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Sustainable Architecture: Going Zero Waste

Shutterstock Photo License - By Eugenio Marongiu



We can’t deny that modern architecture provides us with the best possible living spaces in the entirety of human history. Everything is convenient, durable, and as safe as possible. However, erecting a single building comes with a lot of issues. For example, architects have to take scarcity of resources into account. Furthermore, a single construction project can yield up to 3.9 pounds of waste per square foot. In other words, modern architecture, though advanced, is still quite wasteful.

As an architect in 2021, you have to think about the environment. This is why many architecture firms are leading the way in helping the environment. After all, if you can’t rely on sustainable practices, you risk further pollution, which can lead to a huge number of problems in the future. For that reason, as well as many others (e.g., saving money), contemporary architects are turning to zero waste business practices. But how can you apply zero waste policies within your own architectural projects? Well, this article is here to help you find out.

Describing Zero Waste

People online, especially business owners, tend to run into the term ‘zero waste’ and a whole host of questions follows. What is zero waste? Who started zero waste movements and why? Is it something that I should consider?

Zero waste is exactly what its name suggests. It’s a method of conserving all resources without the need to burn or discard any excess materials. There are several ways we can achieve that goal. Generally speaking, it requires responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of everything, from raw materials to finished products and even product packages. In short, everything that doesn’t have to become waste must be used or reused in some way.

Various different industries are already using the zero waste approach. For instance, you have zero waste restaurants popping up across the world. Zero waste shopping malls are also becoming increasingly popular. And yes, even some of the biggest corporations on the planet are looking into implementing zero waste practices.

But how does zero waste apply to architecture, exactly?

LEED Certification

Since the early 1990s, experts have been trying to come up with a green building certification program that can be applied to any architectural project worldwide. The result of their efforts was the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, also known as LEED.

LEED certification generally covers everything regarding a construction project. Some of the categories include: water efficiency, sustainable sites, atmosphere and energy, indoor environment quality, materials and resources, and design innovation.

Levels of certification range between 0 and 100 points, with 40 being the lowest for certification. Said levels are ranked as follows:

  • 40‒49 — certified
  • 50‒59 — silver
  • 60‒79 — gold
  • 80 and above — platinum

Currently, the LEED rating system is grouped into five overarching categories:

  • Building Design and Construction (BD+C)
  • Interior Design and Construction
  • Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M)
  • Neighborhood Development
  • Home design and construction

As of August 2021, there are roughly 96,000 LEED-certified projects around the world, in 167 different countries. This number clearly shows just how interested people are in green architecture, and the upward trend will definitely continue in the decades to come.

Key Points to Consider in Zero Waste Architecture

In order to maintain a zero-waste policy, an architect needs to consider the so-called four R’s of circular economy: rethink, reduce, reuse, and recycle.


Rethinking is the initial step to every zero-waste project. As an architect, you need to look at your project and start thinking outside of the box. For example, consider the materials you will need. Can you use an alternative, and if so, can your alternative materials be locally sourced? That way, you will save money on transport and shipping, as well as reduce your working hours. Furthermore, you’ll need to think about potential design constraints and how best to tackle them. Innovative architectural practices like passive solar design can also help you achieve your zero-waste goals if you start to implement them as early as the planning stage.


There are several ways you can look at on-site reduction when it comes to architecture. Here are several examples:

  • Resizing the level of concrete, metal, or any other raw material
  • Designing lightweight systems that use up fewer resources than usual
  • Decreasing on-site waste via different building and designing practices
  • Eliminating the need for excess drying or cooling during construction
  • Lowering the carbon footprint by eliminating the need for transport as much as possible
  • Reducing the size of the urban living space
  • Figuring out sustainable transport systems from one location to the next in an urban area.


Just like reducing, reusing can also be viewed in more than one way when it comes to sustainable architecture. More specifically, we will look into two types of reuse:

  • Material reuse
  • Reuse of entire buildings

Reuse of materials is rather straightforward. During construction (or post-demolition), you can take the raw materials and, instead of sending them to the landfill, use them for your new project. Anything from structural steel meshes, solid wood, concrete, brick, stone, glass, metal coatings, and partition walls can and should be reused whenever possible.

Reusing an entire building might sound like a novel concept, but it’s actually something we’ve been doing for centuries, if not millennia. If a building still has structural integrity, tearing it down would be a massive waste. Instead, as a project supervisor, you can convert the building into something new. For example, you can turn an old factory or a prison into a museum, an art gallery, an office space, or even a hotel. Many architects are following similar strategies to lower the carbon footprints of their homes as well. The only real limit, other than potential budgetary constraints, is your imagination.


One of the new concepts that entrepreneurs are embracing with open arms is urban mining. In short, it’s the practice of going to abandoned buildings or post-demolition landfills and acquiring secondary raw materials that we can convert into something else. That way, instead of polluting our land, water, and air, these materials are finding a new purpose and follow the circular model of green architecture. As a modern architect yourself, you can greatly benefit from recycling construction material, whether as an urban miner or as a provider of the materials themselves.


If applied effectively, sustainable architecture practices can make our lives easier in many different ways. Not only will they save our time, money, and effort in a tangible way, but they will also contribute to keeping our planet safe. And of course, no construction project can ever be safe enough if our very own environment is too dangerous for us to inhabit.

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability brand manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices and writes for Zero Waste.

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