This article series on green buildings (also known as sustainable buildings) attempts to answer the following fundamental question: What is meant when someone says “green building” — what exactly are they talking about? It is safe to say that they are probably not talking about the color of the paint… Kidding aside, much like the related and broader term “green economy” it depends on who the speaker using the term is and the context in which it is being used. Fortunately there is a growing consensus on many of the attributes that make a building green.

For a related discussion on the meaning of the widely used term “green economy” see our post: The Green Economy, What Does it Mean?

This, the first article in the series sets up the subsequent articles by providing an overview of the areas that will each be covered in greater depth in the following articles and by providing a first stab at defining what a green building is.

The DNA of a Sustainable or Green Building

A green building, also known as a sustainable building, is one that is designed, built, renovated, and operated in a resource-efficient manner and that minimizes its environmental impact. Like the four letters of the genetic code the following four essential qualities form the DNA of green buildings; they are: Energy efficiency, material efficiency, water efficiency and healthful building environment. When one hears or uses the term sustainable (or green) building it is understood to mean that one is speaking about a building of some kind that addresses more than just one of these four core defining characteristics. In other words just adding insulation to an existing structure, while it does improve that buildings energy efficiency and does make that building “greener” is not enough by itself to qualify the building as a green or sustainable building.

A green or sustainable building is one that addresses to one degree or another all four of the core green building attributes mentioned above. Energy efficiency, material efficiency, water efficiency and healthy (non-toxic) building are the core essential things that a green building must demonstrate in order to be qualify as being green.

Other Qualities that Help Make a Building Green

In addition to these core qualities many other considerations also come into play. Following is a rather detailed, but by no means exhaustive list of some of them:

Local sourcing of material and labor. Use of local materials and local labor not only promotes energy efficiency by avoiding the need to transport materials (or labor in the form of pre-manufactured components) from distant regions, but it also helps re-circulate wealth into the local regional economy, which is itself considered by some to be an important goal for green tech.

Promotion of a more livable pedestrian (and bicycle) friendly urban environment. How does the building integrate into the street level pedestrian (or bicycle) network? Does it provide for secure bicycle parking?

Fits in the local environment Is the building designed to fit and adapt to the local environment; to flow with it rather than try to fight it. To make good use of what the local environment has to offer as well as reflect that environment in its design. Does the building evoke the type of landscape and climate it is built in. For example if it is in the desert does its design fit with that climate and evoke that landscape.

Integration into a city’s mass transit system as well a design orientation that promotes and eases the use of such systems be they bus, light rail or subway. For example by choosing to build in a location that is well served by mass transit and by orienting the building’s main entrance area towards the nearest stations or stops.

Using construction waste on site (for example as part of the anchor rock substrata of a parking area) and using materials that can themselves easily be recycled at the end of their useful lives a building can reduce energy and other resource consumption both during construction and over the buildings life as well as limit the amount of material that will end up being hauled off to a landfill.

Using natural, sustainably produced and non-toxic materials. This is pretty self evident and includes such things as using wood from sustainable forestry and incorporating fast growing eco-friendly materials such as Bamboo.

Solar orientation, both for making the most of natural day light and for passive solar heating can save large vast quantities of energy over a building’s life at little to no extra cost if designed into a building from the start. Besides southern exposure and the use of lots of architectural glass windows, light wells on a large roof area can bring light deep down into the building.

On site active energy harvesting to help offset energy usage. Whether it is solar PV, active solar thermal, urban friendly wind turbines or the use of geothermal techniques such as dual loop heating/cooling that make use of the thermal stability of the earth below the frost line – on site energy harvesting incorporated into a building’s design not only reduces that building’s dependency on consuming energy from the electric and gas grids and added stress to these already over taxed systems, but it can often make a dramatic, visible architectural statement about the structures inherent greenness.

Incorporation of on site energy storage capacity. For example a building that makes use of Off Peak Air Conditioning (OPAC) can significantly improve the building’s peak load profile helping to reduce stress on the electric grid during peak load periods. Other more exotic energy storage systems such as compressed air, high speed flywheels, or off peak hot water may offer ways for buildings to make better use of off peak power and reduce their peak loads.

Landscaping with native species and the creation of natural habitat in an urban setting. Some green roofs for example are creating “natural habitats” right in the middle of some of our largest cities. These are synergistic benefits that are in addition to the primary goals of increasing energy efficiency and water efficiency for which the green roof is used.

Providing space for urban food production. For example residential buildings that provide community gardens for use by their residents.

Preview of Part II, the Next Article in the Green (Sustainable) Building Series

In our next post in this series, which will be published tomorrow, we look at the aesthetics of green buildings, using green roofs to illustrate how additional synergistic benefits often can flow out of achieving the primary design goals.

© 2009, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Chris de Morsella (146 Articles)

After a decade performing as a lead guitarist for rock bands, Chris de Morsella decided to return to the career his uncle mentored him in as a youth....Software Engineering. Since that time he has thrown himself into his work. He has designed a compound document publishing architecture for regulatory submissions capable of handling very large multi-document FDA regulatory drug approval submissions, for Liquent, a division of Thompson Publishing. At the Associated Press, Chris worked with senior editors at facilities around the world, to develop a solution for replacing existing editorial systems with an integrated international content management solution. He lead the design effort at Microsoft for a help system for mobile devices designed to provide contextual help for users. Chris also helped to develop the web assisted installer for LifeCam2.0, the software for Microsoft’s web cam and developed late breaking features for the product He also served with the Rhapsody client team to redesign and build a major new release of Real Networks Rhapsody client product. His most recent assignment has been Working with the Outlook Mobile Time Management team for the next release of Outlook Mobile for the SmartPhone. Chris' interests are in green building and architecture, smart grid, the cloud, geo-thermal energy, solar energy, smart growth, organic farming and permaculture. Follow Chris on Twitter.