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How Much of an Impact Do Green Building Designs Really Have on the Environment?

Bobbi Peterson's picture
Editor Living Life Green

Bobbi is a contributor to many environmental publications and the editor of  Living Life Green, a blog dedicated to sustainability, education, and helping people achieve a more...

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It’s becoming more common in cities across the world to see buildings outfitted with solar panels, rooftop gardens and large windows to take advantage of natural light and heat from the sun. Many of these buildings also have other, less obvious green characteristics that help them reduce their environmental impact as well.

Green buildings, which are designed to use resources more efficiently and cause minimal damage to the natural environment, have been touted as a way to help preserve our planet and save us from the impacts of global warming. But how much impact do they really have?

Resource Conservation

Buildings account for 39 percent of all of the energy used in the United States. If green architecture can improve those numbers, it has the potential to significantly impact the overall health of our environment.

Buildings use a lot of energy for heating, cooling, electricity and more, but Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified buildings have been shown to use 25 percent less energy than non-certified buildings.

They achieve this through the use of several design elements. Planting vegetation on rooftops helps keep buildings cooler in the summer, and passive solar can be used to heat them in the winter. Many green buildings also use renewable energy.

LEED-certified buildings can also help occupants use less water. Through the use of water-efficient appliances and fixtures, green designs can reduce water use by 15 percent. They can also help reduce water waste. In the U.S., landscaping makes up 50 percent of water use. Green buildings can divert lightly used water, such as what’s used for laundry and in kitchens, for landscaping.

Green Construction

Building construction can also have a large environmental impact. The construction sector is responsible for up to 23 percent of air pollution, and everything from sourcing and producing materials to transporting them to actual construction processes can impact the environment.

Green builders are more likely to use sustainably sourced materials and use more renewable materials such as bamboo instead of hardwood, which helps preserve forest ecosystems and keeps more trees alive to filter carbon dioxide out of the air.

Green design can also improve the air quality inside a building by integrating vegetation that cleans the air and using materials that release fewer contaminants like volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde. This improves the health of both the people who spend time in the structure and of the environment.

Construction also produces a lot of waste, which green builders try to avoid. Green designs use recycled materials, avoid sending excess resources to landfills and will sometimes even repurpose an existing structure to avoid demolition.

Impact on Climate Change

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, buildings account for 38 percent of the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions. Clearly, building in a greener way could help the U.S. reduce its overall impact significantly.

In addition to the more direct savings from energy use and construction materials, green buildings also contribute more indirectly to environmental health.

Another aspect of green design is positioning buildings in places that make it easy to reach important locations such as stores, banks, restaurants and train stations. This encourages people to walk, ride bikes or use public transportation rather than drive — another major factor in our environmental impact.

Additionally, green buildings help spread awareness of environmental issues. When people see the economic, environmental and health benefits of green buildings in action, they’re more likely to choose a green building over a less sustainably designed alternative. Research shows this idea is already beginning to take hold. Many businesses would be willing to pay 20 percent more for space in a green-certified building.

Green building design could be considered trendy, but it’s popular for good reasons. Green architecture has a positive environmental impact in addition to its economic, social and health benefits.

Photo Credit: Abdul Rahman via Flickr

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