Shades of Green: Defining Ecological Design

We have come a long way in our image of sustainable development, but we are often left at odds when agreeing to how ecological construction is defined. For example, the Commerzbank in Frankfurt and the Earthships in New Mexico illustrate two very different views on what sustainable architecture should look like. Many such as myself, see it as an umbrella term, which categorize a long list of environmental factors that need to be addressed in the context of construction. Some see it as more of a singular issue, such as pollution and nothing more. As a result, their solution is a general idea that they hope works for everything. Now while both of these concepts are green by nature, one appears to be far more detailed, that proves this topic is not black and white but rather shades of grey green.

Shades of Ecological Design

Authors Simon Guy and Steven Moore propose that there are different shades of sustainable advocates, thus giving us a wide range of what sustainable architecture is. This suggestion also proposes that there’s more than just one solution or global system to combat environmental degradation. A perfect example of error when purposing a global solution would be Agenda 21; this action implemented by the United Nation in 1992 is a “broad outline of planning goals and [sustainable] targets” meant to be fulfilled throughout the world and although not enforced by law in many places; it suggests a somewhat “socialist” intent that complicates local laws on property rights. Sustainability in any case is different depending on who you talk to, hence emerges this theory of types and shades. These shades are often formed through social categories such as Communities, Green Organizations, and Conservationists. Each of these groups has their own outline towards what they believe “green building” is, but where we as individuals fall in this system is up to us.


EcoDistrict sustainable neighborhood design for Portland, Oregon. Image via BetterHomesNW.com


At a local level it’s thought that communities are more in tune with what socio-ecological issues are affecting them. Socio-ecological is a term which defines social factors such as construction and the affect it has on the environment. “Green” communities would connect people who have felt their voices weren’t being heard into having a position on what is occurring in their environment. Since communities are different country to country and region to region, this approach seemingly presents great alternatives, however, in reality cost always plays a factor. In most cases after a series of compromises and changes the concept of “green” is not quite the shade intended.

Green Organizations

Green building standards like LEED aim to promote sustainable construction and create a more conscious awareness of “green building”. Programs like this that compete with one another allow there to be a suitable standard to use when building. What fails in this case is that point systems at which they rate what sustainable structures are. Although great in concept, I feel that it places limitations on what people should be reaching for the sake of advancing ecological structures. If we keep progression at a standstill, it will peak and become irrelevant. As much as these rating systems are updated to reflect technology, I see it as a cap of how far an architect or developer needs to go when thinking green.


An eco-machine is a self-contained ecosystem designed by John Todd Ecological Design. Image via Bloomberg Business Week.


Conservationists tend to put forth all a lot of theories and suggestion to better our environment. They are beneficial to the ecological movement because they provide newer concepts of green. This helps fuel the communities’ fantasy when it comes to architecture and substantiality. However, some of their most interesting concepts are left to the imagination because no matter how much we would like to create some of these theories they’re not yet possible.

Green Washing Effect

Over the past few years green has become the new hot button issue in our society. This has led to misinformation about what is green and what isn’t. In architecture I would like to believe we strive for the most before advising it as green, but that’s not always the case. We need to be conscientious of what ecological construction really is and not let anything deter us from making the best choices start to finish. This means looking into where our products and materials are coming from and not just trusting it at face value for being green. Often companies advertise things as green with no real proof of it being so. This is called “green washing”. We need to educate ourselves further so we don’t end up buying into these false statements.

Green comes in many shades and we can decide what that means to us, but let’s make sure it is a shade a green and not something pretending to be.

Feature Image: The Edgware Road Tube Station in the United Kingdom. Image Via: Biotecture.

About The Author

is a undergrad student who has been studying architecture for over four years, first at Pratt Institute and now at UCF. Sustainability is important to her as a designer because architects greatly influence the environment through building and construction. It's vital for her to understand what the current issues are and how we can go about improving them. Her motto is "We can't create innovation without knowing what has already been done".