Building construction and operation have extensive direct and indirect impacts on the environment. Buildings use resources such as energy, water and raw materials, 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 their impact on the environment.
Considering the current economic challenges, retrofitting an existing building can be more cost effective than building a new facility. Designing major renovations and retrofits for existing buildings to include sustainability initiatives reduces operation costs and environmental impacts, and can increase building resiliency.
Recent answers to this challenge call for an integrated, synergistic approach that considers all phases of the facility life cycle. This approach, often called “sustainable design,” supports an increased commitment to environmental stewardship and conservation, and results in an optimal balance of cost, environmental, societal, and human benefits while meeting the mission and function of the intended facility or infrastructure.
The main objectives of sustainable design are to avoid resource depletion of 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.
EPA’s New England Regional Laboratory (NERL) achieved a LEED Version 1.0 Gold rating. From conception the project was charged to “make use of the best commercially-available materials and technologies to minimize consumption of energy and resources and maximize use of natural, recycled and non-toxic materials.” Chelmsford, MA
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.
- Optimize Energy Use
With America’s supply of fossil fuel dwindling, concerns for energy independence and security increasing, and the impacts of global climate change arising, 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 country, 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.
- Use Greener Materials
A sustainable building is constructed of materials that 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 privacy, 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.