What is Green Building?

Green building is the inclusion of more sustainable technologies into our living and working spaces, and there is a growing range of green residential and commercial construction options available to help build a beautiful future.

what is green building

The Basics of Green Building

Green building is an inclusive term that encompasses many types of building and operational techniques, all of which reflect a concern for sustainability. Green building methods bring sustainability into the design, sourcing and building process for homes, offices and more.

It could be argued that humans have always been building green buildings: traditional cultures have lived in pueblos, thatched huts, and log cabins for centuries, and many of these types of living spaces are finding their way back into modern life. The methodology behind these buildings– working with limited resources, recycling and upcycling materials, choosing natural components, and building in a way that works with the natural environment– inform green building methods presently and align with the broader sustainability movement.

In this post we’ve mapped out some of the basics of green building, and shared lots of links for more information about particular topics that might pique your interest.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) & Living Buildings

One of the most common terms used in green building conversations is LEED. Modern green building construction and renovation is usually built under the guidelines of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), an internationally recognized green building certification and rating system. The LEED certification system rates construction projects using a point system that measures how effectively the building has met the LEED standards. Entire buildings, specific rooms, homes, and even entire neighborhoods can be labeled as LEED Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. LEED status is available for new buildings and for retrofits and renovations of older buildings too.

But what does LEED really mean for the future of building? The US Green Building Council says,

“LEED stands for green building leadership. LEED is transforming the way we think about how buildings and communities are designed, constructed, maintained and operated across the globe.”

LEED standards rate the sustainability and toxicity of products and processes used for building, and the operations of a building like materials recycling, wastewater catchment and treatment, quality and safety of building materials, windows, and renewable energy use and/or generation. Over 7,000 LEED projects have been completed around the world, and many cities and governments now require some level of LEED certification for new buildings as it’s become increasingly clear that green building saves money in the long term. Notable exceptions are some southern states in the US, which have been fighting LEED projects for public buildings.

Similar to LEED, the Living Building Challenge offers another set of standards that helps the built world better reflect our natural world. The certification process is rigorous: “[To] be certified under the Challenge, projects must meet a series of ambitious performance requirements, including net zero energy, waste and water, over a minimum of 12 months of continuous occupancy.” LEED now recognizes LBC credits too, so your next home or office can be both Living Building certified and LEED certified!

Get the numbers about how LEED has positively impacted American cities, from Clean Technica.
For designers, architects, home builders and more: become LEED certified (it’s a fast-growing job sector!)
Find the guidelines for LEED Certification on USGBC
Check out the top 10 Green Buildings in the US for 2014
Learn how an entire neighborhood will be designed LEED in Honolulu
Learn more about the Living Building Challenge on Living Future

living building image
A living building from InHabit blog

Natural Building

Natural buildings are a subsection of green building that uses actual earth materials for construction: mud, straw, clay, stones, wood and recycled or upcycled materials. Because the houses are exceptionally beautiful, sustainable and long-lasting, there is a growing movement of houses built with natural building methods that spans the globe.

Natural building relies almost exclusively on raw or minimally processed materials. Types of natural building include the following:

Adobe: Adobe is clay and sand mixed with water, and is sometimes mixed with straw or other fibers, which then is allowed to dry into the desired shape to form functional and beautiful building materials. Adobe can be used for walls or flooring, and makes a beautiful, smooth structure. Learn more about adobe.

custom-adobe-house
Interior of adobe house from Natural Building Blog

Cob: Cob is mixture of clay, sand, straw and soil, and is one of the cheapest and easiest types of building materials. Cob can be shaped into various forms and used alone, or it can be used with other natural materials as a filler. It’s long-lasting, with some cob structures dating back 10,000 years. Learn more about cob building.

cob.house.shingles
One of the most gorgeous cob houses, from Natural Homes

Cordwood: One of the the more beautiful forms of natural building, cordwood uses the rounded end of wood facing out, with the wood itself as the wall; the holes are filled with some type of filler, often with insulating items like sawdust or paper. Cordwood construction is typically very strong and, depending on the type of filler used, often very insulated.

cordwood house
Cordwood house image from Mother Earth News

Straw bale: Straw bale is exactly what is sounds like: instead of using frames, wood and cinder blocks to build a structure, the walls are made from bales of straw. Straw bale building is a great option for those interested in natural building because they have a very high R value (insulative value), so it keeps the house very cozy, and depending where you live and the cost of straw, it can be very inexpensive. Learn more about straw bale construction and whether straw bales are right for your building needs.

Earth Bag: Earth Bag building is a very inexpensive technique that uses bags filled with earth, utilized in a similar way to sandbags. The bags are often made from plastic, so of all the building techniques listed here, this is the least eco-friendly. Earth bag construction can create strong structures if it’s made with the correct earthen materials: clay-rich soil, gravel or crushed rock. Learn more about earthbag construction.

earth bag house
An earth bag house from Inhabitat

Rammed Earth: Rammed earth construction is an ancient process that is experiencing a revitalization. It’s affordable, sustainable, and simple to build with rammed earth, and the result is a non-combustible, strong and thermally balanced structure. This building style is suitable to almost all climates. The process involves tamping a natural mixture of earth containing sand, gravel and clay into a built frame to build solid walls or blocks.  Learn more about rammed earth construction.

rammed earth house
Rammed earth home from Inhabitat.

And check out a variety of beautiful types of natural buildings from around the world from NaturalHomes

Alternative House Movements

Though not necessarily incorporating green building techniques, there are two important movements happening that align with many of the same values of the green building movement.

Tiny Homes: The tiny house movement is reflective of consumers’ growing desire for more sustainable living options. As the name suggests, the tiny house movement is a growing sector of home building that focuses on very, very small houses (usually less than 500 square feet/42 meters squared). Tiny homes allow people to live a minimalist lifestyle, both in living and in materials consumption. In a tiny home there is not space for all the typical items like a bed, couch, dining room table and other furniture, so design must be compact, multipurpose and highly functional for a small space.

tiny home in the forest
tiny home in the forest; image from Tiny Home Builders

Container homes: As goods are shipped around the world from producing countries like China to consuming countries like the US, shipping containers have become an abundant source of materials for building. Containers can be purchased for significantly less investment than other building materials, and can be converted in to gorgeous homes, office buildings and other spaces, like the famous Container Park in Las Vegas. Container homes can be built very inexpensively, and as the movement grows, designers are getting increasingly creative with these highly adaptable building option.

container park las vegas
Container Park Las Vegas, image from Container Park

See a gallery of the world’s most beautiful container homes
Learn more about container homes
Container home building tips from homeowners
Learn more about tiny homes
How to live simply in a tiny home

image credit: stick house image from Shutterstock; other images linked to sources in photos

About the Author

A vegan chef, cookbook author, educator, writer, surfer, and yogi based in San Francisco, Andrea is also the Accounts Manager for Important Media. Follow her foodie adventures at AndreaBertoli.com, Vibrant Wellness Journal, Green Living Ideas and Eat Drink Better. Find more from Andrea on Facebook and Instagram