The Basics of Green Construction

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Basics Green Construction

To paraphrase that great felt-covered philosopher Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy building green.”

Sure, “green” construction might be the fastest growing segment in the industry, accounting for 2.3 million American jobs, and pumping $134.3 billion of labor income into the economy according to the U.S. Green Building Council. And yes, it also predicted that by 2018, green construction would account for more than a third of the entire sector, and contribute $303.5 billion over the next four years.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Or that it’s even easy to figure out. And while the intricate details of what’s considered “green construction” could literally fill an entire website (like it does here), here are some of the basics you need to know.

LEED: Setting the standard

The first thing you should know is that while there’re no hard and fast rules for what’s considered green construction, getting your project LEED certified definitely puts it in that category.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design and sets forth a series of standards in a points system, so projects can receive different levels of LEED certification. According to a survey from the Institute for Building Efficiency, having LEED certification can improve everything from resale prices to occupancy rates, so developers are big on hiring firms who can deliver it. The standards are frequently changing – right now LEED is on Version 4 – and while there are no legal ramifications to LEED, being familiar with the rules can definitely help you get jobs.

What are the guidelines for green construction?

Ok, so you’ve seen what LEED requires, but even if you’re not aiming for that specific brand of certification, you can still have green projects. The definition of green construction, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is “the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.”

That definition is annoyingly vague. So the EPA has broken it down into further categories, which include:

  • Siting
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy efficiency
  • Indoor air quality
  • Resources efficiency
  • Implementation
  • Operation and maintenance

Still annoyingly vague? Of course it is, this is government documentation, after all. Why would it ever be straightforward? So to help you figure out how to meet these criteria, here are some brief tips on how to address each aspect of green construction.

  • Siting: Siting simply refers to how you treat the physical site of your project. Though you may not have control over it, selecting a site near mass transit is a big factor in green siting as it reduces parking needs and the end user’s fuel consumption. For landscaping, choose plants which don’t need pesticides, require little water, don’t produce much waste and and are native to the area. You’ll also want to minimize the effects of light pollution with your project, and find ways of retaining storm water runoff to use for watering those native plants.
  • Water Efficiency: Beyond with the storm water runoff program we mentioned above, low-flush toilets, waterless urinals, and low-flow showerheads are big assets in green construction. Using non-potable wastewater for irrigation is a popular method of water efficiency, as is micro irrigation and using separate water meters for landscaping and the building. Even things as common as self-closing nozzles on hoses are helpful, and some buildings are finding ways of using wastewater to flush toilets.
  • Resources Efficiency: This is sort of like the construction equivalent of locally sourced, farm-to-table food. Resources efficiency means sourcing your materials locally, so everything from glass, to cement to ironwork should all come from local suppliers. Further, uses recycled or refurbished materials and recycle your waste instead of sending it to the landfill. When you source natural products like wood, look to see that they are separately certified as renewable or sustainable. You’re probably getting the idea here, but doing things like perusing salvage yards for reusable materials saves you money and adds value to your green project.
  • Energy Efficiency: Being energy efficient involves a lot more than installing Energy star-rated appliances; it extends into things like lighting systems, where the use of motion sensors and dimmers – as well as fixtures that use low-wattage bulbs are important. More important is the use of natural light, which in addition to lowering lighting costs also improves mood and productivity. Ensure doors, windows and skylights are properly insulated and sealed to keep climate-controlled air in. And obviously any alternative-energy source you can utilize, be that solar power or photovoltaics or anything else, will always help your cause.
  • Indoor Air Quality: Things like carpet, paints, and PVC pipes contain elements known as Volatile Organic Compounds – or VOCs – that have low vaporization points at room temperature and unleash small particles of sometimes-toxic elements into the air. Asbestos was a great example, but even now minimizing materials that contain VOCs is the biggest thing you can do to improve your indoor air quality. LEED even has special certifications for using low-VOC materials. Additionally, simple things like access to open windows helps with your indoor air quality, as will using moisture-resistant materials that inhibit the growth of bacteria and microbes. This is especially important in cold-weather areas where heating systems can act as cold and flu incubators.
  • Implementation: Implementation is pretty simple. Take all these great green designs, and make sure they happen. The first step, obviously, is creating a plan. But follow that plan up with an actionable list of green objectives on every project, and making that a priority. Provide ongoing training to your employees on how to maximize the benefits of green construction, and get them thinking of ways to achieve more environmental efficiency on every job.
  • Operation and Maintenance: Ultimately, you can put all the green features into a building you want, if the developer or property manager doesn’t use them, all your effort is for naught. It is on you to educate whoever will be maintaining the property on how to maintain and implement the green features you’ve created, so you might even want to develop handouts for them to give tenants or employees. Also, provide a list of habits that will help reduce water and energy consumption, as well as an explanation of the benefits each action will have.

The future of construction is green construction. It may require a different way of going about your projects, but ultimately a construction business that can build green will see more green. Getting you more money, and helping the planet at the same time.


Matt Meltzer

Matt Meltzer is a professor of business communication at the University of Miami. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and holds a bachelors degree in business administration from UM, as well as a Masters of Mass Communication from the University of Florida.