Sustainable features are ubiquitous in architecture now—and beginning to be required in some places, including a California code that will make new buildings ditch fossil-powered heaters and hot water starting in 2023. Adding solar panels to the roof is no longer enough to call a design “sustainable”. But some projects go much farther.
In an annual list, the American Institute of Architects chooses the 10 most sustainable buildings of the year, including both environmental factors like water and energy use and social issues like the impact on the surrounding community and the building occupants. (The buildings were not all completed in the last year; the award also considers how buildings perform, not just the claims that designers make before they’re built.) Here are the top 10.
Edwin M. Lee Apartments, San Francisco: Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, Saida+Sullivan Design Partners
A new affordable apartment complex in San Francisco is designed both for low-income families and for formerly unhoused veterans, and includes on-site support for mental health care and career services. The energy-efficient design, with on-site solar power, includes a quiet courtyard garden and other features aimed at helping residents recover from trauma.
663 South Cooper, Memphis: Archimania
When the architecture firm Archimania needed a new office, it considered designing a new building. But it decided to save resources by upcycling two old unused commercial buildings instead, retrofitting them for net zero energy with technology like geothermal heat and sun tunnels that provide daylight deep inside the space. Outside, a sprawling parking lot has been reconfigured into a community courtyard with green space.
King Open/Cambridge Street Upper Schools and Community Complex, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Arrowstreet Inc., William Rawn Associates
This school was the first in Massachusetts designed for net zero emissions, using 44% less energy than a typical school in the state. Solar panels on the roof and facade help power the building, along with geothermal wells for heating and cooling. Students can track energy use on dashboards. Huge windows fill the space with light. The building is also designed for resilience as the climate changes, with an elevated first floor to protect against flooding, and an air-conditioned library the community can access in extreme heat waves.
Knox College Whitcomb Art Center, Galesburg, Illinois: Lake|Flato Architects
Built with a tight budget, this college art building reuses materials from demolished projects on other parts of the campus. The roof is designed to hold solar panels and funnel rainwater into rain gardens that lead into a restored prairie landscape with habitat for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Inside the flexible space, students can reconfigure their own art studios.
Lick-Wilmerding High School Historic Renovation and Expansion, San Francisco: EHDD
This San Francisco high school was redesigned to be all-electric, with net zero emissions. New mechanical systems clean air pollution from an immediate eight-lane freeway and from California’s increasing wildfire smoke. By reusing 36% of the existing building structure and 65% of the building facade, the project reducing embodied emissions by more than a third.
Louisiana Children’s Museum, New Orleans: Mithun, Wagonner & Ball
Located on a former marsh below sea level in New Orleans, the building was redesigned after Hurricane Katrina to survive four feet of floodwater without harm to the structure. In a storm, water flows into bioswales for storage, and a 9,000-gallon cistern captures rain from the roof. A living shoreline helps prevent erosion. Roof overhangs and screens help shade the space to reduce the need for cooling and radiant floor cooling, which absorbs heat from the rest of the space into the floor, reduces energy use. A trauma-informed design helps children who’ve experienced flooding become more comfortable with water.
Meyer Memorial Trust Headquarters, Portland, Oregon: LEVER Architecture
This building, the headquarters for a nonprofit that works on racial, social, and economic justice in Oregon, was designed with a careful consideration of equity, including choosing a site to redevelop that could benefit a neighborhood without adding to gentrification, and arranging offices so everyone has access to daylight and views. The building saves energy with features like operable windows and sensors turn down artificial lights when there’s enough daylight in the space. When it rains, the water goes into planters and wells onsite rather than into the city sewer system.
Roxbury Branch of the Boston Public Library Renovation, Boston: Utile, Inc.
A redesign of a bunker-like, inefficient concrete block library in Boston added daylight and helped better connect the space with the community, with views to the neighborhood outside, while preserving most of the original Brutalist architecture. New green spaces outside help capture rainwater. The design also includes new features to improve community health, like a nutrition lab that helps teach healthy cooking.
Iowa City Public Works, Iowa City, Iowa: Neumann Monson Architects
This city building, used in part for storing and washing fire trucks and for fire department training, uses thermal mass and insulation to help maintain temperatures if the power goes out. Dozens of skylights provide natural light, and solar panels on the roof provide on-site energy. Native prairie plantings outside provide habitat for habitat, and to protect birds, the windows have a non-clear glazing and the exterior lights are shaded to keep the night sky dark.
Tufts University Science and Engineering Complex, Medford, Massachusetts: Payette
When Tufts University needed a new science building, it had originally planned to demolish a historic building to make room, but the architects found a way to squeeze a new building into the space. The energy-efficient design uses 77% less energy than a typical lab building. Outside, new native plantings help capture rain and attract biodiversity. Parking for 30 cars was replaced by parking for 200 bikes.