Green Building

What is Green Building?

An Evolving Field

The definition and scope of green building has varied over time. For some, green building focuses solely on the resource intensity (energy, water, materials). Others cast the net more broadly to incorporate health, social equity and economic concerns. More recently, additional concepts have become intertwined with green building. For example, greenhouse gas mitigation, climate adaptation and resiliency are all considerations that influence how buildings are designed.   As green building evolves, focus is shifting from the "less bad" approach to designs-for instance, incremental improvements to energy efficiency - toward more ambitious goals such as restoration and regeneration.

Restorative design aims to reverse damage already caused by human activity. For example, landscaping plans can feature plants and organisms known to break down toxic compounds into benign constituents (bioremediation). Regenerative design looks even beyond restoration, aiming to enhance the human and natural systems in which the built environment functions. For example, the principle of "biophilia," or humanity's innate attraction to nature, can be used to create indoor environments that promote quicker recovery from injuries and medical interventions or to reduce stress and enhance productivity.  

Biomimicry is yet another growing field associated with sustainable design. Biomimicry looks to species and living systems to provide design inspiration. For example, researchers from the University of Oregon developed a waterproof resin for use in composite wood products based on the adhesive mussels excrete to fix themselves to objects. And Green Stormwater Infrastructure borrows heavily from native ecosystem's stormwater management regime to inform its design approaches.  

Holistic in Scope, Integrated in Process

Part of green building's maturation is the understanding that truly transformational designs require not only a broad set of technical expertise, but also a new approach to the design process itself. Buildings are long-lived, complex, evolving entities, yet the conventional design and construction process tends to be linear. Integrated Design attempts to rectify this by introducing a process that connects architects, engineers, builders, building owners, occupants, and the community. Bringing these perspectives and skills together early in the design process can capture opportunities and identify potential pitfalls.

Beneficial to People, the Planet

The benefits of green building are dependent on the strategies employed and the skill of the design and construction team. A holistic design will attempt to maximize returns across many of the following areas.

Energy savings
Building energy conservation minimizes the environmental impacts from fossil fuels and electric generation, reduces energy-related carbon emissions, and saves on utility costs. Energy conservation is often the least expensive way to meet rising energy demand as our region grows.

Reduced reliance on fossil and nonrenewable fuels
Renewable energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal) and resource recovery (mining waste heat from data centers, sewage heat recovery) provide us with non-polluting energy and help Seattle meet its goal of becoming a carbon neutral city by 2050. See our Renewable Energy page for more information.

Water conservation
Water-wise buildings and landscapes help Seattle meet its water demand without depleting our publicly owned Cedar River Watershed and other local supplies. It also reduces sewage treatment needs, energy used to supply potable water and treat wastewater, and chemical inputs related to water purification. High efficiency plumbing fixtures reduce water use, without compromising function.  Water re-use can supplant the need for utility supplied potable water; onsite rainwater harvest and reuse, and onsite graywater reuse, are hyper-local water sources for landscapes and indoor water applications, such as toilets. On a larger scale reclaimed water from the wastewater treatment process is yet another way to reduce the region's demand for potable water from our watersheds. Options also exist for onsite treatment of wastewater, such as membrane bioreactors and composting toilets reduce wastewater conveyance and treatment needs. Composting toilets eliminate the need for water for toilet flushing altogether.

Water quality and habitat protection
Buildings and landscapes can be constructed to minimize water pollution, cleansing stormwater onsite and replenishing groundwater flows. Avoiding materials that are toxic to aquatic life (e.g., zinc and copper) and using nontoxic building and landscape maintenance practices help keep Seattle's streams and waterways healthy. Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) addresses the stormwater quantity and quality with natural drainage methods. Green roofs, rain gardens, cisterns, and other technologies reduce stormwater volumes and peak flows-an especially critical concern in areas where Seattle's storm drains and sewer system intermingle.  

Health and indoor air quality
The US Environmental Protection Agency Poor estimates that poor indoor air quality is one of the top five threats to public health. Proper envelope design to eliminate water intrusion, adequate ventilation, and materials selection can help ensure a building's indoor environment is protective of occupant health. In addition, through access to views, daylight, and nature, buildings can enhance worker productivity, student achievement, and even patient recovery rates.

Natural resource conservation
By reusing building materials and selecting environmentally preferable building products, green buildings help preserve forests, mineral deposits, and other renewable and non-renewable resources. Design approaches that enhance durability, that can be adapted over time to new uses, and that allow for future disassembly, materials reuse and recycling help extend materials' service lives.

Accessibility and inclusion
Holistic sustainable design incorporates social inclusion as a goal. Buildings employing the principles of Universal Design are welcoming to all ages and abilities by minimizing barriers to access. Adaptable designs reduce maintenance costs by creating spaces that are easily modified as user profiles change.

Resiliency and disaster preparedness
Natural and human-precipitated disasters can disrupt basic energy and water services or leave portions of a city isolated. Climate change will mean an altered environment over time. Resilient design aims to create buildings that can withstand and bounce back more quickly from the shocks of a natural disaster and respond to the impacts of climate change.   Ideally, a green building project synthesizes and optimizes these various goals into a mutually reinforcing design. For example, water conservation and rainwater harvest measures can enhance a building's disaster resiliency while simultaneously reducing a building's stormwater management burden. Considering these elements together also helps reduce unintended consequences; e.g., trading off indoor air quality for energy efficiency. Using a green building certification system, along with using an integrated design process, can help identify these synergies and tradeoffs.  

But What About the Bottom Line?

Vigorous debate surrounds the question "Does building green cost more?" The City of Seattle commissioned several studies to evaluate Seattle's market regarding these questions. The Cost of Green Survey of Market Rate Housing in Seattle  (by Davis Langdon, July 2011) concludes that while survey respondents generally believe sustainable elements increase the cost of a project, low-cost and high-cost buildings are found in both conventional and green building groups. Similarly, the Cost of Green Analysis for Affordable Housing in Seattle and Portland  (by Davis Langdon, July 2009) found that, controlling for building type, the construction cost differential between standard and green building is statistically insignificant.  Up-front cost provides only a partial lens on building value, however. To explore the question of green building value, the Cascadia Green Building Council, the Vancouver Valuation Accord, and Cushman Wakefield authored High Performance Green Building: What's it Worth? (2009).