What makes a building “green”?

Written by mira


Last week I had the pleasure of attending Greenbuild 08, a conference and expo dedicated to (quite obviously) green building. The sheer size of this event forced me to pause. The architecture, construction and design industries — and everyone who supplies to them — are certainly committed to reducing their environmental impacts. As well they should be.

In North America alone, buildings are responsible for more than 2,200 megatons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. This equates to approximately 35% of the continent’s total CO2 emissions (source: pdf). While this number may seem daunting, it also presents an incredible opportunity to bring innovation and efficiency into architecture and design.

The more than 1,500 exhibitors at Greenbuild were certainly jumping at this opportunity: from acoustical systems and adhesive/coating/sealants to siding and wall coverings, everyone related to building was represented. And most were displaying their “green” credentials proudly at their booths: carbon neutrality, LEED certification, low VOCs, locally sourced… you name it.

Architects struggle daily with the cost-benefit trade-offs of every facet of their work. Green building practices create another layer of decisions as architects balance the initial investment in efficiency with the longer-term energy savings that a client will experience. While many clients are demanding these innovations, others still need to be convinced of the benefits.

Green building practices encompass a wide range of topics including greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, water use management, air quality, environmentally-responsible materials, waste and more. As an industry, green building is currently estimated to account for approximately 2% of new non-residential construction in the U.S. and 0.3% for the residential market (source: pdf). While these numbers continue to grow, there is clearly enormous opportunity for pioneering projects. The added incentive of green building ratings programs, like the widely used United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system, allows architects to market their inventive work to interested clients.

For many, the ultimate goal is the construction of a green building that functions as a self-contained ecosystem, using only energy generated on or by the building, and reusing waste to the fullest extent possible. However, along the spectrum are countless opportunities to increase efficiency and reduce energy use by varying degrees.

Budgets and technology can often limit how far along that spectrum one can go. One way to bridge the gap between the feasible and the ideal is through the use of carbon offsets, balancing the carbon emissions that can’t otherwise be avoided. While this may seem like an easy solution, it’s important to be diligent in finding high quality offsets about which the architect and the clients can feel confident. Needless to say, TerraPass sells such offsets!

Being at Greenbuild allowed me the opportunity to support one of our Carbon Balanced Business partners, Architectural Area Lighting (AAL). For the past year, AAL has been balancing its carbon footprint from onsite energy use, including manufacturing, business travel, employee commuting and freight. AAL understands that there is more energy used (and thus carbon emissions generated) when their lighting fixtures are used. At Greenbuild, they announced a new opportunity for their architectural clients to be able to purchase TerraPass offsets along with their lighting fixtures in order to offset the emissions from their electricity use as well.

We are very excited and proud to work with innovative and dedicated companies, like AAL. And, based on the turnout at Greenbuild, there are many others who are throwing down the green gauntlet and even more who know they should be.

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  1. Rob

    After reading your article I have one question: What makes a building green?

  2. jdb113

    One of the Greenbuild exhibitors, btw, was American Clay, which I found out has an extraordinarily low carbon footprint – made in US, from aggregates and clays from the US; uses low inherent energy to produce their product; ships dry so is lighter and less energy used, and so on. And it’s fun to play with!

  3. Kathy

    USGBC has a rating scale that measures how sustainable a building is. It addresses site selection, water efficiency, energy use, materials and resources, and indoor air quality. This is a good indicator of how green a building is in relation to typical construction. Check out the USGBC website for more info.

  4. Victor

    Many years ago a similar initiative, Eco partner houses, was performed in Germany, also constructing a home with non harm constructive products and Eco friendly technologies like solar, biomass, heat exchange out or in home, etc. This initiative was taken in account by many construction providers, including paints. I am speaking about the year 1991 in Munich. Now technologies from this time to up, has evolved, and we need to take care about this issues. Construction and Debris wastes, use of noisily equipment, should be reduced, and the value added of the construction now goes in the green line path.

  5. Hunter

    The answer to your question Rob is somewhat complicated, yet it merely requires a shift in techniques to make a green building. As a builder of green homes we have developed a number of changes in construction and design requirements following the LEEDS
    commercial standards and employing them to the residential market. As a purist on terms of green construction, I try to design a home that will score the highest on the LEEDS chart while remaining within budgetary constraints. Here are the basic rules:
    Reduced construction (building) footprint.
    Although not required, an alternative energy source is a great score increasing feature.
    Windows and doors should be E-rated.
    Insulation should exceed building code standards and should include all walls and floors.
    Furnaces and AC units must have a high AFUE and SEER rating.
    A tankless hot water heater with recycling system.
    Timed electrical bathroom fixtures.
    Energy star appliances.
    Florescent and/or halogen lighting.
    Low VOC paint products.
    All plumbing should be insulated.
    Recycled or recycle construction material. For example; Laminate or re-sawed flooring (I like bamboo), Leftover lumber chipped and mixed with top soil for landscaping (not land fill).
    Purchase local products.
    Reduce landfill footprint.
    Conserve natural resources.
    This is the short list I use, because it applies both to new and existing construction and can be employed in both quite easily.
    I hope this helps.

  6. Chris Prelitz

    Nice list, but I respectfully disagree on your “Windows and doors should be E-rated”
    I’m guessing you meant LowE rated.
    We specify different windows for each direction.
    But, that comes after carefully analyzing the amount of glass in each direction for optimum solar gain in winter.
    Bottom line, we want Southern glass to give us heat, so NO LOwE on the South..because of course we’ll have proper overhangs to shade glass in summer. Est, West and North depends on climate. In the Southwest, we use LowE4 which cuts heat gain by ~75% for east and west glass.
    There are no hrd and fast rules for the U.S. because each climate zone and even micro climate requires different approaches. Check out http://www.NewLeafAmerica.com for some good guidelines.

  7. Chris Prelitz

    My sentiments exactly.
    Check out the “Living Building Challenge: for truly green guidelines.
    No points – just guidelines. Far too many LEED buildings are still energy hogs that just cherry pick points to get a plaque.
    Here’s the Living Building guidelines:
    Imagine a building designed and constructed to function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower.
    Imagine a building informed by its eco-region

  8. Fern

    I respect the enthusiasm of several commentators to speed up the process of green building and set high standards. However, transitioning to a society in which green building is simply the way of the land will take time, and a belief in the power of small individual efforts goes a long way in the mean time.
    For example, along the lines of using environmentally-friendly materials… my husband and just replaced our carpets with beautiful, sustainable bamboo flooring (www.calibamboo.com). We spent as much if not less than we would have on hardwood and easily installed it ourselves. I feel that it’s these kinds of choices made by individuals (as well as architects) that are going to help us attain that cleaner future everyone wants.