10 of the Most Energy Efficient, Sustainable Buildings in the World (Video)


Buildings eat up a lot of energy. Worldwide, they are responsible for more than 40 percent of global energy used and up to one third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Thankfully, green-minded architects and designers continue to push the limits of energy efficiency, from retrofitting older buildings to reduce their energy usage to building new ones that create more energy than they require.

In the last few decades, sustainable architecture has come a long way. In the early days, architects and designers sought to make buildings energy efficient primarily to reduce utility and operational costs. But the philosophy has evolved around the principles of social, economic and ecological sustainability, with many green architects putting a premium on reducing the negative environmental impact of their structures. But among its practitioners, the definition of sustainable architecture is still not set in stone.

"I don't think sustainability is a design aesthetic, any more than having electricity in your building, or telephones, or anything else," Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, told Environment Yale. "It's an ethic, a basic consideration that we have to have as architects designing buildings."

Stern says American architects, designers and builders are “in an early, slightly naive phase” in coming to terms with sustainability and “we have to get everybody’s attention.” He argues that they will catch on quickly, so that “in 10 years we’re not going to talk about sustainability anymore, because it’s going to be built into the core processes of architecture.” 

By elegantly addressing the sustainability question through a combination of function and beauty, the following 10 energy efficient buildings have gotten a lot of attention around the globe.

1. One Angel Square, Manchester, United Kingdom

Manchester’s One Angel Square is the 15-story headquarters of the Co-Operative Group, and features several sustainable elements, from a heat recovery system that helps increase energy efficiency to rainwater and greywater recycling systems. Low-energy LED lights and IT setups, as well as a combined heat and power plant inside, provide practical, cost-saving benefits. For its impressive eco-friendly design, One Angel Square was rated “Outstanding” by BREEAM, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, a method of assessing, rating and certifying building sustainability established in 1990.

Andy Wilkinson, a Cambridge-based videographer who shot the video of One Angel Square, called the building "one of the most impressive new buildings to appear on the Manchester skyline in recent years."

2. David & Lucile Packard Foundation Headquarters, Los Altos, California

The David & Lucile Packard Foundation headquarters isn’t just a beautiful example of modern design, it is a leader in energy efficiency, known for being the largest net-zero energy certified building in the world. Part of that efficiency comes from its effective use of daylight, as well as the 900 photovoltaic panels installed on its roof.

But the building's sustainability doesn’t end with energy efficiency. The complex is made up of 95 percent recycled materials from deconstructed buildings and is equipped with a rainwater collection system that can store 20,000 gallons of water, collected from rooftop gutters, used for the smart-controlled drip irrigation of its living green roof as well as the building’s bathrooms. The foundation says the building's goal is to bring its "operations into closer alignment with the conservation goals of our founders and trustees.”

3. One Embankment Place, London, United Kingdom

Erected in the early 1990s, One Embankment Place in London went through a massive overhaul in the 2000s, and in 2013, received BREEAM’s highest recorded score worldwide. The U.K.’s first "air rights" building—meaning it was constructed on top of an existing structure—proves that buildings can successfully be refurbished and reused, instead of torn down and tons of materials sent to a landfill. That type of large-scale recycling is an essential element of sustainable thinking.

The Guardian reports utility bill savings estimates of £250,000 ($329,000) each year, but PwC has forecast even more savings for this impressive structure: electricity (-221 percent); gas (-11 percent); and water (-33 percent). The super energy-efficient building has one of the largest tri-generation systems in the world—producing electricity, heat and cooling in one process—which has allowed it to slash its carbon emissions by more than half.

4. Powerhouse Kjorbo, Oslo, Norway

Another older building that got a new and sustainable lease on life is Oslo’s Powerhouse Kjorbo, which is comprised of two buildings that were renovated and then rebuilt from recycled materials. The new building’s energy consumption has been reduced by a remarkable 90 percent, and it is now an “energy plus” building, meaning it generates more power than it requires to function. "By combining an optimizing existing technology in new ways, an ordinary office building from the 1980s can produce more energy than it uses,” say the narrator in the video. 

Kjorbo has been outfitted with several innovative technologies to keep its sustainability rating high, such as ground wells that provide heat to radiators (while also serving as a water supply). The building also features a unique, eco-friendly charred wood exterior that helps keep maintenance costs low.

"Using charred wood for construction is a viable eco-friendly option, particularly since this completely natural manufacturing process requires only fire and wood; the harsh chemicals used in pressure-treated lumber are eliminated," writes Luke Barley on Architizer.com. "Wood treated with fire is paradoxically fire resistant, as well as resistant to insects. The material is also durable due to its low reactivity and is rated to last 80 years."

Considering all these forward-thinking sustainability elements, it’s no surprise that Powerhouse Kjorbo was the recipient of the 2014 Norwegian Technology Award.

5. Manitoba Hydro Place, Manitoba, Canada

Manitoba Hydro Place is Canada's only LEED Platinum office building, and the most energy efficient building in North America. A 115-meter solar chimney gives the building passive ventilation, while a double-skin facade with motorized computer-controlled vents make regulating temperature a cinch. Features like these allow the building to save over 70 percent more energy than traditional commercial buildings.

In the video, engineer Mark Pauls explains how the design combines traditional, indigenous building ideas with modern technology:

This building is a sort of marriage between old technology going back to the vernacular, indigenous architecture and getting ideas from how the teepee uses 'stack effect' to ventilate and how the adobe wall structure takes advantage of thermal mass to modulate temperature swings. All these ideas were integral to this building. But at the same time we have, with our extreme temperature swings, we need the building technology, the modern technology, the building management system, the motorized operable windows that are automatically controlled to maintain certain temperatures in a double-façade. So those kind of things all came together in this building.

6. The Edge, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Edge in Amsterdam has the distinction of receiving the highest score ever recorded by the BREEAM certification system. Bloomberg Businessweek dubbed it the "Smartest Building in the World." In addition to having a bevy of rooftop panels that help keep it energy neutral, the Edge is the first building in the world to employ Philips “Power-over-Ethernet” (PoE)-based LED lighting, which allows network controls of the lighting and data gathering via sensors integrated in the light units. Workers in the building can regulate lighting in their individual work spaces by using an app on their smartphones.

Smart lighting is just one way the Edge is connected to people. Bloomberg Businessweek’s Tom Randall describes the unique relationship the building has with its human occupants:

It knows where you live. It knows what car you drive. It knows who you’re meeting with today and how much sugar you take in your coffee. (At least it will, after the next software update.) This is the Edge, and it’s quite possibly the smartest office space ever constructed. A day at the Edge in Amsterdam starts with a smartphone app developed with the building’s main tenant, consulting firm Deloitte. From the minute you wake up, you’re connected. The app checks your schedule, and the building recognizes your car when you arrive and directs you to a parking spot.

7. The Bullitt Center, Seattle, Washington

Seattle’s Bullitt Center opened in 2013 and has since become one of the greenest commercial buildings in the world. The epitome of energy efficiency, it derives 100 percent of its power from renewable energy. Compared to the other commercial offices and buildings in Seattle, the Bullitt Center is 83 percent more energy efficient on average.

Not only is the Bullitt Center naturally lit during the daytime, it’s smartly ventilated to make it comfortable inside, helping to increase mood and productivity. It’s a great example of what work offices will be in the coming years: smartly designed, efficient and attractive.

On its website, Bullitt Foundation president Denis Hayes, a staunch environmentalist who was the coordinator for the first Earth Day in 1970, explains the vision behind the building:

Arguably, our chief innovation is that we brought all these ideas together in one place at the same time. The Bullitt Center — instead of pursuing just net zero energy, net zero water, net zero carbon, composting toilets, toxic-free materials, an enticing stairway, 80+ percent day lighting using high-performance windows — chose all-of-the-above. And we chose them for a six-story urban infill project in a dense neighborhood in one of the greatest cities in the world, Seattle. Our goal is to drive change in the marketplace faster and further. Three years ago, a solar-powered, six-story office building in cloud-covered Seattle would have struck most people as not merely foolhardy but impossible. Today it exists.

8. New Orleans BioInnovation Center, New Orleans, Louisiana

Not far from New Orleans’ French Quarter is the BioInnovation Center, a hub for biotech startups that aims to bring innovation and economic empowerment to the area. With a design both elegant and smart, the BioInnovation Center is becoming a key part of the revitalization of the neighborhood that surrounds it.

According to its website:

Built on a brownfield site, this LEED-Gold research facility is designed as "urban acupuncture," a modest project that helped trigger the revitalization of a neighborhood, generating over 200 jobs. The program includes a flexible 100-person conferencing center, breakout spaces, and a 2,000-square-foot café. The design reinterprets vernacular regional climate-responsive strategies—the slatted shutter, the landscaped courtyard water feature, the sheltered porch—to provide a facility that is both of its place and of its time.

The center captures rainwater and diffuses it to plants and soils on site, and also collects AC condensate—up to 20,000 gallons per week—which provides all landscape irrigation.

9. Empire State Building, New York City, New York

Not many people think of sustainability or energy efficiency when they look at the Empire State Building, but this world-famous New York landmark certainly is. $550 million was put into renovating the building and making it more green, which allowed the Empire State Building to earn a LEED Gold Certification in 2011. The revamp cut the building’s energy use and expenses by $4.4 million annually, and within the next decade it’s expected to reduce its carbon footprint by at least 105,000 tons. One of the most daunting parts of making the Empire State Building more energy efficient was replacing all 6,514 of its glass windows.

The success of the Empire State Building’s sustainability retrofit provides a model for other older buildings to emulate. Clay Nesler of Johnson Controls, part of the team that worked with the building’s management, explains how the project provides an example for other building owners seeking to improve their older buildings' energy efficiency:

Investing in energy efficiency for any type of building—from the Empire State Building to the local school or hospital—provides building owners with significant financial returns and creates comfortable and efficient environments. ...Performance contracting provides the model to invest in upgrades with no upfront costs to the owner and the ability to pay for the project with the savings. It’s a risk free model that everyone should take advantage of.

10. International Renewable Energy Agency Headquarters, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) headquarters is one of the most futuristic and energy efficient buildings on the planet. It entered Abu Dhabi’s skyline in 2015 and has already won a number of international awards for its innovative, sustainable design and features. 

The nearly 32,000-square-meter multiuse complex is comprised of three interconnected buildings, and is the first office building in Abu Dhabi to be awarded a 4 Pearl Estidama Construction Rating Certificate by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council.

In addition to an external screen that maximizes light while minimizing the amount of heat getting inside, the windows block 90 percent of solar radiation and the building’s rooftop has a photovoltaic system covering 1,000 square meters to help it produce its own energy.

The building also features solar thermal water heaters which seek to achieve 75 percent of the building’s yearly hot water demand. Compared to a non-Estidama certified building, according to CleanTechnica, the design elements of the building are expected to reduce energy consumption by 40 percent and water consumption by 53 percent.

These 10 amazing structures are proof positive that smart design, cutting-edge technology and green architecture can significantly increase a building's energy efficiency and reduce its environmental footprint. As the field of sustainable architecture grows, more examples will pop up around the world.

Do you know of an energy efficient, eco-friendly building or a sustainability strategy that buildings should incorporate into their design? Share your ideas in the comments.

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