What Makes a Building Green?

What Makes a Building Green?

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What makes a building green? The answer might seem obvious—any building that has a minimal impact on the environment should be called green, right? If we dig a little deeper, though, the question turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. With the rapid growth in the green building industry, everyone from government agencies to trade organizations have been working to develop guidelines that will define sustainable construction.

What’s so hard about defining green?

The process of creating green building standards starts by figuring out all the ways in which a building can impact the environment in the first place. For example, we all know that buildings use electricity and water, but if we’re talking about building green, we also have to consider things like how much runoff the parking lot will create, whether the building materials were created sustainably, and how quickly the air inside recycles. Then, we have to decide how much weight to give each of these issues—is a building still green if it’s energy efficient but was built with materials that release VOCs into the air? What if it’s not energy efficient, but is situated next to public transportation to decrease the CO2 emissions created by commuting workers?

When we’re talking about building green, it’s also necessary to consider just what sort of efficiency is possible with the green technology out there. Can designers build a school or hospital that uses 25% less energy than a conventional building? What about 30% or even 50%? Right now there’s no single set of guidelines that answers these types of questions, but experts in the building industry have developed a number of standards designed to help create truly sustainable buildings.

Who decides whether a building is green?

The biggest names in green building at the moment are independent, third-party programs that have developed their own standards to guide green construction projects and that certify sustainable buildings. Most of these programs were developed for use in a single country, but many have spread across national borders. The most well-known of these programs is LEED, which was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, and which currently offers certification in 135 countries. BREEAM, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, began in the UK and now certifies buildings in other European countries, including Spain and the Netherlands. Other countries, including Japan (CASBEE), Germany (DGNB), Australia (Green Star), and Canada (Green Globes) have their own third-party certifications and standards.

While there is currently no government certification for green buildings, programs like LEED and Green Globes have been working closely with agencies like the U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency and Natural Resources Canada to develop and promote green building guidelines.

What makes a building green?

The standards for green building are complex, with different guidelines existing for different types of buildings (i.e., home, retail, schools) and for different aspects of the construction and management (i.e., new construction, interior design, operation of existing buildings). In addition, there are several regional differences between the standards. For example, Japan’s CASBEE program stresses the important of earthquake-proof buildings, while Canada’s Green Globes standards have a special focus on the balancing act between insulation and air quality that comes from reliance on indoor heating. In fact, many proponents of green building believe that highly localized building standards help create the best sustainable buildings. In general, though, there are a few areas on which these programs agree. Most certification programs work by awarding points in each of these categories and certifying buildings that pass a certain points threshold:

Site Selection. A green building project starts with site selection. This category includes issues like the building’s impact on the surrounding environment as well as access to public transportation and walkable spaces.

Water and energy efficiency. Green standards reward buildings that use water and energy efficiently and that make use of alternative technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, and greywater recapture systems.

Materials and waste. Green standards promote the use of locally-available building materials that were produced sustainably and reward construction projects that minimize waste.

Indoor environmental quality. Green buildings also need to create a healthy space for occupants, which means high air quality, lots of daylight, and good thermal control.

Obviously, none of the standards currently in place are set in stone. Many of these third-party certifications are only a few years old, and new research and greener technologies are coming out every day. As the green building industry continues to grow, there’s no doubt these standards will continue to evolve with it.  

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