Though the words “green” and “sustainable” are often used interchangeably, there are several differences between them, meaning that a “green” building is not always “sustainable.”

A building is green when it helps reduce the footprint it leaves on the natural environment and on the health of its inhabitants.

Green home design includes building for energy efficiency, including the use of renewable energy sources such as wind, water, or solar; creating a healthy indoor environment; implementing natural ventilation systems; and using construction materials that minimise the use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the home.

The use of materials and resources that are sustainable, have low embodied energy, and produce a minimal environmental impact are key elements in green construction, as is the efficient use of water by appliances, faucets and shower heads, the recycling of grey water, and the reuse of rain water for landscaping and other non-potable purposes.

Illawarra Flame House

Illawarra Flame House created by University of Wollongong, a 1960s suburban fibro home crated by Australian students to achieve net-zero energy consumption, won the 2013 world’s biggest energy competition.

While the definition of green is relatively simple, sustainability has a more precise meaning derived from the term “sustainable agriculture,” which is the production of any plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare without compromising future generations’ ability to do the same.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, sustainability “creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

The importance of sustainability lies in the “future” factors, which set a higher standard than those used to define green building.

Sustainable products reduce the impact on the environment by using responsibly-sourced products; those that are either completely renewable or sustainably harvested. A sustainably harvested source material is gathered in a way that does not affect the surrounding area, pollute the air or permanently reduce the supply.

Bamboo flooring

Bamboo flooring is a popular green material, but it is not sustainable.

In ecology, the word “sustainable” describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. For humans, it describes the potential for long-term maintenance of well-being, which in turn depends on the well-being of the natural world and the responsible use of natural resources

A very clear example of the difference between “green” and “sustainable,” can be the popular “green” bamboo flooring. There is no doubt that a lumber product made from a renewable resource is green, but most bamboo flooring is made in China and transported by ships and trucks to different countries all around the world. The air pollution caused and the fuel used to transport the material turn it into the opposite of a sustainable material, since it contributes to global climate change.

Another example can be the wood used to build a house. While wood is generally considered an eco-friendly or green product because it is natural and durable, it is not always sustainable. Wood is sustainable if the company that cuts down the trees does not permanently deplete the forest. If it is harvested in an environmentally irresponsible way, it is not sustainable at all.

Wood sustainable material

Wood is a sustainable material if the company that cuts down the trees to produce it does not permanently deplete the forest.

Following this reasoning, it is very important to evaluate the way materials are produced and transported. Using reclaimed wood or FSC Controlled wood, can be both “green” and “sustainable.”

Only a house that meets zero energy standards – with zero net energy consumption and zero carbon emissions – can be considered sustainable. Buildings that contribute to urban sprawl and large homes which consume high levels of energy and resources can not be considered sustainable.

Architect Robert Stern, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, noted that “in ten years we are not going to talk about sustainability anymore, because it is going to be built into the core processes of architecture.”

With its growth in the architecture industry, claiming a building is sustainable will eventually be like an architect getting up in front of an audience to “proudly proclaim how his buildings did not fall down.”

  • Great article! With a rapidly growing industry many “green” terms, are being used in the wrong context. It’s important projects or products that claim to be green and or sustainable actually are. Thank you for the detailed clarification Mercedes.

  • Great paper by the author Mercedes Marrty!

  • The paper speaks to an interesting point and is generally useful, but there are a bunch of problems with it to. The way I think of it is that ‘green’ is very much a good thing in that green things causes less harm to the environment than ordinary things. ‘Sustainable’ is green enough that many years from now when your grandchild is sitting with his or her grandchild talking about subjects like this, your grandchild will be less worried about climate change and environmental loss than you are.

    There are clearer, more technical explanations than this, but I think that most people relate more easily to grandchildren than ‘future generations’.

  • All the developed world had a long sustainable growth, by definition and history, having developed trade and using their empire’s natural resources. Many horses and entire forests wasted to built ships for trading. Polluted engines helped continue this way of life and culture of sustainable. Taking out the engines or reducing too much (until somebody invents the clean engines), will deteriorate the trade, where all economies stand.

    The shirts, Nike or Puma, all other shoes (except the very expensive brands), the green tree-leaf Timberland are made in Asia. Even the rubber and the steel of the green bicycle come from overseas! Pioneers of green called it Ecologic 20 years ago. And it was more an incentive, ecological awareness before being now an overused language, and it was right.

  • I think the biggest issue is responsibility. If resources aren’t drained and the community isn’t effected, that’s sustainable. But when dealing with goods/products that are shipped overseas, the area of hidden costs becomes a factor. Also, a product can have a green application but may cause pollution

  • My friend, I believe that green planning simply implies plans that connect human communities with the natural ecosystems of which they are a part. There are more specific applications such as the concepts of green infrastructure and low impact design. There are many efforts and plans to improve the sustainability of human communities and the application of the concept varies with the scale and specific topic of planning. I have tried to explain these opinions in three papers available on request via They are “Green Infrastructure”, “Sustainability, Smart Growth and New Urbanism” and “Green Planning”. Regards to all, Pete

  • In my opinion, “green” is more faithfull, cause this word is directly and honestly linked to a special kind of business (witch I do not agree): “let´s a find new way to continue doing the same”.
    In the other hand, “sustainable” is nothing more then a slogan, instead of a cientific concept related to a concret strategy to extend human life on this planet.
    In terms of climate changes, the main issue to be discussed is the possibilities of changing the patters of production/consume and, at the same time, attack the reasons of the huge differences of opportunities between richs and poors.
    Manoel Ribeiro

  • Green is a subset of sustainable. The question is really of the level at which the concept is addressed. The context is important and a system with a cumulative rating including the larger system is required as completeness as much as we understand it has to be the base else the purpose is lost. Good debate to raise.

  • Plan with nature using the natural sources of light and energy would make world green and sustainable- rest all will have to innovate and experiment to make their optimum use, This has to be supplemented by making best use of land and its capacity to regenerate and produce.

  • Great article. I am particularly hopeful that Robert Stern is correct in saying that sustainability will become the only choice and therefore a way of live. Unfortunalty it may take a little longer then 10 years for it to filter down to the masses.

  • Just FYI. When we in urban community development and policy (or revitalization or transformation) industry, we try to balance triple bottom line – social, economic and environmental sustainability – when we discuss sustainability and creating a sustainable community. Improved quality of life supported by better family self-sufficiency, job training, employment opportunities, education that are tightly coupled with a variety of economic development tools and a variety of modes of transportation and energy-efficient, environmentally responsible and healthy site design/building construction, vacant land reactivation, and so on.

  • Good article about an important topic – the terms Green & Sustainable are much misunderstood by the public & within the architecture & construction industries. The term Green has become all but meaningless now due to the amount of uninformed and deceptive use of the word to green wash products that are neither 'green' nor sustainably produced.

    I suggest that the idea of 'sustainability' can be quite simply be defined by the word itself – that any system that is 'sustainable' can continue to function indefinitely, because it does not require any inputs or have any outputs outside the system. A product can only be considered to be sustainable if the resources required to make it are replaced and any waste from its manufacturing process or at the end of its life are recycled.

    This 'sustainability' is almost impossible to achieve fully in practice, but it is what the word means and it is what we must aim for; after all, if we as a planetary system do not live in a fully sustainable way, then eventually the resources that we need to continue to support life on earth will run out.

    We must think in terms of changing the way that we live from a linear 'Resources -> exploitation -> waste' which will eventually result in all resources having been turned into waste, to a closed cycle in which all 'waste' becomes 'resources'.

    This will be helped by our overcoming the mindset that says 'this is waste, how can we get rid of it' and replacing it with 'this waste is a product, how can it best be used'.

  • A useful distinction.

  • Christophe, I agree with your observations on the dynamic nature of sustainability but beg to differ with you on your opinion of "green". I suggest you broaden your concept of green to include green infrastructure and maintaining diverse ecosystems. If anyone is interested I will gladly send my paper on green infrastructure reflecting a variety of insights I gained serving on an APA green infrastructure sub-committee.

  • I totally agree that green and sustainable are used indistinctly, and indistinctly are used as a cliché by those who are trying to mimic the new trends and fashion.

    But, sustainable includes green: it is a more comprehensive approach, a matter of responsibility with the environment (green), with the society and with the economy, You can also intersect these three issues and then you are also talking about eco-efficiency, socio-economic and socio-environmental issues.

    In all cases we are talking about responsibility with the planet: economy and financially profitable projects must provide/administrate (stewardship) resources and be responsible with society (without society there is no economy) and with the environment; society must protect the planet: without the planet, the game is over.

    This is not about using nice and cool words, in order to keep doing the same things. It is about changing our way of living, our way of making business, our way of disposing waste, etc, etc… it is about surviving as human species…

  • Sustainable development including sustainable thinking about lifestyle and culture
    but how can planning sustainable lifestyle?

  • Capitalism and colonialism always existed in any region of the world, in each and every society of all times, since agriculture and trade existed, it's only Karl Marx who vulgarized the Capital for counter models that finally never worked. Nationalism and rights of people are righteous but careful of amalgams. Only in PNG or Amazonia tribes, they never had capitalism or colonialism, but cant say head hunting is better. But good luck.

  • I think that the worsening of the world's environmental situation has reached such an alarming level that all future solutions applied in the vast domain of construction and infrastructure will need to be both green and sustainable.

  • The difference is in the quantum of availability,when the resources we are using are abundant we can sustain without green but when resources deplete and we are left with nothing,then green is the only sustainable option left with humanity.The difference is important because more and more depletion is eventually bringing us closer to green.

  • No planner or designer can create green cities.It is people who can make cities green or blue. Let people understand the role and importance of being green and adopt green as a way of life.We as professionals can contribute in creating energy efficient buildings, but it is people who as user of these buildings can make them green in real sense of the term.

Dulux Exsulite Architecture – 300 X 250 (expire Dec 31 2017)