Lately, I’ve been mulling over one specific leg of the hypothetical three-legged stool that’s often used to describe sustainability—namely, social responsibility. (The other two are, as you may know, the environment and the economy.)

It began as I was starting to plan this issue of ECO-STRUCTURE. I wanted to publish public and government projects that address an array of challenges. They needed to be functional and have admirable environmental performance goals. They needed to feature an integrated design where systems respond to one another to optimize performance. They needed to provide places of respite for their communities. And they needed to be aesthetically inspirational.

I admire the projects that we ended up featuring—VanDusen Botanical Garden’s Visitor Centre, the Natural History Museum of Utah, and the Wayne N. Aspinall Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse—for how they meet these criteria. Consider the ambition of VanDusen, which is designed for both LEED Platinum certification and Living Building status, and the sculptural quality of its architecture, which is inspired by an orchid. Or, think about the vivid way that the Natural History Museum of Utah taps into the rock formations of the state’s landscape to create a structure filled with crevasses of exploration and daylight. Then there is the transformation of the Aspinall building by the U.S. General Services Administration into a net-zero-energy showpiece, proving that the greenest building can indeed be the one already built.

For additional outstanding, inspiring, and sustainable public spaces, I recommend checking out the winners of the 2012 Global Holcim Awards. This year’s winners include a secondary school in Burkina Faso, a multifunctional community center in a Brazilian favela, and an urban plan to turn an underutilized arm of Berlin’s River Spree into a public swimming pool and nature reserve. They’re wonderful examples of designs that both preserve the environment and enrich the community.

Recently, I also began to consider yet another form of social responsibility: How our buildings respond not only to climatic conditions (rising sea levels, increasing surface temperatures, and the like) but also to natural disasters (such as hurricanes or tornadoes).

I attended a luncheon in February that was held to release a report from the USGBC and the University of Michigan’s A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Titled “Green Building and Climate Resilience: Understanding Impacts and Preparing for Changing Conditions,” the report presented 81 strategies for designing for unknown future climate conditions. Among them were what the report called “resilient” strategies that would allow a structure to adapt to events such as an increase in precipitation or flooding. (Download the report here.)

The night before the lunch, several tornadoes tore through the Midwest, and Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate spoke about the power of green buildings in the wake of such a disaster. Designing a structure to be self-sufficient in terms of water or energy use, for example, doesn’t just reduce its footprint. It also prepares the structure to operate in more-austere conditions. In these instances, buildings that tread lightly on the environment can be lifesavers.