Sustainable Architecture: Living Buildings with Carbon Offsets

By Georgette Kilgore | Updated on September 15, 2021

Have you ever thought about what sustainable architecture is and how it looks?

Years ago, famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright changed the way people thought about buildings and homes because he integrated natural aspects of the surrounding landscape into his designs. You may have seen, or heard of, one of his most famous structures, Fallingwater (also known as the Kaufmann Residence), which actually incorporates a waterfall inside the home! It’s both brilliant and beautiful.

Talk about a “living building!”

8 Billion Trees graphic image of a brown two story building with a banner hanging from the middle reading Green Construction Certification, for sustainable construction.

Wright was way ahead of his time because he focused on building structures that harmonized with the land around them, both inside and out.

His “Unitarian Church” (Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin), built in 1947 features a copper roof that is specifically angled to compensate for the heavy snows coming from that direction, and “Taliesin West” (one of his most famous homes) merges with the desert landscape around it, using native stones to form sloping exterior walls and pylons.1

Naturally, Wright and his contemporaries were ignorant of the greenhouse gases generated by concrete production and other materials, but the sustainable nature of his structures was evident in his ability to create buildings that merged with their surroundings and incorporated natural elements within the design for harmony with the planet. His work continues to inspire designers.

And, that’s what sustainable architecture is all about… establishing a “living building” that synchronizes with the Earth around it.

Current “Living Buildings” Actually Exist!

Enter the Twentieth Century… now Wright’s vision, which incorporated live elements in his designs, has become more and more mainstream. Many structures now feature living plants, trees, and other water elements that are designed to help address the climate crisis by reducing the carbon footprint of the building.

In fact, some of the newest tree-covered building designs are simply (not breathtaking) breath-giving! ‘Green buildings’ are currently under construction in Taipei, Dallas, and Singapore, as more and more architectural firms are incorporating living trees and shrubs as part of the structure’s actual materials.

These lovely additions aren’t just aesthetic, they are actually reducing the building’s impact on the environment by reducing greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide), providing more shaded areas, and enhancing air quality in and around the building, which reduces the energy used for climate controls.

The headquarters for Rolex, in Dallas, TX, broke ground in 2015 and was completed in 2018. It features twisting and turning terraces that provide locations for gardens and plants,2 as well as reflecting pools and cascading waterfalls, with everything culminating in a tree topped event area on the roof.

The Agora Gardens Tower, located in Taipei, is another eco-friendly building that includes plants and trees on every floor of its ‘double helix’ design frame. The ambitious project makes it possible for residents to grow their own food, further reducing the environmental and ecological cost of new construction.

ParkRoyal on Pickering, a hotel in Singapore, is a prime example of how using living plants as part of a structure can not only make the building eco-friendly, but also as a way to beautify and make a building distinctive.

In addition to trees and other plant life, fountains and open breezeways were used by Ancient Romans as natural ‘cooling systems.’ And those, and other higher tech solutions, are being used today to help the environment recover from nearly a century of abuse. However, unfortunately, these innovations are not enough to completely erase the footprint of these mammoth structures.

Literal “Green Roofs” Cropping Up All Over

In addition to incorporating trees and plants within the design of buildings, a number of designers are using ‘green’ sustainable architecture roof systems (planting full gardens as the roof) to make their structures eco-friendlier and help lower the ecological impact.

Many of these roofs feature hardy varieties of succulents, grasses, wildflowers, and herbs, and are planted to ensure the longevity of the system. Layers underneath usually include insulation, waterproof membranes to prevent moisture seepage, and specific drainage systems so that rainwater can nourish the living roof, without destroying what’s underneath.

Like incorporating trees and other plants, the benefits to a green roof include carbon sequestration, but they also reduce stormwater runoff and impact the building’s heat absorption aspect. Plus, birds, insects and other little creatures can find refuge in the ‘air’ sanctuary… not to mention that some of these roofs also support residential gardens for growing food.

Establishing Living Structures Using Afforestation Carbon Offsets and Credits

Using natural resources (like water) to build an efficient cooling system and incorporating trees and plants into a building’s design is awesome, but there’s more that can be done. The ecological impact of building continues to pile up on the environmental debt, and sadly, even the greenest ideas still leave a big footprint. That’s because of production and energy costs required for construction (especially concrete), as well as the resources, both renewable and non-renewable, that are used.

And although these tree and water techniques can apply to new construction and remodeling efforts, helping reduce their carbon impact, but what about buildings that already exist? How can we transform these into ‘living’ structures?

That’s where afforestation and reforestation offsets and carbon credits come into play.

Currently, “green building certifications” are largely focused on new construction, so older buildings are mostly ignored. But, that’s not the only problem. They’re also extremely expensive and impractical to employ for a large percentage of new buildings. (Read more about the obstacles with the current LEED requirements here.)

So, the current system, while being great in theory, is terrible in practice because it simply doesn’t do enough to stop the environmental crisis the world is facing. Since we need to do something now, not 20 years from now, carbon credits offer a way to make every structure, everywhere on the planet, a “living” building. Here’s how it works.

Reforestation Doesn’t Just Minimize Environmental Impact, It Makes Any Building Completely GREEN

It might seem impossible to use living plants for carbon sequestration on an existing structure… because you certainly wouldn’t want to rip out and destroy historic buildings simply to make them more ‘receptive’ to trees. But, by using refforestation programs (and doing them correctly), older buildings can deliver the same, or even enhanced benefits for the environment, as these new ‘living structures.’

How It Works: Planting Trees for Carbon Neutrality

Reforestation projects work by using planting trees carbon offset programs. And not just any trees, native species that are designed to establish carbon sinks (areas on the planet that naturally grab carbon out of the atmosphere). For years, clearing and burning practices (driven by high demands for farmland and other resources) led to the wanton destruction of extremely bio-diverse regions, like the Amazon rainforest.

When afforestation and tree planting projects are done correctly with the best carbon offset providers, they help rebuild and restore the natural vegetation that previously existed in these ecologically threatened ‘hot spots’ that have been cut, cleared and devastated by deforestation or other natural disasters, and therefore have the ability to reduce carbon emissions by replacing the natural ‘carbon sinks’ that help maintain the Earth’s natural balance. So, essentially, the trees you’ve planted continue to help the planet, year after year, after year, allowing the building to become completely carbon neutral!

Plus, once the land is reclaimed, it reestablishes much needed habitats for endangered and threatened animals, providing a safe location for indigenous species to flourish. But it only works if the replanted area is protected from future destruction.

Step 1. Figure the Number of Trees You’ll Need

When carbon credits are purchased for a building, they are based on the square footage of the structure, whether that involves planned sustainable architecture construction or an existing building. Using various calculations and specific factors (such as location, usage, age, etc.) the number of trees needed to offset the carbon emissions generated by the building is figured.

Step 2. Find a Reforestation Program

This can be a little tricky, but you can find reputable carbon offset providers in a convenient list here. The main thing to look for is complete transparency and whether or not the provider offers evidence of the planting sites. It’s also a great idea to look for accreditation by a GHG Registry. You can learn more about the best GHG registries that offer validation and verification here.

Step 3. Purchase the Carbon Offsets

Based on the amount of square footage and the age of the building (or prospective building), purchase offsets that erase the carbon footprint of the structure or remodeling project. Because there is no set regulatory commission that establishes universal rates for carbon credits and offsets, the prices you find may vary slightly. (Individuals can figure their personal emissions using an ecological footprint calculator.)

Step 4. Get Peace of Mind

Once you have sequestered the carbon footprint of your building or sustainable architecture construction project, you’ll know that you have done your part to erase the damaging CO2 that is causing climate change for years to come. Plus, you’ll have the added benefits of wildlife protection and habitat reconstruction, that enables reestablishment of both biodiversity and thriving species.

Sustainable architecture and buildings aren’t are ‘dream’ anymore… they can be achieved through innovation and programs that allow and provide builders and individuals with the resources needed to erase the carbon emissions generated by construction.


References

1Sommer, R. L. (1998). Frank Lloyd Wright: American Architect for the Twentieth Century. North Dighton, MA: World Publications Group, Inc. Retrieved 2021

2Harwood Center Dallas. (2017, March 22). 7 Things You Didn’t Know About the New Rolex Building. Retrieved July 10, 2021, from harwoodcenterdallas.com: https://www.harwoodcenterdallas.com/7-things-didnt-know-new-rolex-building/