a social enterprise for sustainable solutions in India). This way, not only would the local stonemasons be able to build this particular house, but they would be able to master the craft and continue using it in the future.