The guiding principles of sustainable architecture

Repairs to the Gordon Block, Stratford (2007)

Photo: Repairs to the Gordon Block, Stratford (2007)


Sean Fraser

Buildings and architecture, Environment, Adaptive reuse

Published Date: Nov 15, 2007

In the late 1990s, the Ontario Ministry of Culture introduced Eight Guiding Principles in the Conservation of Built Heritage Properties, which are in common use in Ontario’s heritage sector. When we translate these principles into the language of sustainability, they can help us better create more environmentally sensitive architecture as well as conserve our existing stock of heritage buildings.

Built heritage principle

  • Respect for documentary evidence. Do not base restoration on conjecture. Conservation work should be based on historical documentation, such as photographs, drawings and physical evidence.
  • Respect for the original location. Do not move buildings unless there is no other means to save them. Site is an integral component of a building. Change in site diminishes heritage value considerably.
  • Respect for historic material. Repair/conserve rather than replace building materials and finishes, except where absolutely necessary. Minimal intervention maintains the resource’s historical content.
  • Respect for original fabric. Repair with like materials to return the resource to its prior condition, without altering its integrity.
  • Respect for the building’s history. Do not restore to one period at the expense of another. Do not destroy later additions to a house solely to restore to a single time period.
  • Reversibility. Alterations should be reversible to original conditions. This conserves earlier building design and technique.
  • Legibility. New work should be distinguishable from old. Buildings should be recognized as products of their own time; new additions should not blur the distinction between old and new.
  • Maintenance. With continuous care, future restoration will not be necessary. With regular upkeep, major conservation projects – and their high costs – can be avoided.

Architectural sustainability principle

  • Respect for documentary evidence. Sustainable design should be based on an accurate and detailed understanding of the property, the existing and historical systems and conditions.
  • Respect for the site. The energy required to alter a site should be part of the overall energy calculation. Major changes in topography, excavation and vegetation should be avoided.
  • Respect for existing material. Keep and re-use as much material as is possible. Minimize removal of building fabric and debris.
  • Respect for local materials, vernacular design and proven building traditions. Historical building traditions were labour intensive, used local materials and responded unselfconsciously to the environment through good design.
  • Respect for building and site evolution. Utilize an incremental approach to site design that contributes to the architectural collage rather than carting everything to the landfill and starting over.
  • Recycle. Will the new work be useful, adaptable and/or demountable to future designers?
  • Legibility. The site should be read as a testimony to its evolution. Does the design of the new building waste resources trying to dress up or disguise existing forms?
  • Maintenance. Since the mid-20th century, attempts to minimize/ eliminate ongoing building maintenance have only proven its importance. We must design for maintenance.