This, the third article in our series on green (sustainable) buildings examines the importance of choosing a suitable location for the building – in those cases where the site has not already been determined or it is a green renovation project on an existing structure. It continues by examining how a project’s orientation and landscaping contributes to knitting the building into the surrounding fabric as well as increasing the building’s overall water and energy efficiency and lessening its environmental impact.

In case you missed the first articles in our “Green (Sustainable) Building”, the first article in the series can be found at: The Green (or Sustainable) Building: Part I – What Is the Green Building DNA?.

Being Green Begins With Location, location, location

For new projects where the building site is not already decided, an important green consideration is the selection of a location for the building that fits into the existing urban fabric, especially the existing mass transit network of the city. A “green” building — or specifically one that has a lot of people traffic going through it on a daily basis — that is sited in a place that can only be reached by car is not all that green after all. Remote and rural buildings, of course, can also be green, but for buildings intended as part of an urban area — especially for office buildings, factories and dwellings – – putting them in places where they enjoy easy convenient access to the city (or town) transit system makes a lot of sense.

In addition to mass transit considerations a green building site should also be selected based on how easily it can integrate into the existing electric, gas, water, and sewage utilities. Fitting into a city’s existing infrastructure so that a project has the smallest impact on the existing energy, water, sewage and road systems is the first point at which the green decision making process comes into play.

Some other siting criteria that can help promote the greenness of a project are to prefer brownfields over greenfields. In other words, given the opportunity it is better to rehabilitate a brownfield site with a green building than it is to put that same building on a piece of land that is still in its natural state. Urban areas are full of large areas that have already been degraded by previous use and are also often well connected to the city’s existing infrastructure.

Rehabilitating a brownfield site with a green building increases the overall beneficial impact that the green building will have on the larger urban environment. Abandoned lots and decaying structures exist in so many inner city areas, as well as in the older inner ring of single family dwellings. These types of sites as well as old factories and industrial areas are urban scar tissues that need healing. Siting a green building in this type of location – if this is a possibility – can contribute to returning vitality to the urban cores of cities and promote higher density living — itself an important green consideration.

Orient to Merge Within the Surrounding Urban Fabric and Make Use of Available Resources

Even if the project site is already fixed — either because it is a green renovation project on an existing structure or because the building site is fixed for other reasons — how a structure is designed (or renovated) to fit into the surrounding urban environment can have significant impact on that building’s ultimate success as a green building. A green building should organically fit into the surrounding area, making best use of existing roads, sidewalks, alleys, site specific solar resources and so forth. Even renovation projects can improve how a building ties into its surroundings, for example by improving pedestrian (or bicycle) access.

Another factor to consider when designing the orientation of a building is how to make best use of available resources such as natural lighting, ventilation, views etc. Decisions made at design time will have a major impact on the performance of a building over time, for example a building that is poorly oriented for lighting and passive solar heating or one that is exposed to harsh cold winter winds will use much more energy over its life than a better oriented building that is designed to make good use of sunlight and is designed to shelter from cold winter winds. It is not an over-statement to say that the decisions on how to orient a project within a given site can determine the success or failure of a green building.

Site considerations also include preserving existing valuable landscape such as mature trees for example. A building I recently saw go up was oriented slightly to one angle in order to save a very beautiful noble Cedar tree and now this same tree provides a noble grace to that building that helps make it special.

Multifunction Landscaping

Designing well thought out multi-function landscaping, for parking areas, entrances, courtyards, foyers, and the borders around a building is an important and integral part of the green building design discipline. Landscaping in green buildings is not some mere decorative afterthought; quite the opposite in fact, well conceived multi-function landscaping provides various critical green services for a building including water efficiency and energy efficiency.

A green building’s landscaping can provide various important water services, such as rain water filtration and retention and temporary storage of storm water. It can help the building slowly release clean filtered water back into the water systems instead of polluted surges of silt laden runoff. Design landscaping and any parking areas so that they have appropriately landscaped storm water catchment areas to absorb and filter storm water runoff in order to avoid causing water pollution and taxing the cities storm water drains.

Preventing pollution from entering water is much more affordable than cleaning polluted water! Designed wetlands are an important consideration for making a green building. They are not only functional, but can also provide habitat and beauty. For example rain gardens, which are shallow depressions in the landscape that typically include plants and a mulch layer or ground cover, collect runoff and filter it preventing water pollution, but also provide splashes of flowering color. Another example is the swale, which is a shallow landscaped depression between parking rows. Swales absorb runoff, channel it towards rain gardens and provide green strips in which shade trees can grow.

Landscaping also can promote energy efficiency, for example by providing critical summer shade, while allowing in needed winter solar heat. Green walls (and green roofs of course) can provide added insulation against heat gain and heat loss by forming a living green skin over the structural elements.

The green landscape design process begins with planning for the reuse of generated construction site rubble, excavated material and waste materials as much as possible. This saves energy that would be used for hauling the rubble to a distant landfill dump site and can save on the need for newly manufactured or mined materials, such as cement, or graded gravel and sand that it replaces. For example, by using properly graded construction rubble as a base for a parking lot many truckloads of gravel, cement and crushed rock will not be consumed.

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

Part IV in this series on green buildings, which will be published tomorrow, gets into the important topics of energy and water efficiency, which are both of fundamental importance for a green building’s profile.

© 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.