The Built Environment is a critical aspect of sustainability because how we manage the built environment directly affects the natural environment—the two are inextricably linked. It also affects the quality of life of every person on earth and has one of the largest impacts on energy and material use. For example, buildings consume 40% of all energy and cause 40% of all CO2 emissions.

Why does this area of excellence matter in sustainability?

While urban planning approaches and building techniques have evolved significantly over the decades and greatly reduced the environmental impact of construction and other development projects, new approaches to planning as well as innovative methods of sustainable building are vital to reducing anthropogenic impacts on the planet. The challenges we face are:

  • Finding cost-efficient, reliable and sustainable building systems, techniques, materials, and energy sources that minimize their environmental impact while even having the possibility to restore the environment instead of altering it.
  • Improving the urban environment with a focus on human health, comfort, ecology, and safety.
  • Understanding the true environmental impact of our actions with the aim of providing decision-support systems through development of quantification tools and evaluation methods.

Key Questions

  • How can we fulfill greenhouse-gas reduction targets and therefore support efforts to reduce the impact of the built environment on climate change? Can climate change be reversed through efforts in the built environment?
  • How can we improve energy and material sources and flows? Specifically, how can we improve efficiency in those systems?
  • How can we maintain and support ecosystem health and species diversity in the built environment? What are the interactions between species in the built environment?    How do we create multi-functional solutions, such as green infrastructure, to create multiple benefits for humans and ecology?
  • How can we promote stewardship of urban ecosystems, including urban forests by local stakeholders?
  • How does innovative urban design lead to economic, ecological, and equitable solutions to urban problems in both growing cities, as well as investment in legacy cities?
  • What is the role of governments and regulatory systems in supporting sustainability in the built environment, including promoting greenspace in urban environments?


Jack Ahern (LARP), Toby Applegate (GEO), Carolina Aragon (LARP), Camille Barchers (LARP), Kristina Bezanson (ECo), Carey Clouse (LARP), Peggi Clouston (ECo), Michael Dipasquale (LARP), Theodore Eisenman (LARP), Wayne Feiden (LARP), Carl Fiocchi (ECo), Piper Gaubatz (GEO), Barry Goodell (Micro), Mark Hamin (LARP), Rick Harper (ECo), Elisabeth Infield Hamin (LARP), Brian Kane (ECo), Ho-Sung Kim (ECo), Stephen Mabee (GEO), Craig Nicolson (ECo), Darrel Ramsey-Musolf (LARP), Justin Richardson (GEO), Fernando Romero (ECo), Robert Ryan (LARP), Alexander Schreyer (ECo), Frank Sleegers (LARP), Jane Thurber (LARP), Paige Warren (ECo), Benjamin Weil (ECo)

For more details about our faculty, staff, and researchers engaged in this area, please visit the SES Built Environment Directory page.

*Department of Environmental Conservation (ECo), Environmental Microbiology Group within the Department of Microbiology (Micro), Department of Geosciences (GEO), Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning (LARP), Stockbridge School of Agriculture (SSA)

Featured Projects:

Project 1: MASS TIMBER: Massive Building Panels Made From Massachusetts Wood

Peggi Clouston, Professor, Building and Construction Technology Program
Hamid Kaboli, PhD Candidate; Alireza Bahmanzad, PhD Candidate; Seth Lawrence, Masters Student; Eric Waterman, Undergraduate Research Assistant; Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA)

Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) is a massive panel product made from orthogonal layers of solid-sawn lumber. Because of its composite nature and engineered layup, CLT provides the possibility of a substantial market for underutilized and lower quality tree species, which are abundant in Massachusetts and the New England region.

Eastern Hemlock and Eastern White Pine. Panels were fabricated and strength-tested at the Wood Mechanics Laboratory in the Olver Design Building to evaluate their mechanical properties for safe use in construction. The results proved that both Eastern Hemlock and Eastern White Pine panels satisfy structural performance requirements of the building material Standard.

Project 2:  Urban Tree Planting, Neighborhood Satisfaction, and Safety: Establishing a Baseline and 5 Exploring Longitudinal Links

Theodore S. Eisenman, PhD., MLA, MPS, Assistant Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning
Alicia Coleman, MES, PhD Student, Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning

Cities across the country and around the world are showing substantial interest in urban greening, defined here as a social practice of organized or semi-organized efforts to introduce, conserve, and manage outdoor vegetation in cities. Tree planting initiatives are a prominent expression of urban greening, and this is embraced by numerous municipalities in Massachusetts. With funding support through the UMass Center for Agriculture, Food, and Environment (CAFÉ), we are conducting two research projects on local tree planting initiatives. The first of these is in Greenfield, which recently planted 200 of a targeted 800 new trees. Our objective is to assess the longitudinal effects of these new tree plantings on residents’ quality of life, measured by neighborhood satisfaction. Towards this goal, we asked residents to complete a survey (by mail, online, and in-person) and received over 500 responses in spring/summer 2019. This data will provide a baseline for future assessments as the new trees mature.