The statistics and benefits of sustainable or green building design are well- known, making it clear that this is not simply a trend. As technologies and materials evolve, the game of going green is continuing to expand. This green design “playing field” includes everything from budgets, project schedules and the marketplace, to the behavioral decisions people make. In today's economy, environmental building design is more critical than ever. Sustainably designed buildings can reduce energy use by 24 to 50 percent, carbon-dioxide emissions by 33 to 39 percent, water consumption by 40 percent, and the amount of solid waste going to landfills by 70 percent.

In light of these numbers, preserving resources and reducing the environmental footprint should be at the forefront of design decisions. It's time we treat our environments and train our buildings as we would our own bodies; not one muscle or one part at a time, but holistically. Sustainability, or environmental building design, is a whole-building approach that requires collaborative and innovative design for everyone involved.

Sustainable building design is a team sport. The days of a solitary genius working alone has given way to team design — more minds focused on solving design problems with the whole building in mind, not just on their respective trade or expertise. This open-minded attitude is what one should look for in selecting a design firm for a green project.

To play a winning game, the players of a team must be linked in a common goal, generating synergy through a coordinated effort. Note that a group by itself does not necessarily constitute a team. This also can be true of those involved in a sustainable building design project — owners, users, students, code officials, design professionals, construction managers and contractors. This makes it imperative to align goals and objectives before a project begins. Design teams typically establish goals by participating in a series of eco-workshops or green charrettes.

Conditioning for sustainability

Ninety percent of what makes a project green happens in the first 10 percent of the process: the design. This applies to new buildings, additions and renovations. Focus initially on strategies that affect the design, and keep layouts flexible. Take advantage of new and developing technology. For example, focus on providing abundant, glare-free daylighting to reduce the need for artificial lighting (and the associated cooling costs).

One of the keys to the process is abandoning the habit of “what worked last time.” Design teams need to rise above the plateau and focus on sustainable methods that seek improvement; after all, being “less bad” does not always equate to being good. Ultimately, go beyond “neutral” and strive for regenerative design — with the underlying goal of “leave it better than you found it.”

The rules of the “green game” vary. The 2030 Challenge is one initiative adopted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to advocate the incremental reduction of fossil-fuel dependency and achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. Carbon-neutral simply means not using fossil fuels for energy. For a frame of reference, in 2007, 86 percent of the U.S. energy consumption was from fossil fuels; renewable energy sources (solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass and wind-generated power) accounted for about 8 percent of U.S. energy consumption, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Using the tools

Many green rating tools are available, such as the Living Building Challenge, BRE Environmental Assessment Method, Green Building Initiatives, and Green Globes. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the most commonly applied initiative in the United States, comprising prerequisites, credits and varying degrees of certification. All of these rating systems focus on the same critical areas: sustainable sites and planning, water efficiency and management, energy and atmosphere, materials and Resources, indoor air quality, and innovations/new ideas.

Building information modeling (BIM) is a developing technology used to study, analyze and document building design ideas. These working models enhance team collaboration and information sharing. The models also can be used with other software for further design study. For example, the early design of facility can be analyzed for daylighting/foot-candles in each space of the building. This information then can be used to optimize the daylight by altering windows, room sizes or building layout and orientation. This simulation can be developed in just days, and the final design is more responsive to the environment.

  • Read the "A green beacon" sidebar to learn about recycling by reuse with the new Kress Events Center at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Sherrard, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB, is a project design manager and associate principal at Moody•Nolan, Inc., Columbus, Ohio. He can be reached at The firm designed the Kress Events Center (see sidebar).