10 Influential Green Architects

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
Many call Wright, who designed the now-famous Fallingwater, the pioneer of green design. See more home design pictures.
Laura Farr/Getty Images Entertainent/Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • The pioneering work of various architects have contributed to the field of sustainable architecture.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, integrated organic principles in his designs, while modern innovators like William McDonough and Renzo Piano have advanced green technologies and sustainable practices in their projects.
  • Their work has changed the way buildings interact with the environment, focusing on energy efficiency, sustainability and the use of eco-friendly materials.

Many say the pioneer of green design was the irascible Frank Lloyd Wright, whose innovative organic architecture philosophy focused on creating structures that appeared to be part of their surroundings. But others refute this, noting sustainable architecture has been around forever. Or, at the very least, its principles are ancient. Just think of the famous Roman aqueducts, many of which are still used today. The gravity-driven structures not only distributed water and took away waste, but provided renewable water power for mines, forges and mills. And when the ancient Greeks began running low on fuel sources, they began positioning buildings and even entire cities to catch the sun's rays [source: WebEcoist].

No matter when sustainable architecture began, most will agree that today it's in the forefront of our collective minds, for both our homes and places of business. The government's getting in on it, too, with building codes regarding energy efficiency and carbon footprints becoming increasingly stringent. This means everyone involved in construction has to be a little more creative, a little more thoughtful, a little nimbler. Especially the architects and designers, who kick-start the process.


So which architects, past and present, are considered tops in the green game? That's constantly evolving, as more and more designers are attracted to the field. But here are 10 whose contributions can't be denied.

10: Peter Busby

Considered Canada's leading green architect, Peter Busby was named managing director of the San Francisco office of Perkins + Will -- a large, international architecture firm known for its sustainable projects -- in April 2012. Long before Busby joined forces with Perkins + Will in 2004, though, he was seeing green; Busby's mentor was sustainability guru Ray Cole, and Busby preaches that green design is always part of good design. Busby also co-founded the Canada Green Building Council and tries to devote 20 percent of his time to environmental advocacy [source: Keegan, Weeks].

Busby has worked on a wide variety of projects during his career, including such notables as Dockside Green, a mixed-use community in Victoria, B.C., the 2012 VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre and The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, which opened in 2011 [source: PR Newswire]. In the last decade he received two AIA Committee on the Environment Top 10 Awards (one of which was for Dockside Green), an AIA "What Makes It Green?" Award (again, for Dockside Green). In 2009 and 2010, he was recognized as one of Canada's top 50 green employers [source: Weeks].


9: Norman Foster

Norman Foster at the headquarters of Foster + Partners in 2005.
Martin Godwin/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

British architect Norman Foster's prominence is indisputable. The architectural firm he founded in 1967, Foster + Partners, has received hundreds of awards and citations for excellence over the years. Now a worldwide presence, the firm has also won more than 100 international and national competitions [source: The Telegraph].

A fan of sustainability, Foster's Web site notes that buildings consume a full half of all the energy we generate, plus cause half of the world's carbon emissions, so architects have a responsibility to help change these numbers [source: Foster + Partners]. How? While there are numerous small changes that can be made, it doesn't hurt to think big. Foster and his associates are currently designing Masdar in Abu Dhabi, a zero-carbon, zero-waste city. The world's first such entity, Foster says Masdar will set new benchmarks for future sustainable cities [source: Lee].


8: Eric Corey Freed

At the tender age of 8, Eric Corey Freed already knew he wanted to be an architect. And somewhere along the way, he fell in love with organic architecture. Developed by Frank Lloyd Wright, organic architecture's basic premise is creating structures that blend seamlessly with their respective environments, reflecting individual building sites' climate and materials [source: Organic Architect]. Freed worked in New Mexico with a former Wright apprentice for a while before relocating to San Francisco, where he helped develop the Sustainable Design programs at both the University of California Berkeley Extension and the Academy of Art University, in addition to creating his architectural firm, organicARCHITECT.

Freed's firm quickly became prominent in the Bay Area, as did Freed himself, named "Best Green Architect" (2005) and "Best Visionary" (2007) by San Francisco Magazine. While Freed still works on projects through his firm, he's also written several books on green architecture and frequently speaks on the topic [source: Eric Corey Freed].


7: R. Buckminster Fuller

R. Buckminster Fuller, striking a pose in front of a geodesic dome.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ever seen a geodesic dome home? You know, those sphere-like homes made from a rather complex network of triangles? You've got R. Buckminster Fuller, or "Bucky," to thank for that. Fuller was an early green architect whose primary passion was humanitarianism. He felt the main two problems in the world were homelessness and hunger, and worked his entire life to find simple, economical solutions to them. One example of this is his Dymaxion House, a pre-fab, round structure supported by poles. The home was heated and cooled by natural means, and its shape minimized heat loss and required fewer materials to construct than a typical home, making it environmentally friendly and affordable [source: Buckminster Fuller Institute]. Fuller worked on this project after World War II, when there was a housing shortage in the U.S. Unfortunately, although thousands of American eagerly placed orders, funding problems caused him to cancel the project [source: PBS].

It was after the Dymaxion House fiasco that he developed the geodesic dome, which quickly caught the attention of the American government because it was lightweight yet strong, and could be quickly assembled -- perfect housing for soldiers stationed overseas. He made thousands for the U.S. Army, and many others became homes -- very energy-efficient homes, thanks to the design; a dome's spherical structure allows air and energy to freely circulate, which means heating and cooling occurs naturally [source: Buckminster Fuller Institute]. Fuller lived in one himself in Carbondale, Ill., where he taught in the Design Department at Southern Illinois University. Restoration of his home is scheduled to be completed in 2012, and will eventually include a living museum and learning center [source: The Fuller Dome Home].


6: Thom Mayne

Many people recognize the term LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, as a positive, green designation. And it is -- it's an internationally recognized mark of excellence that's given to structures that meet certain sustainable qualifications [source: U.S. Green Building Council]. But architect Thom Mayne, the 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner (aka the architect's Nobel), hopes people don't consider LEED standards the final word for sustainable architecture. More specifically, he doesn't believe buildings must sport a certain look, or meet very specific standards, to be considered green. Instead, he'd prefer to look more at a building's long-term environmental performance when deciding if it's sustainable or not [source: Bowen].

Mayne founded California-based architectural firm Morphosis in 1972, and focuses on creating innovatively designed structures offering long-range, eco-friendly benefits. Recent projects, such as the San Francisco Federal Building and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite operations center in Maryland, sport features such as green roofs, solar power and thermally efficient outer-wall designs. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Big Easy in 2005, Mayne -- in conjunction with actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation -- created the FLOAT house specifically for the families of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. These pre-fab, green homes sit above the ground on a chassis or sorts, which can rise up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) along guideposts in the event of flooding [source: Make It Right].


5: William McDonough

William McDonough (on right) posed for this shot after being honored at the Children's Health Environmental Coalition's (CHEC) annual benefit in 2006.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

There's no denying William McDonough is an influential green architect. He received the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development -- America's highest environmental honor -- in 1996, the first U.S. EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in 2003, and, in 2004, the National Design Award for exemplary achievement in environmental design. He also designed such green flagship structures as Michigan's Ford Rouge truck plant, which includes an innovative air-delivery system that reduces the need for duct work, and the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, which produces 30 percent more energy than it needs, then shares with the community [source: William McDonough]. And for those who are a bit star-struck, McDonough and actor Brad Pitt were founding partners of the Make It Right Foundation, which is creating affordable, green, storm-resistant homes -- different from the FLOAT homes mentioned on the previous page -- in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.


4: Glenn Murcutt

Glenn Murcutt's story is a bit unexpected. The Australian architect began his career about 50 years ago designing simple, Modernist buildings. Then, in the mid-'70s, he started gleaning inspiration from his country's traditional buildings, such as the wool sheds common in New South Wales. These long, narrow buildings were sensibly and sustainably built: set on stilts and positioned to take advantage of the sun and winds for heating and cooling, and with open floor plans to ensure good air circulation. Murcutt went to work creating homes based on these principles [source: Lewis].

For many years, Murcutt, who works alone out of his home and only builds in Australia, wasn't widely known throughout the world. But in 2002 -- by which time he was considered Australia's most famous architect -- Murcutt won the prestigious Pritzker Prize. In the award citation, Thomas Pritzker noted how all of Murcutt's designs are "tempered by the land and climate of his native Australia," and that while he normally builds homes, critics consider the Arthur and Yvonne Boyd Education Centre that Murcutt designed a masterwork [source: Ozetecture].


3: Renzo Piano

The Piano-designed California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park has a "living" roof.
Jason Andrews/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Italian architect Renzo Piano is widely considered one of the most influential green architects today. Yet he doesn't let environmental considerations limit his ideas by forcing him to consider only stereotypical green building shapes or materials or components. Instead, he lets his imagination fly, then incorporates eco-friendly elements into the resulting structures [source: Green Architects].

One of Piano's more acclaimed buildings is the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The museum houses an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum, and appears as though it's tucked into two hills, which, in reality, are the building's 2.5-acre green, "living" roof that absorbs up to 2 million gallons (7.6 million liters) of rainwater annually. The building also has no air conditioning, relying on weather sensors that communicate with motorized windows to open and close at select times so the museum can be entirely cooled with outside air [source: Alter].


As of this writing, Piano was working on the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens, Greece, which -- by the time it's completed in 2015 -- will sport a green roof and, hopefully, will attain a platinum LEED certification, the highest-level sustainable building award currently achievable [source: Meinhold].

2: Frank Lloyd Wright

Wright pioneered organic architecture, which still has adherents today.
Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Frank Lloyd Wright is the architect most think of as the father of green, sustainable architecture. Working mainly in the first half of the 20th century, Wright pioneered the philosophy of organic architecture, beloved by Eric Corey Freed, which takes into account the nature of a site, needs of the client and nature of the materials before designing a building, rather than creating a design plan and then trying to make those three elements conform to the plan.

Because organic architecture is a philosophy and not a style, its principles allowed Wright to create diverse structures, such as the concrete Unity Temple in Illinois, his stucco-and-stone home and studio in Wisconsin, and Fallingwater, the famous house he built in Pennsylvania that was constructed from concrete, stone and glass and set over a waterfall [source: Taliesin Preservation]. While these buildings may not be considered green according to today's standards, whenever you build something in harmony with its surroundings -- that avoids bulldozing trees, for example, or filling in marshland -- that's a plus for the environment.


And Wright was definitely on to something; today more than one-third of his buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places or part of National Register Historic Districts; 24 are National Historic Landmarks; and, in 2008, Taliesin, his Wisconsin home, was one of 10 Wright-designed buildings submitted by the U.S. National Park Service for World Heritage Status [source: Taliesin Preservation]. In addition, many of today's prominent green architects, including Freed and Glenn Murcutt, were influenced by Wright's philosophy and designs.

1: Ken Yeang

Architect Ken Yeang may hail from tiny Malaysia, but his achievements in green architecture loom large. Yeang first went green in the 1970s, penning a doctoral dissertation on ecological design and planning. From there, he went on to his much-lauded career, which includes creating the "bioclimatic skyscraper," a type of high-rise now used in various cities that performs as a passive low-energy building by being designed according to its particular location and the local climate. In other words, everything from the skyscraper's shape to its orientation to how vegetation is used will all affect how sustainable it is, by working with the surrounding environment, rather than competing with it. Yeang also coined the phrase "eco-mimicry" to describe the process of designing buildings to imitate the properties of nature. If you don't imitate nature, Yeang says, you're going against it [source: Koh].

Yeang also believes sustainable buildings should be pleasing to look at, because if they're ugly, they'll be rejected by the public. He has written several books on ecological design and planning. One of Yeang's more prominent projects is the 2005 Singapore National Library, which was awarded the highest rating (Platinum) under Singapore's Green Mark system, equivalent to the U.S.'s LEED [source: Hart].

Author's Note: 10 Influential Green Architects

I only live an hour from Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's Wisconsin home, and also the site of his studio and school, where many a masterpiece was created. I admit, I'm not a huge fan of much of Wright's work -- the flat roofs, the furniture lined along the walls. But I certainly appreciate what he was trying to do by fitting structures to their surroundings and materials, and also what the 10 individuals I profiled strive toward. Green, sustainable architecture is important, and will only continue to be more so as time goes on.

Related Articles
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  • Bowen, Ted Smalley. "The ArchRecord Interview: Thom Mayne on Green Design." Architectural Record. (April 23, 2012) http://archrecord.construction.com/features/interviews/0711thommayne/0711thommayne-1.asp
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Frequently Asked Questions

What educational paths do these influential green architects commonly pursue?
In addition to architecture, many green architects have backgrounds in environmental science or engineering, often with advanced degrees that focus on sustainable design principles.
How do green architects' designs impact urban planning?
Their sustainable practices influence urban planning by promoting green spaces, improving energy efficiency and reducing urban sprawl.