5 Amazing Elements of Green Architecture

These roof allotment gardens are a great example of cool green architecture elements.
Jonathan LaRocca/Flickr

When you think of green architecture, do you picture a sleek, energy-efficient but boring-looking building? You shouldn't. Not only can green architecture help protect the environment and reduce energy costs for the building's occupants, it can also lead to some amazing design!

Green architecture is an emerging field that focuses on using low impact materials to create a completed structure that's energy efficient and environmentally friendly [source: Environmental Protection Agency]. Green buildings can vary from simple structures made from natural materials to more technologically focused designs that use elements like solar panels to reduce the building's impact.


Unlike conventional architecture, part of designing a green building is taking the structure's impact into account. That means not only looking at the building materials' environmental impact, but also considering elements like indoor air quality and water and energy conservation.

Just as with any other sort of design, green building can range from the utilitarian to the absolutely gorgeous [source: Proefrock]. You might associate green architecture with things like plastic rain barrels or solar panels that clash with the design of the home, but green design has come a long way. Check out these five amazing elements of green architecture.

1: Green Roofs

The West building at the Vancouver Convention Centre is full of sustainable features, like this 6 acre green roof that hosts more than 400,000 indigenous plants and even four beehives.

A green roof can lower the temperature in your house, improve local air quality and help add green space in urban areas where concrete is king. It can also provide a nesting area for birds!

Basically, a green roof is a sort of rooftop garden. To create a green roof, you lay down a waterproof barrier, material for drainage, a layer of soil, and plants [source: Greenroofs.com]. It's best to have a contractor experienced with eco-friendly designs help plan and build a green roof, since the weight of the plants and soil might require that you increase the supports for your roof. An expert can also help you pick low- maintenance plants that will thrive on your roof. The plants help insulate, filter rainwater, and combat habitat depletion for some area wildlife [source: Pelletier].


Green roofs can be as simple as a couple of types of ground cover or include a beautiful mix of moss, succulents, ground cover, and even herbs and plants. The complexity really depends on your budget and how much maintenance you can manage. There are two types of green roof: extensive or intensive. An extensive green roof, which is more low-maintenance and uses less soil, can range in price from $8 to $25 per square foot to install, while a higher maintenance intensive green roof runs $25 to $50 per square foot, requires more soil depth and can support a wider variety of plants and even trees [source: Pelletier]. Because intensive green roofs cost more and require a less sloping surface, they're more common on commercial buildings.

2: Solar Shingles

Solar shingles blend nicely into this roof.
Ben West/Flickr

Solar panels are an excellent way to save energy and reduce energy bills, and sometimes even earn you money. If your solar array produces more energy than you're using in your home, many utility companies will buy that excess power back from you to use in the electric grid [source: Gangemi]. The problem with solar panels, from a design perspective, is that they can be a little bit of an eyesore.

That's where solar shingles come in. Unlike traditional solar panels, which lay on top of the roof or sometimes on a freestanding structure near the building, solar shingles integrate right into the roof itself, so they aren't quite so obvious.


Solar shingles are a bit pricier to install than traditional solar panels, since they not only help power the building, but they're actually roof shingles [source: Surina].

There are a couple of different sorts of solar shingles on the market: thin-film or silicon-based. Thin-film shingles cost a bit less, but they also tend to produce less energy per square foot than the silicon-based shingles [source: 1 Block Off the Grid].

As with a green roof, it's best to get a certified contractor involved if you're planning to install solar shingles, since the shingles have to be wired into your electrical system. You'll also need a professional to take a look at your roof to make sure it's even a candidate for solar shingles. They get hotter than typical solar panels, and you want to be sure that your roof is at a good angle to collect sunlight. [source: 1 Block Off the Grid].

3. Cob Houses

A cozy cob house. Note the built-in shelves and nooks.
Brian Lioia/Flickr

Cob is an ancient building material that's basically wet earth and straw mixed together and rolled into loaf-sized pieces or cobs. The mixture is very similar to clay, and what makes cob houses unique and beautiful is the organic shape. Instead of assembling and covering a frame, builders stack cobs, then use the same clay-like material to mold the walls by hand [source: Liloia]. The result is a structure with curving lines instead of sharp angles, and many cob structures include lots of fun, built-in features like shelves and hooks molded right into the walls. Some of these homes even feature built-in furniture, like couches and tables, molded from cob.

Because cob is made from natural materials, it has a very low environmental footprint compared to other building materials like concrete. Cob doesn't have to be made in a factory and shipped across the country [source: Liola]. And you can find mud and straw very close to the building site.


Cob is so simple to work with that many people build cob houses themselves. There are even groups, like Natural Building Network, that offer workshops on how to build your own cob house.

4: Rainwater Harvesting

Would you believe there's rainwater harvesting system amid these fountain rocks? Sure beats a plastic barrel.
Aquascape, Inc.

The basic idea behind a rainwater harvesting system is to capture water to irrigate your garden and sometimes to use in the home. When you think of rain barrels, you probably picture an ugly, plastic container to catch water, maybe with a spigot to feed the garden, but rainwater harvesting systems can also be beautiful.

Systems can be as simple as a plastic barrel, but companies like Rain Xchange offer stunning rainwater harvesting systems that look like an urn or a fountain. Rather than the typical DIY rain barrel that you're probably used to seeing, these more elaborate setups collect rainwater while enhancing the beauty of your lawn. The collection system is underground, so that you can collect, store and use rainwater without sullying your landscape.


If you're going to install any sort of rainwater harvesting system, it's important to check local laws first. Some areas don't allow any rainwater harvesting, and you don't want to invest in a system only to find out that you're violating a city or state ordinance [source: Lance]. The same goes for using rainwater in the home. Collected rainwater is considered grey water, and in some places you need a special permit to reuse grey water in your home, even for flushing the toilet [source: Portland Online].

5: Shipping Container Buildings

Container City 2, a set of attractive work/live studio spaces in Leamouth, London, was made from 30 shipping containers.
Fin Fahey/Flickr

Like with cob houses, shipping container buildings address the high impact associated with traditional building materials. Instead of using new materials that have to be manufactured, shipping container homes reclaim old shipping crates and use them to create prefabricated structures. Shipping crates can be stacked vertically or lined up side-by-side to create residential or commercial buildings. There are a few different ways to build a shipping container home, depending on how ambitious you are.

A number of companies offer prefabricated, or prefab, shipping crate houses, which you can live in almost right out of the box. These prefab homes usually come equipped with power, water, and sometimes even central heating and air [source: Pilloton]. If you're more of a do-it-yourselfer, you can procure your own containers from a company like Sea Box and purchase a set of plans. From there, you can construct a shipping container home from scratch or hire contractors to build it out for you.


Either way, you want to make sure that you check out local and state building codes before starting on a shipping container home. Reed Construction Data has a helpful Building Code Reference Library, which is a good place to start researching on your own. If you're planning to hire a contractor, he should know if shipping crate homes adhere to code in your area.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Gangemi, Jeffrey. "Selling Solar Power Back to the Grid." Business Week. July 6, 2006. (September 9, 2011) http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/jul2006/sb20060706_167332.htm
  • Greenroofs.com. "Greenroofs 101." (September 9, 2011) http://www.greenroofs.com/Greenroofs101/index.html
  • Green Roof Plants. "Dictionary of Terms." (September 13, 2011) http://www.greenroofplants.com/green-roof-technology/dictionary-of-terms/
  • Lance, Jennifer. "Rainwater Collection Now Legal for Some in Colorado; Still Illegal in Utah." Blue Living Ideas. July 16, 2009. (September 13, 2011) http://bluelivingideas.com/2009/07/16/rainwater-collection-legal-colorado-illegal-utah/
  • Natural Building Network. "Welcome to the Natural Building Network." (September 9, 2011) http://nbnetwork.org/
  • One Block Off the Grid. "Photovoltaic Shingles: How do they compare to Solar Panels?" (September 9, 2011) http://howsolarworks.1bog.org/solar-shingles/
  • Pelletier, Jason. "Good Green Roofs." Low Impact Living. February 17, 2008. (September 9, 2011) http://www.lowimpactliving.com/blog/2008/02/17/green-roofs-for-homes/
  • Pilloton, Emily. "Prefab Friday: LOT-EK Container Home Kit." Inhabitat. May 5, 2007. (September 13, 2011) http://inhabitat.com/prefab-friday-lot-ek-container-home-kit-cmk/
  • Portland Online. "Rainwater Harvesting." Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. (September 13, 2011) http://www.portlandonline.com/bps/index.cfm?c=ecbbd&a=bbehfa
  • Proefrock, Philip. "Green Architecture Versus Great Architecture." Green Building Elements. May 5, 2008. (September 9, 2011) http://greenbuildingelements.com/2008/05/05/green-architecture-versus-great-architecture/
  • RainXchange. "RainXchange Systems." (September 9, 2011) http://www.rainxchange.com/
  • Sea Box. "ISO Shipping Containers." (September 9, 2011) http://www.seabox.com/
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Green Building." (September 9, 2011) http://www.epa.gov/greenbuilding/pubs/about.htm
  • U.S. Green Building Council. "What LEED Measures." (September 9, 2011) http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=1989
  • Ziggy. "Natural Building 101: Building a Cob House." Green Building Elements. September 12, 2008. (September 9, 2011) http://greenbuildingelements.com/2008/09/12/natural-building-101-building-an-eco-friendly-cob-house/