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What is a green building?
What is a green building?

Green Building Definitions & Certifications

This post briefly describes the most common green building definitions (including high performance building) and certifications used in the U.S.

Green Building Definitions

Hundreds, probably even thousands of definitions exist to answer this question. Most green building definitions share the common theme that a green building is a built and operated to:

Minimize energy, water, waste and overall resource consumption, limit on-site and off-site environmental degradation, maximize building life cycle including materials and occupancy changes, consider the health of human occupants, and utilize high performance building systems to achieve on-going, building-wide efficiency.  

Appraisal Institute

The Appraisal Institute defines “green building” as:

“The practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s lifecycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and deconstruction; also known as sustainable or high-performance building. (EPA)”

Source: Appraisal Institute, The Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal, 5th ed. (Chicago: Appraisal Institute, 2010).

The Appraisal Institute (same source) defines “sustainability” as:

“1. Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. (Bruntland Commission Report to the United Nations, 1987)

2. In green design and construction, the practice of developing new structures and renovating existing structures using equipment, materials, and techniques that help achieve a long-term balance between extraction and renewal and between environmental inputs and outputs, causing no overall net environmental burden or deficit.

As of this publication, they do not define “high-performance” or “sustainable”.

Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005

In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the High Performance Building Council defines a high performance building as:

“…a building that integrates and optimizes all major high-performance building attributes, including energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance, and occupant productivity.”


ASHRAE, in their 2006 Green Guide, details the environmental outcomes necessary for a green/sustainable building:

“A green/sustainable building design is one that achieves high performance, over the full life cycle, in the following areas:

Minimizing natural resource consumption through more efficient utilization of nonrenewable natural resources, land, water, and construction materials, including utilization of renewable energy resources to achieve net zero energy consumption.

Minimizing emissions that negatively impact our indoor environment and the atmosphere of our planet, especially those related to indoor air quality (IAQ),greenhouse gases, global warming, particulates, or acid rain.

Minimizing discharge of solid waste and liquid effluents, including demolition and occupant waste, sewer, and stormwater, and the associated infrastructure required to accommodate removal.

Minimal negative impacts on site ecosystems.

Maximum quality of indoor environment, including air quality, thermal regime,illumination, acoustics/noise, and visual aspects to provide comfortable human physiological and psychological perceptions.”

Source: ASHRAE Green Guide: The Design, Construction, and Operation of Sustainable Buildings, 2006, pg. 4. (


The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Committee on the Environment definition of sustainability and sustainable design has a more holistic approach of thinking about sustainability in buildings:

“Sustainability envisions the enduring prosperity of all living things. Sustainable design seeks to create communities, buildings, and products that contribute to this vision.

Measure 1: Design & Innovation

Sustainable design is an inherent aspect of design excellence. Projects should express sustainable design concepts and intentions, and take advantage of innovative programming opportunities.

Measure 2: Regional/Community

Design Sustainable design values the unique cultural and natural character of a given region.

Measure 3: Land Use & Site Ecology

Sustainable design protects and benefits ecosystems, watersheds, and wildlife habitat in the presence of human development.

Measure 4: Bioclimatic Design

Sustainable design conserves resources and maximizes comfort through design adaptations to site specific and regional climate conditions.

Measure 5: Light & Air

Sustainable design creates comfortable interior environments that provide daylight, views, and fresh air.

Measure 6: Water Cycle

Sustainable design conserves water and protects and improves water quality.

Measure 7: Energy Flows & Energy Future

Sustainable design conserves energy and resources and reduces the carbon footprint while improving building performance and comfort. Sustainable design anticipates future energy sources and needs.

Measure 8: Materials & Construction

Sustainable design includes the informed selection of materials and products to reduce product cycle environmental impacts, improve performance, and optimize occupant health and comfort.

Measure 9: Long Life, Loose Fit

Sustainable design seeks to enhance and increase ecological, social, and economic values over time.

Measure 10: Collective Wisdom and Feedback Loops

Sustainable design strategies and best practices evolve over time through documented performance and shared knowledge of lessons learned.”

Source: AIA website, August 28,2008.

Green Building Certifications

Green building certifications offer third party property rating systems that require specific items to be met to gain certification.

Like certification of other products, the market generally accepts third party green building certification more so than simply saying “my property is green”.

The most predominant green building certifications used in the United States today are LEED and Energy Star. There are a plethora of other third certifications both available and being developed. Some of the notable ones are the NAHB National Green Building Standard, Passive House and Green Globes.


The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system designed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) was conceived in 1994 and is the most recognized green building certification in the U.S. LEED is now accepted world-wide, though it is used primarily within North, Central and South America. Various versions of LEED have been license by several countries, which have adapted the green building rating system to fit their regulatory and climactic needs. LEEDv3, also known as LEED 2009 is the most recent edition of LEED to come out. The USGBC updates LEED every 3 years to ensure that the green building rating system continually raises the standard to more efficient and healthier buildings. LEED is available for both commercial and residential applications. The primary components of LEED are:

1. Sustainable Sites

2. Water Efficiency

3. Energy & Atmosphere

4. Materials & Resources

5. Indoor Environmental Quality

6. Innovation & Design Process

7. Operations & Maintenance

8. Regional Priority

Energy Star

Energy Star was developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and was originally intended for use as a rating of energy efficiency for buildings, though Energy Star has expanded in the residential sector. The Energy Star label is also used for appliances and electronic devices, certifying that they meet a certain level of low energy use (depending on what it is).

Energy Star for homes has surpassed 1 million homes total in the U.S. that are Energy Star certified. Though new Energy Star certification metrics have been proposed, an Energy Star home primarily focuses on energy consumption. They must be 15% more energy efficient than what is specified in the 2004 International Residential Code, typically reaching the 20%-30% threshold.

Energy Star for Buildings is mainly dominated by mid to high rise office building, though this notion is changing. Similar to Energy Star for homes, Energy Star for buildings currently focuses on energy consumption as the green building metric. A building is capable of obtaining an Energy Star label if it performs within the top 15% of similar property types around the U.S., in terms of energy consumption.

NAHB Green Standard

The National Association of Home Builders created the IC-700 National Green Building Standard which is has specific standards to be met in order for a property to receive green certification.

Passive House

Passive House offers a highly energy efficient rating system and design process for homes and buildings. Passive house structures can use 80%-90% less energy than a standard structure.

Green Globes

Green Globes is administered through the Green Buildings Initiative (GBI) and certifies commercial and residential buildings alike. Though Green Globes is not a huge player in Colorado at this time, that could change over the coming years. The Green Globes property criteria is:

1. Energy

2. Indoor Environment

3. Site

4. Water

5. Resources

6. Emissions

7. Project/Environmental Management

Green Building Definitions & Certifications Conclusion

Defining a green building can vary depending on what organization you ask. Until the Appraisal Institute releases an updated definition on green building that relates more to the building itself, rather than the practice of green building, their definition may be helpful in an appraisal, but probably not the single best source. As an appraiser, using the EPAct definition may provide secondary support, but the single-best definition will be the certification label itself. For example, the subject is a “LEED Gold Certified” building or the subject is an “Energy Star” building. Not only does this add the most clarification to it’s green components, but, it is how the market generally describes its greenness.

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