Buildings Buzz

Green Buildings vs. Non-Green Buildings

Going green has become mandatory for anyone involved in building construction and/or maintenance. The growth in the certified green building market has been making headlines for over a decade with no end in sight. Plus, studies consistently show that building green pays off. On average, green buildings simply have the competitive edge in terms of cost effectiveness, marketability and overall maintenance efficiency.

Despite the buzz, many facilities managers are still confused as to what exactly it means to be green. Does certification matter? Is renewable energy required? What exactly makes a building green?

Five Elements of a Green Building Project

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast answers. Ask a dozen green building experts and you’ll get a dozen replies, each sensible but none identical. The fact is, sustainability is an enormously complex subject, and the industry reflects that. 

However, one has to start somewhere. Perhaps one of the clearest definitions of what green construction really means is offered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in its report “What Is a Green Building?” The EPA breaks green construction down into five readily identifiable elements. Let’s take a look at each, and what they entail:

1. Sustainable Site Design

Green construction considers not just the building but its environment. Before construction even begins, care is taken to choose a site that will contribute to wise use of resources and enhance human and environmental health. Key strategies include using space efficiently; preserving wetlands and other valuable natural features; orienting and designing the building to take advantage of natural dynamics such as insulation, air flow and microclimate variables; reducing the urban heat island effect; light pollution reduction; and aesthetic appeal. Technologies in this category include such things as daylighting, passive ventilation, and green walls and roofs.

If you are dealing with an existing building, your options for improvement may be limited. However, there are some things you can do to get your building in sync with its environment. Landscaping is one good option. Strategically planting trees and other plants where they will provide shade, windbreaks or other benefits can significantly impact a building’s energy footprint. It can lead to other surprising benefits, too.

For instance, when the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center at Monticello redesigned its landscaping, average summer air temperatures in their courtyard dropped by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and surface temperatures dropped by 29.7 degrees Fahrenheit under the shade structure and trees. Not only did it reduce the Center’s energy bills, but the site renovation contributed to a 19% rise in retail sales.

2. Water Quality and Conservation

This category includes measures that maximize water-use efficiency and water quality. Green building designers attempt to emulate and preserve the site’s natural water cycle through the use of rainwater catchment, progressive stormwater management techniques such as permeable pavement, native landscaping, and water-saving devices.

Problems sometimes occur in this and in all areas of conservation when existing infrastructure is expected to support newer conservation mandates. For example, last April’s water efficiency mandate by the State of California limiting toilets to 1.2 gallons per flush seems reasonable and responsible, given the extreme drought conditions faced by the state. However, many commercial property managers are experiencing problems when they install these water-efficient toilets. The drain lines in most older buildings were engineered to work with a greater volume of water. They often are nearly horizontal, and to make matters worse, they often sag with age. As a result, clogged drain lines have become commonplace.

Situations like these are challenging, but the solution is not to get angry, says Edward J. Brady, LEED GA ARCSA, Water Efficiency Program Manager at Healthy Buildings. Instead, look for new technologies or workarounds to achieve the best results possible given the limitations of your property. In this case, removing and replacing the drain lines would be prohibitively expensive for most properties. Brady suggests trying this solution first: “We put a 2.4 gallon, higher flush mid range toilet into the very end stall. You need to apply for a variance and get a stamp from a professional engineer, but it’s often just enough extra water to prevent issues while still keeping water use to a minimum.”

3. Energy and Environment

This is the category that most people think of first when they think green. It also includes many of the most dramatic cost-saving opportunities. Energy measures include technologies and design that improve building performance to achieve more with less input. Strategies include incorporating shell measures such as insulation and high-efficiency glazing; passive heating and cooling; high-efficiency lighting; solar and other renewable energy; and high-efficiency HVAC and plumbing technologies.

Human workers may not respond well to micromanagement, but buildings are another story. Many property managers find that tracking and controlling the energy consumption of individual units and/or zones pays off very well in terms of energy savings. Smart meters in particular can save tremendous amounts of energy by automatically adjusting to changes in weather, number of occupants, and other variables.

4. Indoor Environmental Quality

Integral to the green building concept is ensuring that the building supports human health and wellbeing. Issues in this category include reducing exposure to indoor environmental toxins like VOCs, heavy metals, and biological hazards such as mold; ensuring adequate air flow and quality; providing optimal levels and quality of light (especially daylighting); and maintaining an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere for stress reduction and improved worker efficiency.

Maintenance is integral to keeping a “green” building green. Some of the biggest contributors to poor-indoor environmental quality are, ironically, cleaning and disinfecting products. Yet it’s not just conventional cleaning supplies. Some so-called “green” cleaners, while not themselves a source for concern, can react with other chemicals present in your building to create toxic compounds. For example, pine and citrus oils contain compounds called terpenes that can combine with ozone to form the carcinogen formaldehyde, as well as fine particulates that can adversely affect human health.   The California EPA recommends limiting the use of these products, especially during periods of high outdoor air pollution.

Property managers should be aware of chemical interactions of this sort, and look for non-chemical alternatives when possible, such as cleaning systems that utilize electrolyzed water.

5. Materials and Resources

Careful selection of construction materials to favor those that make the most efficient use of resources can significantly improve a building’s environmental impact. Recycled materials, local materials and materials engineered for maximum durability, longevity and efficiency are preferred, as are bio-based materials that break down safely in the environment once they are no longer in use. Materials and systems are evaluated using a “cradle-to-cradle” approach that takes into account the entire life cycle of the structure, from sourcing to disposal. Also included in this category are maintenance and use issues such as recycling, waste disposal and transportation to and from the building.

Keep in mind that one of the most significant resources for a green building is its occupants. Every green building should include a plan for educating, training and encouraging its occupants to use best management practices for optimal sustainability. The best plans instill a sense of pride, fun, teamwork and/or ownership. Payback incentives are usually very effective, as are contests between occupants of different areas of the building.

Multiple Benefits to Going Green

There are many ways to define green, but these five categories offer a convenient way to help FMs better understand how their buildings stack up in their efforts to go green.  

However, be aware that many green approaches span multiple categories. Holly Elmore, founder and CEO of the nonprofit sustainability consultancy Elemental Impact, says that it’s common for property owners to install a green technology to solve one problem, only to find that it improves the property in several ways: For example, as part of its sustainable food court initiative pilot, the Atlanta airport installed baffle filters that collect 99% of the grease from the air before it enters the duct system. It did it to protect the roof, but it found that it kept the ducts so much cleaner that it will save 1.1 million gallons of water per year, and reduce cleaning expenses to the tune of $7,000 annual savings per restaurant!

Look for these synergies when creating your green building plan. Taking a holistic, big-picture approach will get you the greenest possible result and can save you countless dollars in the long run.

Ryan McNeill is the president of Renewable Energy Corporation, a Mid-Atlantic solar energy company.

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