Pertains to environmental performance of building elements and strategies.

Building construction and operations can have extensive direct and indirect impacts on the environment, society, and economy, which are commonly referred to as the 3 P’s (‘People’, ‘Planet’, ‘Pocketbook’). The field of sustainable design seeks to balance the needs of these areas by using an integrated approach to create win-win-win design solutions.

The main objectives of sustainable design are to reduce, or completely avoid, depletion of critical resources like energy, water, and raw materials; prevent environmental degradation caused by facilities and infrastructure throughout their life cycle; and create built environments that are livable, comfortable, safe, and productive.

Buildings use resources (energy, water, raw materials, and etc.), generate waste (occupant, construction and demolition), and emit potentially harmful atmospheric emissions. Building owners, designers, and builders face a unique challenge to meet demands for new and renovated facilities that are accessible, secure, healthy, and productive while minimizing any negative impacts on society, the environment, and the economy. Ideally, building designs should result in net-positive benefits to all three areas.

In addition to including sustainable design concepts in new construction, sustainable design advocates commonly encourage retrofitting existing buildings rather than building anew. Retrofitting an existing building can often be more cost-effective than building a new facility. Designing major renovations and retrofits for existing buildings to include sustainable design attributes reduces operation costs and environmental impacts, and can increase building resiliency. The embodied energy of the existing building, a term expressing the cost of resources in both human labor and materials consumed during the building’s construction and use, are squandered when the building is allowed to decay or be demolished.

Source: EPA, USGBC

While the definition of sustainable building design is constantly changing, six fundamental principles persist.


Optimize Site Potential

Creating sustainable buildings starts with proper site selection, including consideration of the reuse or rehabilitation of existing buildings. The location, orientation, and landscaping of a building affect local ecosystems, transportation methods, and energy use. It is important to incorporate smart growth principles into the project development process, whether the project is a single building, campus, or military base. Siting for physical security is a critical issue in optimizing site design, including locations of access roads, parking, vehicle barriers, and perimeter lighting. Whether designing a new building or retrofitting an existing building, site design must integrate with sustainable design to achieve a successful project. The site of a sustainable building should reduce, control, and/or treat storm water runoff. If possible, strive to support native flora and fauna of the region in the landscape design.

Optimize Energy Use

With continually increasing demand on the world’s fossil fuel resources, concerns for energy independence and security are increasing, and the impacts of global climate change are becoming more evident, it is essential to find ways to reduce energy load, increase efficiency, and maximize the use of renewable energy sources in federal facilities. Improving the energy performance of existing buildings is important to increasing our energy independence. Government and private sector organizations are increasingly committing to building and operating net zero energy buildings as a way to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuel-derived energy.

Protect and Conserve Water

In many parts of the United States, fresh water is an increasingly scarce resource. A sustainable building should use water efficiently, and reuse or recycle water for on-site use, when feasible. The effort to bring drinkable water to our household faucets consumes enormous energy resources in pumping, transport, and treatment. Often potentially toxic chemicals are used to make water potable. The environmental and financial costs of sewage treatment are significant.

Optimize Building Space and Material Use

While the world population continues to grow (to over 9 billion by 2050), natural resource use will continue to increase and the demand for additional goods and services will continue to stress available resources. It is critical to achieve an integrated and intelligent use of materials that maximizes their value, prevents upstream pollution, and conserves resources. A sustainable building is designed and operated to use and reuse materials in the most productive and sustainable way across its entire life cycle and is adaptable for reuse during its life cycle. The materials used in a sustainable building minimize life-cycle environmental impacts such as global warming, resource depletion, and human toxicity. Environmentally preferable materials have a reduced effect on human health and the environment and contribute to improved worker safety and health, reduced liabilities, reduced disposal costs, and achievement of environmental goals.

Enhance Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ)

The indoor environmental quality (IEQ) of a building has a significant impact on occupant health, comfort, and productivity. Among other attributes, a sustainable building maximizes daylighting, has appropriate ventilation and moisture control, optimizes acoustic performance, and avoids the use of materials with high-VOC emissions. Principles of IEQ also emphasize occupant control over systems such as lighting and temperature.

Optimize Operational and Maintenance Practices

Considering a building’s operating and maintenance issues during the preliminary design phase of a facility will contribute to improved working environments, higher productivity, reduced energy and resource costs, and prevented system failures. Encourage building operators and maintenance personnel to participate in the design and development phases to ensure optimal operations and maintenance of the building. Designers can specify materials and systems that simplify and reduce maintenance requirements; require less water, energy, and toxic chemicals and cleaners to maintain; and are cost-effective and reduce life-cycle costs. Additionally, design facilities to include meters in order to track the progress of sustainability initiatives, including reductions in energy and water use and waste generation, in the facility and on site.

Building resiliency is the capacity of a building to continue to function and operate under extreme conditions, such as (but not limited to) extreme temperatures, sea level rise, natural disasters, etc. As the built environment faces the impending effects of global climate change, building owners, designers, and builders can design facilities to optimize building resiliency.

Building adaptability is the capacity of a building to be used for multiple uses and in multiple ways over the life of the building. For example, designing a building with movable walls/partitions allow for different users to change the space. Additionally, using sustainable design allows for a building to adapt to different environments and conditions.