Green Building Encyclopedia

Building Green the Basics

Environmental or Green Building Design

Environmental or green building design is design that engages environmental considerations. It is design that includes environmental criteria in the decision making or filtering steps that lead to the completion of a design. Adjectivally, the term environmental is often thought of as an incidental issue. A public concern and an addition to marketing that adds cost but distinguishes one product over another. However, the term environmental modifies design so radically that it is almost a discipline on to its own.

But if environmental design includes consideration of the environment than what is design exclusive of environmental criteria? Perhaps labeled as conventional, western, or modern design, non-environmental design surrounds many of us. It is our local archetype that has manifested out of an optimization of the current western societal framework. Building design and operating costs and therefore deterrents are
applicable only in a narrow sense. Only in relatively undeveloped regions of the world or in select cases where alternative designs have survived the cost cutting accounting to be built do we see really different examples of building design. In many instances, these local architectural forms lend great insight into the environmentally optimal design patterns for a region.

To achieve environmental design it is imperative that the entire design method, approach, and discipline be overhauled. Every component, every guideline, every mark of the pen must consider the implications of the adjective environmental. As such, environmental design must be thought of as an overall approach or philosophy. It’s limits go well beyond the practice of design to every aspect of society and to the personal life of every designer. It becomes a way of life, a way of thinking, and a means to interact with the world.

Our View of Buildings

Buildings are the structure of the modern world. They represent society’s ingenuity and ability to manipulate our environment into forms that serve our purpose. In many ways, building form and functionality is a reflection of our greater human culture. William McDonough describes a modern advanced building:

Today even the most advanced building or factory in the world is still a kind of steamship, polluting, contaminating, and depleting the surrounding environment, and relying on scarce amounts of natural light and fresh air. People are essentially working in the dark, and they are often breathing unhealthful air. Imagine, instead, a building as a kind of tree. It would purify air, accrue solar income, produce more energy than it consumes, create shade and habitat, enrich soil, and change with the seasons.

If we are to transform our society toward a sustainable future, it requires demolishing the current unsustainable façade of contemporary economic growth and ultimately addressing the inefficiency and waste that supports it. Buildings are a major component of this transformation.

Source: MCDONOUGH, W. The Next Industrial Revolution (55min). Earthome Productions, USA, 2001.

Environmental Impacts Of Buildings

In 1995, a succinct summary A Building Evolution: How Ecology and Health Concerns Are Transforming Construction delineating the impacts of buildings on the environment in no more than a paragraph was published by Roodman and Lenssen. It is cited in numerous online documents. This simple yet provocative piece has become a keystone for developing the argument for green building design and

The WorldWatch Institute authors note simply that buildings consume two fifths of world energy production. This does not include the energy that is required to harvest, manufacture, and transport all the materials used to construct and maintain buildings. One sixth of all water pumped out of natural flows are consumed in buildings. One quarter of all virgin wood harvested ends up in buildings. And this does not account for all the interior wood furniture. Combined, buildings form one of the major catalysts for environmental degradation on the planet.

A building consumes:

  • 2/5 of world energy production
  • 1/6 of all water pumped out of natural flows
  • 1/4 of all virgin wood harvested (not including furniture)

Source: ROODMAN, D. AND N. LENSSEN. 1995. “A Building Evolution: How Ecology and Health Concerns Are Transforming Construction”. World Watch Paper #124, March 1995.

Ecological Footprints

Today, as a global society, we are consuming resources like we live on more than 2 planet Earths. How do we know this? We can determine the approximate area (footprint) of the planet that is required to sustain the consumption of each global citizen. This concept was first developed William Rees at the University of British Columbia.

Average Ecological Footprint = …

Factor 10 Reduction or Factor 10 Efficiency Gain

If we are consuming the resources of 2 planets, than a Factor 2 reduction is needed just to get to 1 Earth consumption, and a Factor 10 to get to sustainability and balance when development of the majority of the planet is taken into account. Japan has already integrated Factor 8 to 10 reductions into their planning.

The Natural Step

  1. No net increase in toxic materials into biosphere (Pb, Hg, etc.)
  2. No net increse in non-naturally-biodegradable substances (DDT, CFC, etc.)
  3. No overharvesting/over consumption of resources beyond sustainable limits (fish, trees, fresh water, etc.)
  4. More equal sharing of resources


– Look to nature for answers

Termites and Passive Solar

Optimum Igloo Shape