Environmentally sustainable design and construction stresses developing projects with methods and materials that minimize the negative and maximize the positive impacts experienced by the environment. Sustainable builders acknowledge the fact that built structures largely contribute to polluting the environment and exploiting natural resources, and therefore sustainable materials and processes must be used to decrease the negative externalities felt by the planet Earth. In addition to sustainable buildings reducing the negative effects of human development on the environment, they can also benefit the development owners by reducing operating costs and allowing for improved loan opportunities. However, these financial benefits don’t come easily because building owners must go through the process of certifying their development as a “green building”, which requires the implementation of sustainable design features and processes. There are many different types of design elements and construction methods that can be used to increase the sustainability of a building while increasing the profits earned by an owner. Overall, designing and constructing buildings in an environmentally sustainable manner is beneficial to many and will become even more important in the future.
Environmentally sustainable design and construction has recently become a main focus of the construction industry due to the importance society has placed on sustainability. Sustainable design and construction can be defined as “a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission). Another term used to identify a development that is designed and built sustainably is “green building”. Green building is “a concept that starts with the understanding that the built environment can have profound effects, both positive and negative, on the natural environment, as well as the people who inhabit the buildings everyday” (Kriss, Jacobs). Green building focuses on the idea that built structures impact the environment and people who use them, and as a result attempts to maximize the positive and minimize the negative impacts of the development throughout the course of the structure’s existence.
Although producing green buildings is not what most think of when brainstorming ways to be environmentally friendly, using sustainable construction materials and practices greatly reduce harmful effects on the environment. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s report “Buildings and Climate Change”, buildings account for 39% of total energy consumption in America. The EPA has also released figures stating that buildings account for 12% of the total water consumption in America, 68% of total electricity consumption and 39% of the total carbon dioxide emissions. With 39% of the total CO2 emissions being produced by residential and commercial developments, buildings have come to produce more carbon dioxide emissions than the industrial or transportation sectors, Figure 1 (Buildings and Climate Change).
Structures that have earned a green building certification can drastically reduce the cost and quantity of resources necessary to operate compared to non-green buildings. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings that have been certified through a program known as LEED can reduce energy consumption by approximately 25%, water consumption by around 11%, and CO2 emissions by approximately 34%. The reduction in resource usage associated with green buildings allows for lower operating costs, meaning that sustainable developments can benefit the environment and the building owner.
The financial benefit an owner receives for constructing a green building is often the main reason a sustainable building will be developed. Most developers would not spend the extra time to design and construct a green building if it didn’t result in increased profit and savings, because money is the primary factor considered in any development decision. There are many different types of financial incentives offered for designing green buildings including reduced loan interest rates, tax credits, and the ability to receive a larger loan than typically allowed. The Freddie Mac Green Advantage Program is a financial incentive used to promote environmental efficiency by allowing borrowers to take out loans with reduced interest rates if they decrease their properties resource usage. The Green Advantage Program reduces property owners’ interest rates by 25 to 35 basis points if they are able to prove that they reduced their water or energy consumption by at least 25% (Freddie Mac Multifamily Green Advantage®). An example of a tax credit incentive for green buildings is a New Market Tax Credit (NMTC), which allows for commercial developments that have received green building certification to use tax credits for 20% of the construction costs (The Basics: New Markets Tax Credits). Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans are a type of financial incentive used to promote the development of green buildings. PACE allows borrowers to take out loans for the expenses of implementing energy efficient measures that go above what are required (PACE Lending Presents Serious Consumer and Industry Concerns). The loan does not count against the LTV of a development and is attached to the property, instead of the borrower, for a 20-year term.
In order to receive most of the financial benefits offered to sustainable and energy efficient projects a development must be a certified green building. There are multiple different certification programs offered but the most commonly used are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Energy Star, Green Globes, and the National Green Building Standard. All of the rating systems are used for different types of developments but LEED is the most well known. LEED is internationally recognized as the most common rating system and program used to certify sustainable developments. It is used for all types of buildings and has four different rating systems: LEED for Building Design and Construction, LEED for Interior Design and Construction, LEED for Building Operations and Maintenance, and LEED for Neighborhood Development (Green Building 101: What Is LEED?). Although there are four different rating systems, each system is based off of the same five core categories: site planning, water management, energy efficiency, material use, and indoor environmental quality.
The LEED rating system is comprised of two components, prerequisites and credits, which are used to determine if a development can be classified as a green building and what level of LEED certification the building should be awarded. The prerequisites are requirements that a development must meet to be a LEED certified building, while the credits are optional elements that a project can include in their design to achieve a higher LEED rating. The LEED rating system is out of 110 points, with 40 points being the minimum value required to be certified as a green building. The total number of points that a development earns determines which of the four LEED certifications it receives. The four levels are certified (40-49 points), silver (50-59 points), gold (60-79 points), and platinum (80+ points)(Green Building 101: What Is LEED?).
LEED utilizes a scorecard to determine what level of certification a development has earned, if any at all. The scorecard is broken up in eight sections: Location and Transportation, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, Innovation, and Regional Priority (Green Building 101: What Is LEED?). As displayed in Figure 2 on the next page, each section contains multiple elements with varying point values. It is very difficult to achieve the platinum level of LEED certification because implementing certain elements on the scorecard prevents the owner from apply other elements. In other words, the project designer must choose which elements to include in the project and which elements to sacrifice. Due to this issue, the highest score ever earned by a project was 99 points. The Bridge Building in Nashville, Tennessee is an example of a project earning LEED platinum certification with a score of 99 points. The Bridge Building, shown in figure 3, was able to achieve such a high score by earning all of the possible points in the Energy and Atmosphere section, Sustainable Sites section, and the Innovation in Design section (Highest Scoring LEED Projects).
Although LEED is used to certify sustainably designed and constructed buildings, there are many factors that contribute to a building being sustainable that are not discussed in the rating system. The development process for a green building can be divided into two main categories, design and construction. For a development to be truly “green”, sustainability should be the focus from the very start of a project. A projects site location is the first factor that should be taken into consideration when initiating a development because it greatly affects the sustainable design of a building. Ideally, a green building should be located on a site that supports an adaptive reuse development, as it would limit the amount of construction waste by reusing the current building structure. Adaptive reuse is the most sustainable form of development in terms of material usage but urban infill development, also known as ‘land recycling’, is another way to limit negative environmental impacts by concentrating built structures in one area. Sustainable urban infill developments target brownfields and greyfields, as they are not currently being used for what they were originally designed.
A development’s proximity to mass transit, bike lanes, and mixed-use projects that support walkability is important to take into consideration when trying to design a green building. The walkability of the area around the project site is significant because a highly walk-able area will reduce the use of cars and other forms of transportation that negatively affect the environment. Easy access to public transit options and bike lanes could also help reduce the use of cars by inhabitants of the development as a result of the increased convenience of transportation alternatives. The development’s orientation on the land is also a significant based on the property location because the building should be oriented on the site in a way that will maximize sun exposure. Maximum sun exposure will increase the efficiency of solar panels as an energy source and will also allow for the sun to naturally heat the building. A sustainably designed building should also be oriented on the land in a way that will allow natural ventilation and maximize the open space on the site.
After choosing a location for a green building project, steps should be taken to ensure that the future development does not negatively impact the site and its surroundings. This can be completed by creating an erosion control plan and by developing a plan to minimize the light pollution and heat island effect produced by the building. According to the EPA’s “Heat Island Effect” webpage, a heat island is where urban temperatures become warmer than the rural surroundings as a result of built structures changing the underlying land from permeable to impermeable. This is a major problem affecting cities that should be considered when designing a green building because the warmer temperatures caused by heat islands results in increased consumption of resources, ultimately creating more CO2 emissions.
Once the development location has been determined and plans have been established to protect the site environment, the design process for the actual building can begin. Many green buildings focus on minimizing the development’s water and energy use, along with using environmentally friendly materials in the construction process. A few ways to reduce the water usage of a development is by using low flow plumbing fixtures, planting drought tolerant plants, and by implementing smart irrigation systems. Reducing the energy consumption of a project can be achieved by reducing the need for artificial lighting through the implementation of skylights, designing smaller spaces that can be individually temperature controlled, using high efficiency lighting and lighting sensors, and installing solar panels. In order to minimize the effects of a building on the environment, eco-friendly materials such as low VOC paints, concrete mixed with fly ash, and recycled denim should be used instead of traditional materials.
Although there is a plethora of ways to create a green building by including various eco-friendly design elements, sustainable construction practices are also important. There are two main construction practices that are emphasized in a green building project: minimizing waste and ensuring air quality. To minimize the negative impacts of construction materials on the environment there should be waste diversion plan implemented. A waste diversion plan establishes a program to minimize the amount of construction and demolition waste that ends up in landfills by reusing materials and only ordering the amount of materials that are actually needed. High air quality on a project site is also important and can be ensured by covering ventilation systems during construction, ridding the building of air contaminants, and prohibiting smoking on the site.
In conclusion, sustainably designed and constructed developments require more planning and work to build but the extra effort is worth it because of the benefits received by the environment and the people who use and own the building. Buildings contribute to over a third of the C02 emissions released into the atmosphere and total energy consumption in America, meaning that developments need to be designed and constructed sustainably if people want to actually reduce the negative effects of humans on the planet. The environment won’t be the only one benefiting from development of green buildings because the building owners will also experience financial benefits like reduced operating costs. Overall, spreading knowledge of environmentally sustainable design and construction processes is extremely important for the health of the planet and developers’ check books, and it will only become more and more significant as society advances.
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