Discovery Guides Areas


Green Buildings: Conserving the Human Habitat
(Released October 2006)

  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations

Web Sites


What's Old is New:
An Extremely Brief History of Green Buildings


Human dwellings developed in relation to the surrounding environment, taking advantage of materials at hand and creating as much comfort as feasible. From caves to tents to huts to igloos, humans creatively used and adapted their natural surroundings. Through the centuries and millennia, technology became more sophisticated, yet the basic principles remained the same, until the advent of heating and air conditioning in the 20th century. Once this happened, humans were able to use energy, originally from the sun, stored in the earth for millennia, in the form of non-renewable resources such as coal. It became relatively easy to alter the internal environment, rather than adapting the external, to suit our needs. Modern buildings hence became self-contained units isolated from the immediate environment. As green building pioneer William McDonough put it, "Most conventional practitioners of modern design and construction find it easier to make buildings as if nature and place did not exist. In Rangoon or Racine, their work is the same."10

courtyard with trees
New Parliamentary Building, 2000 (London, England), Features a ventilation system that is historically referential and provides an environmentally sensitive form of air-conditioning. A series of towers, recall the site's Gothic architecture
Michael Hopkins and Partners. © Richard Davies

Yet large buildings employing such green strategies as natural ventilation and passive solar energy, have been around for centuries. Pueblo Indians, for instance, used a southern exposure plus overhanging cliffs to cool their adobes in winter, while sunlight struck less directly during the hot summer.11 The ancient Romans similarly employed southern facing houses to trap heat inside during the cold winter months, employing "clear materials like mica or glass," which, "act as solar heat traps: they readily admit sunlight into a room but hold in the heat that accumulates inside."12

The creative application of green principles continued in the United States. The National Building Museum, housed in a Civil War era building, is considered an architectural marvel and precursor of contemporary green ideas. The museum's website describes it as possessing, "an ingenious system of windows, vents, and open archways allows the Great Hall to function as a reservoir of light and air."13 Museum curator Howard Decker explains that the design acts as "a natural form of air conditioning" in which cool air is sucked in at the bottom vents and then drawn upward, as though through an enormous chimney.14

courtyard with fountain
The Great Hall of the Meigs Building, now home to the National Building Museum

Use of natural heating and cooling flows has not been limited to esoteric structures. Architect Richard Rogers compares traditional structures to today's: "The oldest masonry buildings work much better, really. They mediate between inside and outside, cool off at night, and then keep the cool inside during the day."15

Green buildings, then, represent at least in part a return to ancient architectural principles and a reaction against recent practices. Indeed, current architecture is able to draw on green structures that precede human history; one contemporary Zimbabwe building uses a natural form of air conditioning-in which hot air creates suction to draw in cool air-derived from studying termite mounds.16 According to environmental engineer Guy Battle, "the future of engineering environments lies in a new generation of buildings that use free energy to drive environmental systems, rather than functioning as hermetically sealed, artificial internal climates."17

Go To What Is Green? LEED Certification

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