A Greenprint for Sustainable Development

The newspapers are full of stories about harsh weather and climate change. If there is anything positive about the earth's climate changes, it is our reinvigorated environmental consciousness. Environmental concerns are no longer a fringe issue; they are front and center. As a result, green building and sustainable development are receiving substantial media attention.

The newspapers are full of stories about harsh weather and climate change. If there is anything positive about the earth’s climate changes, it is our reinvigorated environmental consciousness. Environmental concerns are no longer a fringe issue; they are front and center. As a result, green building and sustainable development are receiving substantial media attention.

Indeed, environmental issues have surfaced as some of the most important policy and political issues of the day. For evidence of this, you only have to look at the Web sites of the two principal presidential candidates, which prominently feature information about the environment and sustainability.

Barack Obama calls climate change one of the greatest moral challenges of our generation. He proposes to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. Because buildings account for nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions in the United States and this number is
expected to grow, Sen. Obama also proposes to establish a goal of making all new buildings carbon neutral, or producing zero emissions, by 2030. He also proposes to establish a national goal of improving new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent over the next decade to meet the 2030 goal.

John McCain’s Web site states that ensuring clean air, safe and healthy water, sustainable land use and ample greenspace is a patriotic responsibility. Sen. McCain says that he will offer common-sense approaches to limit carbon emissions by harnessing market forces that will bring advanced technology, like nuclear energy, to the market faster.

Regardless of which candidate you support, it is clear that green building and sustainable development are major environmental issues that affect our economy and our lives — and, as discussed in this article, our real estate. The “built environment” is a major contributor to greenhouse gas and emissions, a significant source of conventional water and air pollution, and a major source of solid waste.

The world’s population is growing exponentially. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the world’s population will expand from six billion in 2000 to more than nine billion in 2050. By 2030, more than 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Approximately one acre of land becomes
urbanized or otherwise developed for each additional U.S. inhabitant. Metropolitan Atlanta is the fastest-growing area in the nation, adding more than a million people in the last seven years alone. Each person lives and works in structures that have their own ecological footprint and impact. To
accommodate the expected growth, we must move toward more sustainable development.

Likewise, the amount and price of available fuel is related to our land-use decisions and development patterns, which have in the past been organized around the principle of cheap gasoline. However, the
global demand for energy has been growing at a rate far above current production capacity, resulting in a spike in gas prices. Since inexpensive fuel is no longer the norm, we must build more livable and sustainable communities, which make it easier for us to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives and discourage sprawl and congestion. And the buildings in these sustainable communities must be more energy efficient.

Our generation must move to mitigate or prevent the negative consequences of a growing population and economy, and work to counter diminishing fuel supplies and increasing fuel costs. As a result, the idea of sustainable building and development has become increasingly popular in the contemporary
world. But what is sustainable development, anyway? What is all the fuss about? And why does it matter?

Webster’s Dictionary defines sustainability as “using a resource so that it is not depleted or permanently damaged.” The key words here are “resource” and “use.” Essentially, sustainability is the effective use of resources — natural, human and technological — to meet today’s needs while ensuring that these resources remain available to meet future needs.

For purposes of this article, we define green building as the practice of increasing the efficiency with 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. Stated differently, green building is a method of constructing buildings that minimize the use of nonrenewable energy, produce less pollution and cost fewer energy dollars to operate, and improve the health and safety of the people who live and work in them. Green buildings are designed and constructed to reduce the overall impact of the built environment on the natural environment and human health.

Sustainable, smart growth is low-impact development that encourages energy efficiency and consumption of less land by encouraging higher-density development and compact building patterns. Smart growth also means creating walkable neighborhoods by mixing land uses. By building stores,
offices and residences next to (or on top of ) each other in appropriate locations, people might more easily work, shop and enjoy recreation close to where they live. Mixing land uses makes walking more attractive and convenient (encouraging healthier lifestyles) and also protects the environment and conserves energy by reducing dependence on cars and gasoline. Sustainable development provides a variety of transportation options such as public transportation, sidewalks, bike paths and walking trails, which provide mobility and connectivity. Sustainable developments also incorporate green
building design techniques and construction practices, energy and water efficiency and healthy building space.

Green building employs the latest energy- and resource-saving technologies to build homes, offices, industrial facilities and public spaces that use energy, water, materials and land more efficiently than traditional buildings. Green building is a powerful movement toward sustainable development, which is motivated by environmental concerns as well as desires to lower utility bills. Green building as a movement is premised on the belief that humans should reduce the environmental impacts (or ecological footprint) associated with the built environment.

Why Build Green?

There are several fundamental reasons to go green. First, it is socially responsible to be thinking ahead and working toward living in a better world. Indeed, American society is increasingly aware of its impact on the earth and our environment, and this awareness is accompanied by a heightened
sense of responsibility. Second, building green lowers utility costs. Third, it provides health benefits such as improved indoor air quality. Fourth, it often increases property values.

Green buildings typically have lower energy and water usage, which reduces not only cost but also overall demand for these utilities. In areas where these services are at or near capacity, this can be a significant benefit. Additionally, site management, landscaping and other features of green buildings
can dramatically offset the potentially negative local environmental impacts of construction, like erosion and increased storm water runoff as a result of building more impervious surfaces.

Also, improving the working and living environment for employees and occupants can have a significant impact on productivity and provide a healthier environment. Green buildings offer better day lighting, outdoor views and indoor air quality.

There is also a reduced risk of illness and even liability from green buildings, especially lowering risk of sickness and lawsuits over mold, toxic building syndrome and other health issues. By utilizing moisture-control detailing, pollution- and contamination-rejection strategies, and ventilation tactics, green buildings are healthier for occupants.

The buildings that we build and renovate matter to the earth’s environment. There are approximately 300 billion square feet of built environment in the United States, with five billion square feet of new space added each year and five billion square feet of existing space being renovated each year. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), buildings in the United States account for 70 percent of electricity consumption, 39 percent of total energy use, 40 percent of raw material use, 30 percent of waste output, and 12 percent of potable water consumption. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings account for 43 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Consequently, we now are seeing more and more green buildings with designs focusing on sustainability, energy efficiency and increased environmental quality.

There are many options and techniques being used in the green building movement, which include the following:
– Select site locations near public transportation
– Run streets east/west when possible to control solar gain
– Plan for south-facing roofs
– Maximize natural light into the floor plan
– Use light-colored roofs, which reflect solar rays
– Use “green roofs,” which are vegetated roof covers
– Install solar panels
– Allow for cross-ventilation, or the “stack effect,” with the use of venting skylights
– Put fans on timers in the bath and laundry to control humidity
– Install ceiling fans in rooms
– Install low-flow toilets, faucets and showerheads that use water-saving appliances
– Install tankless water heaters
– Use Energy Star-qualified windows, doors and appliances
– Use natural building materials
– Use permeable/porous paving surfaces for driveways, patios and sidewalks
– Use bio-retention basins and swells to collect and control storm water runoff
– Use underground tanks to capture and reuse storm water for irrigation and to flush toilets
– Use compact fluorescent bulbs in lighting
– Design low-irrigation landscaping or xeriscaping
– Landscape with plants and trees suited for local climate, eliminating need for irrigation

The hallmark of green building is the concept of “whole building design,” which essentially means incorporating green initiatives into all phases of the building process. The Sustainable Buildings Industry Council explains that whole building design balances sustainability with aesthetics, accessibility, cost effectiveness, flexibility, productivity, safety and security. In other words, green building encompasses everything from efficient management of energy and water resources, to protection of health and indoor environmental quality, to reinforcement of natural systems. For the environment, green building reduces a building’s environmental impact. And for consumers, green building increases durability, comfort and health; reduces energy as well as water usage and costs; and promotes a cleaner environment.

Green, sustainable building is a matter of the earth’s continued existence. Otherwise, we will build ourselves into oblivion.

Green Building Organizations

There are numerous entities and organizations that promote, encourage and support sustainable development. At the forefront of the green movement is the USGBC, which is a private, nonprofit organization that works to “promote the design and construction of buildings that are environmentally
responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work.” According to the USGBC, “to significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of buildings on the environment and on the building occupants, green building design and construction practices address sustainable site planning, safeguarding water and water efficiency, energy efficiency, conservation of materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.” In sum, the USGBC is dedicated to promoting the adoption of sustainable construction practices.


The USGBC created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building program to evaluate and recognize green building projects. LEED is a leading-edge system for certifying the greenest-performing buildings in the world. It is a voluntary green building rating system based on specific criteria. It takes a whole-building approach that encourages and guides a collaborative, integrated design and construction process. The system awards credits within six environmental categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design. Based on the total credits earned, a building may receive a certified-, silver-, gold- or platinum-level green building certification.

Southface Energy Institute is an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization that teaches homeowners and builders how to build and remodel green, resource-efficient homes. It promotes sustainable homes, workplaces and communities. Its flagship program, EarthCraft House, is run in partnership with the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. EarthCraft House is a voluntary builder program dedicated
to energy-efficient and environmentally friendly home design and construction. The EarthCraft program focuses on site planning, energy-efficient building systems, energy-efficient appliances and lighting, resource-efficient design and building materials, waste management, indoor air quality, water and conservation. Homes that obtain EarthCraft certification are quieter, better insulated, use energy-efficient appliances, and have better indoor quality and an overall tighter building envelope. EarthCraft homes increase energy efficiency by 30 percent, conserve water and reduce storm water pollution, and promote recycling and the use of durable, low-maintenance, recycled and rapidly renewable materials. Since the EarthCraft program was launched in 1999, more than 4,000 single-family homes and 1,500 multi-family dwelling units in the Southeast have been EarthCraft certified.

In 2004, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) published its “Model Green Home Building
Guidelines” to assist homebuilders. The NAHB guidelines identify several areas for green improvement. For example, the guidelines encourage builders to investigate the lot and its site design in order to preserve the natural condition of the site, including native vegetation. The builder is encouraged to examine the types of soil, erosion control, rainwater harvesting, ways to mitigate storm water runoff, and use of native or drought-resistant landscaping plants. And, of course, the NAHB guidelines encourage builders to incorporate resource, energy and water efficiency, and to develop indoor environmental quality. NAHB’s Model Green Building Guidelines have been widely accepted in the residential marketplace.

Based on market acceptance of the NAHB Model Green Building Guidelines, a National Green Building Standard is being developed. The Standard development is a joint project of the NAHB and the International Code Council (ICC), a membership association dedicated to building safety and fire prevention that develops the model codes used to construct residential and commercial buildings. Most U.S. cities, counties and states that adopt codes choose the codes developed by ICC. NAHB members elected to take its Standard through the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards process to allow it to gain further acknowledgement and prominence as an industry standard practice, developed by a true consensus process. The new Standard is designed to provide a common benchmark for recognizing and rewarding green residential design, development and construction practices in a manner that is transparent and verifiable to builders, product manufacturers and consumers. A second draft of the National Green Building Standard has been submitted to ANSI for approval and certification is expected soon.

In February, the NAHB also launched the new National Green Building Program. The program features a dynamic scoring tool by which builders accrue points in seven categories: water, energy and resource efficiency; lot and site development; indoor environmental quality; global impact; and homeowner education. The program establishes certification protocols that transform the Guidelines and eventually the Standard into a national certification program for all NAHB membership, which is comprised of single- and multifamily dwelling developers and remodelers. The national certification program sets point requirements in each category for bronze, silver and gold levels.

The Livable Communities Initiative (LCI) is a program of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) that encourages quality, sustainable growth. The LCI program offers up-front grants to communities willing to develop plans that enhance the livability of communities by explicitly linking transportation
improvements to land-use strategies. Since the first LCI grants were awarded in 2000, more than 63,000 residential units, 11 million square feet of commercial space and 40 million square feet of office space are either planned, under construction or complete. The LCI has assisted 90 communities
in the Atlanta area with more than $140 million in grant awards. The goal of the LCI is to help local governments devise strategies that reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality by better connecting homes, shops and offices, enhancing streetscapes and pedestrian amenities, and improving access to transit options. Modeling shows that if LCI projects are built as planned, greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles can be reduced, even when those communities significantly add to their population and employment.

The ARC is also developing and about to launch the Green Community Certification program. The program will assist local governments to reduce their overall environmental impact and increase their greenness. The program will encourage and recognize local governments that are becoming more green through changes in their practice and operations. The Green Community Certification program is intended to foster a more sustainable region by recognizing local governments that invest in programs that promote energy efficiency, green building, water conservation, pollution prevention, greenspace protection, recycling, emissions reduction, better land-use practices and environmental education efforts. The program will spotlight cities and counties within ARC’s jurisdiction that make environmental stewardship a priority.

The Livable Communities Coalition consists of a broad group of development stakeholders, including the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association and the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. The Coalition engages communities in Georgia to implement smart-growth projects. The Coalition created
a quality-growth scorecard program that poses 50 questions covering a variety of issues and smart-growth criteria under the following subject headings: location and service provision; density and compactness; diversity of use; diversity of housing; accessibility, mobility and connectivity; pedestrian safety; streetscapes and parking; environmental protection; and community needs and local development. Examples of questions asked on the scorecard include: does the project plan minimize areas devoted to parking? Does the project physically mix housing types and/or price levels within the
project or within the adjacent neighborhood? Are frequently visited uses located within a half-mile of the proposed project? Does the street plan avoid cul-de-sacs and promote connectivity? Does the project plan achieve the smallest-possible development footprint? Will the project design and location likely contribute to improving regional air quality? Does the project require an expansion or extension of water service in the area? The purpose of the voluntary program is to increase the number of smart-growth projects permitted and built in the metro Atlanta area and to recognize exemplary smart growth projects that meet or exceed the criteria.

Across the country, state and local governments are adopting codes that incorporate green best practices for the design, construction and operation of buildings, and enacting ordinances concerning green building. The diversity of legislation produced by the green movement is notable. It ranges from symbolic legislation encouraging green building to enactment of incentives, such as tax credits, to encourage green building, to legislation mandating green building in compliance with a set of criteria or standards. For example, in 2003, the City of Atlanta adopted a sustainable development ordinance that requires construction projects of city facilities and buildings comprising more than 5,000 square feet — or for those projects having a total cost of more than $2 million — to achieve a LEED silver rating or higher.

According to the USGBC, green building is an industry trend, not a fad. The USGBC points out that the residential and commercial green building industry was about $10 billion in 2005, but is expected to be $60 billion in 2010. Key drivers of green growth are government regulations, increasing energy costs, market differentiation, costs savings and health benefits.

Many builders and developers remain skeptical of any benefit, primarily due to higher costs associated with constructing green buildings that are environmentally efficient. However, a 2006 study by the Green Building Council in Australia entitled “The Dollars and Sense of Green Buildings” provides empirical data of green building benefits, such as reduced energy consumption, increased recycling and reduced operational costs. Generally, the USGBC asserts that the average savings of green building is a 30- to 50 percent decrease in energy use, a 35 percent decrease in carbon emissions, a
40 percent decrease in water use and a 70 percent decrease in solid waste. The data suggest that builders and developers of green buildings have a competitive edge over developers of conventional buildings because tenants and purchasers are more apt to lease or purchase green buildings.

Forward Progress

Green, sustainable building is a matter of the earth’s continued existence. Otherwise, we will build ourselves into oblivion. Building green is considering your impact upon the earth and being responsible. Although sustainable development and green building can be more costly on the front end, the data confirm that it pays over time in reduced operation and energy costs and positive marketing benefits.

Sustainable development is one of those rare ideas that can dramatically change the way we look at what is and consider what could be. It is about doing things in ways that work for the long run because they are better from every point of view — economically, environmentally and socially. Sustainable development challenges us to envision a superior society for our children and grandchildren.

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