How High-Rise Buildings Can Be Made Sustainable

Published Categorized as Sustainability
Sustainable Highrise Building

High-rise buildings continue to grow in size and quantity as more people move to cities and the population grows. But as the population grows, we also need to consider the environment and how we can lower the impact of high-rise buildings on the environment. So how can high-rise buildings be made sustainable?

New high-rise buildings can be made more sustainable by using locally-sourced materials and a sustainable design during construction. All high-rise buildings can earn a LEED certification proving they are sustainable. And existing buildings can use renewable energy or become green buildings.

This article details how buildings are being made more sustainable for new construction and existing buildings. Then, we dive into high-rise buildings and how they can be built and improved in more sustainable ways.

Sustainability in New Construction vs. Existing Structures

Before diving into sustainability in high-rise buildings specifically, let’s look at the differences between sustainability in new buildings and existing buildings.

Sustainability is becoming more and more popular in buildings, both new and existing. But, there are some differences between the two buildings.

It is much easier to make a new high-rise building sustainable since the architects can design the building specifically to be sustainable. Depending on the size and height of the building, they can make the design different to minimize energy and water consumption and to make the sun and wind impact minimal. Or, they can utilize the sun and wind as energy sources.

So you can make a new building sustainable, but how do you make an existing building sustainable?

First, when possible, making an existing building sustainable through renovations and additions is better for the environment than tearing it down just to rebuild it. Even if it may take some time and money, there are ways to renovate a building to be more sustainable. If you take it one step at a time, you can upgrade to renewable energy sources, add sustainable lighting, and ensure water is not wasted.

And the good thing with existing buildings is that you can analyze their past energy consumption and look for other ways they may not be sustainable. Then, you can focus on how to fix these.

A lot of the sustainable aspects of a new building can be implemented in an existing one to make it more sustainable.

Now, let’s look at how you can make a new or existing high-rise building sustainable and some of the ways that work for both.

Making New High-Rise Buildings Sustainable

Many new high-rise buildings are being built with sustainability as a priority. There are three major ways in which a new high-rise building can be made sustainably:

  • Locally-sourced materials
  • Sustainable designs
  • LEED Certifications

Locally-sourced Materials

First, high-rise buildings use a lot of materials during construction. The bigger the building, the more materials are needed to construct it. Throughout the construction process, all the materials need to get from their manufacturers to the building site. The further they come from, the more impact the construction process will have on the environment.

But when a building prioritizes using locally-sourced materials, the less impact it has on the environment, especially since high-rise buildings use such a high quantity of materials.

For example, consider windows for a new high-rise building in New York City. High-rise buildings have a lot of windows. Say the windows are coming from California. They will have to be transported across the United States, which will use a lot of energy and produce a lot of pollution.

But if the windows come from the New York City area, you will save a lot of gas and waste in the transportation process alone. And windows are just one material used in high-rise buildings. Locally sourcing them will make the construction process and building more sustainable. But the impact on the environment will decrease for every locally-sourced material, so the more, the better.

And while some materials may be difficult to source locally, supply will increase as demand increases. So, even if the construction company cannot locally source something for one project, if builders request the materials be locally-sourced, manufacturers will be motivated to have them available locally, which means future buildings can be more sustainable.

Sustainable Designs

Next, architects use certain designs for high-rise buildings that make them more sustainable. The design is important to keep materials and environmental impact to a minimum during construction and to keep energy usage low after it is built.

The first sustainable design that you might see in a high-rise building is a wind-resistant design. The taller a high-rise building, the more wind it faces, especially at the top. Usually, the more wind resistant a building needs to be, the more materials are needed during construction.

But architects today are becoming more innovative. As technology advances, they can now easily change the buildings’ design to make them wind-resistant instead of using extra or special materials. Fewer materials mean less waste and energy used during construction, thus making the building more sustainable.

For example, the Shanghai Tower is wind resistant. The building is curved in such a way that wind is redirected, and there are fewer materials needed to make it wind resistant.

Furthermore, specific designs can also decrease the energy used once the building is built and occupied. High-rise buildings tend to have a lot of windows and glass, making it hard to regulate the temperature inside the building without using much energy. But, today, there are temperature-regulating facades that help make high-rise buildings more energy efficient.

A temperature-regulating facade saves energy since it naturally keeps the temperature in the building cooler when it is hot outside and warmer when the temperature outside is cold. One example of this is the Ping An International Finance Center in South China.

LEED Certification

Finally, high-rise buildings can earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification which shows that the building meets certain sustainability standards. LEED certifications are earned by getting points for different sustainable aspects of the building.

The more points the building earns, the higher the certification will be. Four levels of LEED certification depend on the number of points earned. Here are the certifications:

  • Certified
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Platinum

With the LEED certification, points are awarded for different types of sustainable aspects of a building. For example, a building can earn points for bike facilities or proximity to public transportation. Or points are earned for reducing energy and water use.

Here are the main categories for points, all of which have subcategories:

  • Location and Transportation
  • Sustainable Sites
  • Water Efficiency
  • Energy and Atmosphere
  • Materials and Resources
  • Indoor Environmental Quality
  • Innovation
  • Regional Priority

There are some subcategories that are required to earn the certification. The other categories are optional depending on what the building can have and what the architects prioritize. Here are the required sustainable parts of a building:

  • Construction Activity Pollution Prevention
  • Outdoor water use reduction
  • Indoor water use reduction
  • Building-level water metering
  • Fundamental commissioning and verification
  • Minimum energy performance
  • Building-level energy metering
  • Fundamental Refrigerant Management
  • Storage and Collection of Recyclables
  • Construction and Demolition Waste Management Planning
  • Minimum Indoor Air Quality Performance
  • Environmental Tobacco Smoke Control

These requirements alone would make a high-rise building more sustainable, especially given the energy and water usage in highly populated buildings. But, if the construction and architect companies can get the complete LEED certification, the building will be highly sustainable.

Making Existing High-Rise Buildings Sustainable

Just because a high-rise building already exists does not mean it cannot be made more sustainable. However, it might be more difficult since you cannot readily implement sustainable methods and systems like you can in a new building. Instead, you will have to change and upgrade current systems to make the high-rise sustainable.

But, as detailed earlier in the article, making an existing building more sustainable is better than tearing it down just to build another. Here are some ways to make an existing high-rise building more sustainable.

Green Buildings

One of the first and easiest ways that you can make an existing high-rise building sustainable is by making it a green building.

To make a building green, you are literally adding greenery like plants and vegetation to it. You can add plants on the roof or let vegetation grow on the side of the building. If you can strategically place the plants so that they do not affect the energy use of the building, you will reduce the carbon footprint while also adding natural elements to the building.

Adding greenery to a building can also make the residents and occupants of the building happier—as nature has a calming effect—particularly if the high-rise is in a large, busy city. And it encourages wildlife to inhabit the area.

One example of a green building is the Oasia Hotel in Singapore. The building is literally green as plants surround it. And the plants do not cover up the gaps in the sides of the building, which allows it to be more energy efficient.

New high-rise buildings can be green too, but it is also an easy way to make an existing building more sustainable since it does not require major renovations.

Renewable Energy

Furthermore, renewable energy sources can be added to existing buildings to lower their energy usage. Depending on the space available, you can add wine turbines, solar panels, or a battery storage system as forms of renewable energy.

High-rises are great places to put wind turbines and solar panels since they have a lot of surface area. And the roof is a good place for them, too, since they are close to the sun or high winds depending on the source and location.

Renewable energy sources are often added to new buildings too. For example, the Bahrain World Trade Center, built in 2008, has wind turbines in between the two towers of the building. So, the building always has a renewable energy source available.

Existing Building LEED Certification

Just like there are LEED certifications for new high-rise buildings, there are also certifications that existing high-rise buildings can get if they are sustainable enough. An existing building can earn an LEED certification during renovations if it meets enough standards, similar to how new high-rise buildings earn the certification. If the renovations for an existing building are major enough, they might have to follow the new building standards.

All the main categories for earning an LEED certification for an existing building are the same as the new building certification, as are the levels you can earn, but the subcategories differ. They differ because some things are harder or easier to implement than others for a new building versus an existing building.

The requirements for the certification also vary. Here are the required things an existing building must have to earn the LEED certification:

  • Site Management Policy
  • Indoor Water Use Reduction
  • Building-Level Water Metering
  • Energy Efficiency Best Management Practices
  • Minimum Energy Performance
  • Building-Level Energy Metering
  • Fundamental Refrigerant Management
  • Ongoing Purchasing and Waste Policy
  • Facility Maintenance and Renovations Policy
  • Minimum Indoor Air Quality Performance
  • Environmental Tobacco Smoke Control
  • Green Cleaning Policy

Other than these required aspects, existing high-rise buildings can choose what they want to renovate and focus on to earn the points needed for the certification. Some aspects may already be in place, like alternative transportation. Then, you will just have to look at what other areas of the building would be easiest and have the biggest environmental impact to replace or upgrade.

Final Thoughts

All high-rise buildings can be made sustainable, no matter if they are existing or unbuilt yet. LEED certifications are a good way to ensure a building is sustainable since they require certain standards buildings must meet.

Otherwise, a building can have renewable energy, be built with locally-sourced materials, and use a sustainable design which in turn requires fewer materials and resources.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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