The Top 3 Ways to Make a Building “green”

SF Green BuildingGreen is the color of the grass, some people’s favorite color, and the color when you look at light between the wavelengths of about 520 and 570 nanometers.  When we talk about the process of “green” building, we are talking about using environmentally responsible and resource-efficient practices when we build something.

This requires everyone’s cooperation on the team, including the architects and designers, the civil and structural engineers, the developers, and the clients. Ultimately, the concept of “green” building extends throughout the life-cycle of a building, from site planning, to design construction, through renovation, and ultimately to demolition.


And so it begins, as most things do, in the planning stages. This is where you have the most power to influence how environmentally-friendly your building will be.

When choosing a site, it is better to choose an infill location, which means that this location is in an area that has already been developed. That way, you won’t be contributing to urban “sprawl” by building structures far apart from each other, which is not an efficient use of space or energy.

Choosing sites near public transit, such as in the Warm Springs district of Fremont, CA where a new BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station will be built, is a really good way to go. This would encourage use of public transit.

Do you want to be even “greener?” Think about redeveloping an old building–an excellent way to conserve resources.


65 Watt Fluorescent BulbSeems like everything is trying to be energy efficient these days, from light bulbs to your clothes dryer. “Energy efficiency” means using less energy to do or perform the same service. An example of being energy efficient is when you replace your light bulbs with fluorescent ones (as opposed to turning off the lights completely or eating in the dark and telling ghost stories to reduce energy consumption).

So what does it mean when you want to build a “green” building? It means that the building performs the same functions, such as heating and cooling its inhabitants and its rooms, while using less energy to do it.


Somehow it all comes back to the location of your project. Where do you place the building? If you put it near a huge shade tree then you may have to use less energy to cool the building. Landscaping and hills can also provide shade and block the wind. Building orientation is also really important–you really want to maximize use of daylight and take advantage of natural ventilation.

Windows are great–wouldn’t you rather sit by the window than bask in artificial light? It’s not just about having windows, it’s also about where you place these windows. For northern hemisphere buildings in cooler climates, placing windows that are south facing will increase the amount of sunlight coming into the building (for southern hemisphere buildings, placing windows to face the north will do the same thing). Also, it matters what type of window you have–double or triple glazed insulated windows with gas filled spaces, specialized transparent coatings, and improved frames will provide better insulation than single-pane glass windows.

Reduce air leakage

It’s all in the details, right? Designers can reduce air leakage in the building by having high performance windows, and extra insulation in walls and floors–the most important part of an efficient heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) is a well insulated building. The trick here is to use what is called passive solar building design. This is when the windows, walls, and floors are designed to let heat into the building during the cold winter months, and block out the sun during hot summers.

Also important is the quality of the air inside the building. This can depend on whether the building envelope (the physical separator, or outer shell, between the inside and outside environments of a building) and the HVAC system (controls indoor humidity) can prevent mold and fungi.



Let’s start by saying that not everything that says it’s “green” is actually “green”–there’s a term called “greenwashing” that refers to deceptive or unsupported claims made by manufacturers or businesses who say their products are environmentally friendly when there is little or no environmental benefit. But the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has some rules in the “Green Guides” on that–these aren’t binding law, but a guide to how the FTC will deal with deceptive environmental marketing claims.

Sustainable Materials

On that note, let’s talk about sustainable materials. These are “green” materials, or materials that are reused, or made from renewable resources or recycled-content. They can include lumber from certified forests, bamboo, recycled stone and recycled metal.

Industrial Materials

Using recycled industrial materials (industrial materials are the byproducts of industrial processes) in buildings will conserve natural resources and reduce the energy use and pollution that goes with mining and processing new materials and building products. It will also help you save money because they are often less expensive.

Some examples of industrial materials are coal combustion products (CCPs), construction and demolition materials, spent foundry sand, used tires, and slags. Don’t worry–these industrial materials can perform just as well or even better than new materials. For example, tire shreds can provide more effective drainage around building foundations and put less pressure on building foundation walls compared to heavier materials.


Water efficiency/quality

You want to try reduce water consumption and protect water quality when building something sustainable. You can use ultra-low or low water-efficient plumbing fixtures, efficient landscape irrigation equipment, and water conserving cooling towers. Another simple way to conserve water is to eliminate leaks.

There is a strategy called Low Impact Development (LID) which is a storm water management strategy that is used to meet regulatory standards and address water quality issues. The LID strategy is used to control water at the source (both rainfall and storm water runoff) so that storm water is distributed across a project site to replenish groundwater supplies. That way it is not sent into the storm drainage system without being treated by bio-means. Post-construction storm water controls incorporate LID strategies, and are permanent features included in a project to reduce pollutants in storm water. These controls are required for both public and private projects.

What color is your roof?

Green "Living" RoofLight-colored roofs save more energy than dark roofs in sunny climates. What about a “green” roof?” These are roofs that are thin layers of vegetation on top of regular flat or sloping roofs. They can help control storm water runoff and can improve water quality at the same time by reducing the volume and rate of storm water runoff. They can also reduce the temperature above the roof when they cover conventional dark roofs.

Economic benefit/certification programs

There can be economic benefits to building “green,” including reduced costs for energy, water, and operations/maintenance, and improved occupant health and satisfaction. They may cost more to build up front, but can save money over the life of the building. The EPA has a list of funding opportunities for green buildings with information about potential tax breaks for building “green.”

There are a few “green” building certification programs, including the EPA and U.S. Department of Energy’s ENERGY STAR and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) programs.

Good luck building “green!”

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