What is Green Building and Why is it Important?

London Olympic Park - Future Hackney Wick Business Center
London Olympic Park – Future Hackney Wick Business Center

Even if you are not an architect, contractor, developer, building owner, or realtor, chances are you have heard the term green building or sustainable building. You may even live or work in a green or high-performance building.

In this post, we will discuss what green building is and why it is important.

Since childhood, I have been fascinated by buildings—the way they look, how they are built and function, and especially their ability to positively impact how people live and work. When a former employer and client embarked on a green building program, I took the opportunity to learn as much as I could about green design and green building.

Why is Green Building Important?

Conventional buildings have a substantial impact on the health and wellbeing of people and the planet. They use resources, generate waste, and emit greenhouse gases throughout their life cycle which can be 50, 75, or more years. For example:

2011 Energy Consumption - Source: U.S. EIA
2011 Energy

According to the U.S. EIA, roughly 41% of total U.S. energy consumed in 2011 was used in buildings (about 40 quadrillion BTUs).

U.S. EPA 2010 statistics show commercial and residential economic sectors accounted for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions which include burning fossil fuels for heat, use of products containing greenhouse gases, and waste.

The U.S. EPA estimates landscape irrigation accounts for about 1/3 of all residential water use, more than 7 billion gallons per day.

What is Green Building?

Green building is not new. Humans been building with local materials such as mud, straw, wood, and stone, and using renewable energy from the sun, the wind, and water for thousands of years.

Today, green building is the practice of designing, constructing, and operating buildings to:

  • Minimize resource use
  • Reduce waste and negative environmental impacts
  • Maximize occupant health and productivity
  • Decrease life cycle costs

A green building:

  • Makes efficient use of land, materials, energy, and water
  • Generates minimal or no waste
  • Provides a healthy indoor environment for its occupants
  • Restores, improves, or enhances the natural environment

How is Green Building Different than Conventional Building?

A few of the differences between green or sustainable building and conventional building practices are described below.

Green Building Integrative Project Approach

In a conventional building, the people responsible for designing, constructing, and operating the building may not meet each other until well into the project, at the end, or never.

“…70% of the decisions associated with environmental impacts are made during the first 10% of the design process.”
— U.S. Green Building Council LEED Green Associate Study Guide

Green building uses an integrative project approach which brings people together at the front end to collaborate and share ideas that can enhance building performance and save money during construction and building operation.

Green Building Life Cycle Costs

Net Zero zHomes Issaquah, WA
Net Zero zHomes Issaquah, WA

Green building considers costs over the entire life of the building, whereas conventional building is often focused on initial design and construction costs.

For example, a residential home developer may scrimp on insulation to save money without considering how that impacts the energy costs of the future homeowners.

Green Building Operation

A key factor of high-performance green buildings is commissioning. This is the process of confirming the building operates as designed, resolving any issues, and training the people who will be operating the building.

Building operations personnel are the true heroes of green building. They are the ones responsible for monitoring, tweaking, fixing, and maintaining a building and its systems throughout the building’s life cycle.

Greening Existing Buildings

Green building is not just for new construction. Think of how many homes, office buildings, manufacturing plants, hotels, restaurants, and sports stadiums are a ready built. Green retrofitting, renovating, and remodeling of existing buildings is perhaps where we can get the most for our green dollar. Existing building green projects include:

  • Installing solar panels on the roof of a home
  • Replacing the lighting system in an office building with one that uses LEDs
  • Retrofitting factory plumbing fixtures with low-flow toilets, urinals, faucets, and showerheads

An American Icon Goes Green

The 102-story Empire State Building built in New York City in 1931 recently underwent a ground-breaking energy retrofit and renovation which included refurbishment of all 6,500 windows, a chiller plant retrofit, new building controls, and a web-based tenant energy management system.

Check out the video below entitled “Greening the Empire State Building”.


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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

2 thoughts on “What is Green Building and Why is it Important?”

  1. Another excellent video presentation. Where do you find them? Would have been lucrative to receive the bid for replacement of all those windows, certainly a major job. The photo of the homes in Washington shows almost no greenery except for the two trees in the fore ground, very austere looking. We have areas of artificial grass in the area where we live which has held up quite well and is absolutely care free. Do wish there was a way to make it without the use of non green elements. Hard to imagine less and less green as we move forward.

    Appreciate hearing that there are corporations that seem to be taking green building seriously.

    1. Locating videos is easy once you know what to look for. For example, type “green building” in the search window of your web browser and click search. The first results will be websites however you can change the results by clicking on the video or image menu tabs above the search window.

      Turf lawns in arid areas are not sustainable so yes those do need to go. However, growing green things is essential to a sustainable planet and healthy people so we don’t need to go without green in our world.

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