“Green” and “sustainable” are two buzzwords that are increasingly thrown around contracting circles, but do they really have a meaning? The answer is yes – but the exact definition of the terms varies based upon who you ask. To get to the meat of what green and sustainable building really means, you have to look at multiple variables.
What is a Green Building?
A green building is one that aims to create as little impact on the environment as possible. Whether that means sourcing reclaimed materials to reduce the human toll on landfills, locally grown, produced and harvested supplies to reduce carbon emissions from transport or finding sustainably grown lumber, they all fall under the header of “green” building methods.
Different industry leaders have different standards for what constitutes a green building. The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) is considered the standard for green buildings and they have a strict set of standards for just how environmentally friendly a building is. Their certification – LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) – has several tiers and different qualifications to meet depending on whether your job is new construction, neighborhood development or a family home, to name just a few.
To look at another set of standards, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has criteria for green building. While there’s some overlap with LEED standards, not everything is the same. The moniker of “green” is applied to both, but you’d have to ask the crucial question of “according to whom?” when determining whether a job is green.
What is a Sustainable Building?
Again, sustainability can mean different things depending on who you ask. The EPA has criteria for what’s considered sustainable, as does LEED. In its spirit, the word sustainable goes hand-in-hand with the term green and a similar term: renewable.
When determining whether a building is sustainable, you’d need to know if it would withstand the test of time. A building that uses cheap materials that will fall apart or need replacement within a decade isn’t sustainable: you’re creating more emissions and more demand for materials in the long run.
Another factor in sustainability is the source of the materials. One could argue that reclaimed lumber is green but not sustainable since it has a finite source. New lumber that’s sustainably grown is harvested in accordance with standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). But even non-FSC certified wood can be sustainable, provided it was grown and harvested with minimal impact on the forest ecosystem, wildlife, inhabitants and the trees themselves. Sustainability takes a long-term approach to managing the source of materials rather than a short term view.
Can a Building Be Both Green and Sustainable?
It’s absolutely possible for a building to be both green and sustainable, but it may mean compromising on standards for one or both. Ultimately, you’ll have to work with your client to understand their wants and needs. While LEED standards are considered the ultimate goal for green buildings, some of their requirements are not very sustainable. While sustainable materials might be in accordance with some certifications, they might not be green since they’re not reclaimed and thus not doing anything to reduce the footprint of landfills.
What Does Green and Sustainable Building Really Mean?
Green and sustainable are two words with many meanings, depending on which certification council you’re consulting. At their core, they both have a similar spirit: reducing the impact of new construction and renovations on the environment. Green buildings aim to reduce the impact here and now, while sustainable buildings minimize any potential future impact to the environment and source of materials used in the buildings.