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The 7 Hallmarks of a Green Building

Discover what makes a building green


Green buildings are designed, built and managed in a way that makes them as sustainable as possible, with minimal impact on the environment. There are hundreds of ways of making a house, a school or a commercial building green, but the best green building will include the following:

1. The Right Site

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Before a single shovelful of dirt is moved, a green building should be properly sited. Ideally, the building will not be constructed in any sensitive habitats like wetlands, groundwater recharge zones or old growth forests. Many new green buildings are purposely built over former brownfields (polluted industrial areas) that have been reclaimed.

Buildings that are sited near major bus, train and subway lines encourage use of public transit. And buildings with smaller building and parking lot footprints tend to be more energy-efficient while leaving more room for landscaping -- ideally, landscaping that uses non-invasive native plants, some of which produce food for humans and wildlife alike.

2. Minimal Energy Use

Energy efficiency is a key component of any green building, making energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal increasingly important. Heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) are usually a building's biggest energy costs, so simple practices like moderating summer and winter thermostat settings makes a real difference -- as do efficient appliances like those with Energy Star certification.

Using good-quality, insulating windows is as important as window placement; windows in the right places allow daylight to reduce lighting use while providing solar warmth in cool weather. Newer technologies like ICF construction and SIPS panels greatly enhance energy efficiency. And landscaping can also save energy through smart placement of shade trees and green roofs, where plant beds provide insulation and reduce storm runoff.

3. Material Wealth in a Green Building

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It seems that every other day, some innovative, new green building material is introduced. Some are recycled, recyclable, or brought back into use from architectural salvage companies. Others are local materials -- including those, like adobe, rock and gravel, that can be harvested from the building site itself. Most of these contain few or no toxic substances or finishes, and many, such as bamboo, straw bales, cork, and recycled denim insulation, come from sustainable or low-impact sources.

4. Breathing Easy

Most of us can identify the smell of fresh paint, but there are many other indoor air pollutants that can be even more harmful. The EPA estimates that indoor air can be up to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from some paints, carpets, synthetic fabrics and adhesives are a known health hazard, contributing to the malaise known as sick building syndrome. Proper use of HVAC can help, as can one obvious but hard-to-find office technology -- windows that open to let fresh air in and bad air out.

5. The Water-Wise Green Building

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Some smart uses of water in a green building are obvious -- low-flow toilets, sinks and showers -- but others are still being introduced in some municipalities, like the reuse of graywater (non-septic water from sinks and showers) to flush toilets and irrigate landscaping. Some green buildings even take advantage of rainwater, collecting it to cool the building and incorporating it into natural water features on the site.

6. Waste Not

Some of the greenest buildings aren't new at all -- they're older buildings that have been adapted for reuse. Adaptive building reuse, like turning an old warehouse into housing, is just one example of how smart design can reduce the waste stream from construction, as well as the waste generated during building occupancy. More efficient building processes, like prefab buildings, also reduce the amount of waste generated by building demolition, construction and renovation.

7. Amenities and Management

The very best green design and construction ideas don't mean much if the occupants of a green building turn a blind eye to sustainable practices. For example, recycling and turning off lights when not in use requires ongoing participation from a building's occupants and management. And the amenities that are incorporated into sustainable buildings, like showers and bike racks, can help to make a good building great.

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