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What is green building?

On the simplest level, it’s the structure itself: a building incorporating “green” technologies and design elements, making it energy-efficient, comfortable, and healthy. An ideal green building is simultaneously responsive to its occupants and to the environment; it is aware of its inside and its outside, and how they relate and connect.

Green building is also a broader term, one that describes a theory, a process, an approach. “Green” can be considered to include the building’s comprehensive lifetime impact from conception through design, construction, use, re-use, demolition, and disposal. It can be considered to impact not just its occupants, but builders, suppliers, financers, neighbors, passers-by, and future inhabitants. It can be a building that learns; a building that teaches. It’s the nexus of a complex system, weaving together threads of people, materials, natural resources, wealth, art, history, and ecology.

Or maybe it’s just a house.

Either way, the phrase has come to imply a building that is designed with the intention of manifesting certain principles in the conception and execution of the building process.

These principles include, among others:

  • People-centered design
  • Thoughtful integration with the surroundings
  • Use of natural and low-toxicity materials
  • Taking advantage of local, renewable, natural resources
  • Designing for re-use and/or disassembly
  • Reflection of local culture and values

Many aspects of a green building are concrete and specific: the high-efficiency lighting, the properly-shaded south-facing window that admits winter sun but blocks summer sun, or the living room floor made of salvaged wood. These are the manifestations of a green building that are easy to see; that you can touch; that you can list in a spreadsheet.

But the principles that green buildings embody also require attention to other more complex or subjective questions: How will present and future occupants use the building? What does the site suggest about where the building should be located? What’s the value of cleaner indoor air? Is the building’s general design and appearance consonant with its surroundings? How much more is given back to the community by supporting local builders and retailers? What’s the future economic value of energy self sufficiency?

In a sense, green building is a no-brainer: you put a little energy into the process, and in the end you get a smarter, cleaner, healthier building that probably looks great and certainly costs less to operate and might just cost less up front. But it’s also as difficult and complex as you want it to be…are you going to do a detailed energy and economic analysis over the lifetime of the building? How much research do you care to do on every appliance, every material, every finish, every participant in the project? What are the limits of technology and of our knowledge, and how much can you push the envelope?

So green building is a process of constant learning, of constant experimenting, of constant striving. It’s a never-ending journey, for there’s no green building panacea, no ecological Eden. A green building professional is always on the move–intellectually–for this is a fast-paced, ever-changing field that’s growing enormously in significance as our complex and demanding society confronts natural barriers to its expansion.

The ultimate paradox is that the greenest building is the building that doesn’t even need to be built. So every time we endeavor to create, we must humble ourselves to the fact that we have an impact on the environment no matter how green we are. With this proper dose of humility, and with good intention and with an open mind, we’re in the appropriate mindset to venture forth and start building green!

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