The last fifteen years have seen a dramatic rise in the popularity of sustainable buildings. In just five years—from 2005 to 2010—the value of green, non-residential construction in the U.S. grew from $3 billion to nearly $70 billion, and the growth of the green building market in Canada has followed this trend. With the conversation about green building growing louder and louder in the last few years, it might seem like sustainable building projects are a recent development. But in fact the idea of environmentally-friendly design has been around for a long time, and the seeds of the current movement can be found back in the environmental movement of the 1970s.

Green business building

Green business building

Obviously, there’s nothing new about buildings making the most of their surroundings. Ancient societies around the world used local materials to erect buildings designed to make the most of the prevailing climate. In modern times, there are plenty of examples of buildings that incorporated green features going back into the 19th century. The Crystal Palace, built in London in 1851, is not only famous for the large plate-glass windows that gave it its name, but also for its passive air conditioning system. Mechanical louvers in the ceiling could be opened to release hot air from the hall, and gaps in the flooring used the pressure differential to pull colder air up from underneath. Around the turn of the century, New York skyscrapers like the Flatiron Building and the Wainwright Building were designed with deep-set windows and retractable awnings to block sunlight.

With the advent of air-conditioning and the improvement of steel and glass manufacturing in the 1930s, the modern building was born, and little attention was paid to the environmental footprint of these new technological marvels. But only a few decades later, architects began to question the wisdom of buildings designed with the promise of limitless resources. The environmental movement of the 1970s spurred interest in a new type of building that would work with the surrounding environment instead of against it.

prospective view to glass high-rise building skyscrapers at night

In Canada, this nascent green building movement focused on improving the efficiency of residential homes. Natural Resources Canada’s R-2000 program, which launched in 1981, promoted design elements and the use of new technologies that made home heating more efficient. The R-2000 program also set standards for indoor air quality to help occupants avoid the ill-effects of buildings that were too tightly sealed. In 1993, the C-2000 program was launched to bring these standards to commercial building projects as well.

The 1990s were a time of experimentation for the Canadian green building industry. Projects like the YMCA Environmental Learning Center in St. Clements, Ontario and the Boyne Conservation Center in Shelburne, Ontario incorporated new technology like solar heating and greywater treatment that wasn’t yet tenable on a large scale. These buildings introduced the public to the idea of sustainable design and helped chart the course for the future of green building projects.

By the early 2000s, green building was ready for the mainstream. Canada now has over 770 certified green buildings, and Toronto is the home of the World Green Building Council. In the coming years, it can only be expected that the concept of sustainability will continue to change the building industry here as well as around the world.