Green Building: Sustainable Construction Grows

Paul Pogue
Written by Paul Pogue
Updated June 15, 2021
solar panels on garage with Prius inside
Green construction isn't just a trend, but an idea that involves thinking green at each step of the construction process. (Photo by John Zambito)

Green building, which accounts for 2 percent of new construction and 40 percent of remodeling projects, remains in its infancy, according to experts.

Green building: two words used with increasing frequency since the 1970s and now a mainstream buzzword encompassing an entire movement. Two words that hardly do the term justice. For elaboration we turn to the Environmental Protection Agency, which defines it as: "The practice of increasing the efficiency in which buildings and their sites use energy, water and materials and reducing building impacts on human health and the environment, through better siting, design, construction, operation, maintenance and removal — the complete building life cycle."

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Eco-building milestones

Early 1900sSome American structures, such as New York's Flatiron Building, employ green design elements.

1973The OPEC oil embargo causes a sharp surge in energy prices, creating new interest in environmentalism.

1989 Great Britain establishes the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, the first national green building standard in the world.

1991 Austin, Texas, where interest in energy efficiency had been strong since the 1970s, launches the first green building certification program in the United States.

1992 The federal government unveils the Energy Star program.

1993 Disatisfied with a slow-moving process, David Gottfried, Mike Italiano and Rick Fedrizzi found the U.S. Green Building Council to jump-start national green building standards.

2000 The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design commercial green building standard goes public after seven years in development.

2005 The National Association of Home Builders introduces its Model Green Home Building Guidelines in January. In August the USGBC begins a two-year pilot of its LEED for Homes certification program.

2006 Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, issues the 2030 Challenge: To make all new and renovated buildings carbon-neutral by 2030.

2007 The USGBC launches the LEED for Neighborhood Development pilot rating system in February and, in November, establishes the REGREEN remodeling guidelines and the LEED for Homes certification program.

February 2008NAHB launches national green home building and remodeling certification standards, including third-party verification. The past and prologue of sustainable construction.

It's impossible to pinpoint the genesis of the green building movement; indeed, the first time an intrepid designer took advantage of window design to improve heating and cooling, he or she was engaging in a crude form of sustainable construction. Forward-thinking architects in the 19th and early 20th centuries came up with designs that maximized solar heating, and through the 1950s and 1960s, small clusters of designers studied the impact of climate and energy. But for the most part, this research remained unknown to the larger building community until the 1970s, when oil embargos and power shortages placed the energy issue squarely front and center.

The energy debates had a direct impact on Austin, Texas. In 1982, the city's publicly owned utility began to experiment with energy efficiency and alternate codes. In 1991, Austin leaders took matters one step further and launched the nation's first set of green building standards.

The landmark Austin Energy Green Building program began by rating green homes and later commercial and public buildings, setting the stage to bring a common language to a complex area. "Sustainable practices have been going on as long as people have been building buildings," says Austin Energy Green Building manager Richard Morgan. "Our genius was to create a ratings tool to measure it."

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Frustrated with the slow pace of change in other parts of the country, three environmental experts decided to create a national uniform benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings. In 1993, developer David Gottfried, environmental attorney and scientist Mike Italiano and environmental marketing consultant Rick Fedrizzi co-founded the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization of designers, architects, builders, developers, academics, engineers, environmentalists, building managers and government agencies.

"We needed a rating system to educate the industry and ultimately transform the market," says Gottfried, now president of Worldbuild in Oakland, California. National Resources Defense Council senior scientist Rob Watson, along with the many experts charged with developing that rating system, spent years gathering data, studying other green building programs and soliciting opinions from all sectors of the market.

In 1998, Watson's group rolled out the initial Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design pilot program, which focused on 12 buildings ranging from the Kandalama Hotel in Sri Lanka to the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management in Santa Barbara, California. After two years in the pilot phase, they officially launched LEED certification for commercial buildings, emphasizing third-party verification to lend credibility.

"With LEED, people could talk about green and know what green meant," says Ashok Gupta, NRDC director of air and energy and a longtime member of the USGBC. "Everybody had a shared vocabulary." LEED now embraces the spectrum of new construction, including commercial interiors, core and shell, schools, retail, health care and — most recently — homes.

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Solar power panels
Experts say solar power offers some of the most efficient, inexpensive energy. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy)

Following another two-year pilot, USGBC officials presented LEED for Homes as well as comprehensive guidelines for home remodeling at its November 2007 annual conference in Chicago, with more than 20,000 professionals and several city mayors in attendance. They had already begun a pilot of LEED for Neighborhood Development, which focuses on greening whole communities, earlier in the year.

LEED isn't the only game in town, however. Following on the heels of Austin, Texas, more than 100 local and regional green building programs have sprung up nationwide, collectively green-stamping upwards of 100,000 buildings. The Energy Star program rates products and new homes for energy efficiency, certifying 850,000 homes since 1992. More recently, the National Association of Home Builders has plunged into the green building certification business.

Energy hogs

Buildings — including homes — are the single largest contributor to global warming, accounting for nearly half of U.S. energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Buildings: 48 percent

Industrial: 25 percent

Transportation: 27 percent

Source: Architecture 2030 Project

But supporters say LEED remains the widest-ranging, most rigorous and detailed certification program — and the first national one requiring third-party verification. It encompasses 45,000 accredited professionals and 1,600 certified commercial and residential projects, with 20,000 more in the pipeline. LEED has even gone global; 40 countriescounties are in the process of adopting its standards.

Even so, experts say green building is still in its infancy — LEED or other green-built homes and buildings currently account for just 2 percent of new construction but 40 percent of remodeling projects. However, USGBC alone hopes to certify 1.1 million buildings by 2010 and 11 million by 2020.

The stakes are higher than ever. Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, points out that all buildings acccount for 48 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions annually. "With so much attention given to transportation emissions, many people are surprised to learn that buildings are the single largest contributor to global warming," he says.

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Mazria has issued a global challenge, supported by USGBC and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, among others, to reduce new and existing buildings' fossil fuel consumption 50 percent by 2010 and become carbon neutral by 2030. "We have about 10 years to very substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions before we see very negative, probably irreversible effects on our continent," says Michelle Moore, USGBC vice president of policy and public affairs.

Fortunately, Moore says the construction industry has finally begun to pay attention to the warning signs and the importance of building and remodeling green. Austin Energy's Morgan agrees. "There's a growing awareness that we have to change everything we've been doing," he says, "and green building is the answer."