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Making Sense of Sustainable Building

Sean Meehan, Architect, LEED AP, ADMG

The concept of sustainability in architecture is an ancient idea.  Roman architect Vitruvius wrote the Ten Books on Architecture, the earliest reference book on building science.  Over 2000 years old, his writings cover a variety of topics but include many concepts encompassed by sustainability today.  In fact, prior to building technologies such as air conditioning and electric lighting, most buildings throughout history would generally be considered sustainable by modern standards.

But what exactly is a sustainable building?  In contemporary terms, sustainability (or green building) encompasses a wide range of concepts, all with the main objective of reducing a structure’s impact on the environment.  Typical strategies include locating the building appropriately on the site, reducing water use and energy consumption, and utilizing safe, local and easily renewed construction materials.

In recent years, sustainability has evolved to include voluntary measures like product certifications and building rating systems, as well as mandatory requirements that are now found in both state and local building codes.  Whether voluntary or mandatory, most sustainability measures carry an increased upfront cost but are offset by substantial long-term savings on energy costs and other financial incentives.  Navigating that cost vs. benefit analysis on a typical building project can be a confusing and time-consuming endeavor.

The good news is that sustainability is a grassroots movement at heart.  It starts with simple things like recycling waste, limiting our use of water both indoors and out, and unplugging small appliances and electronics when not in use.  The even better news is that these easy sustainability measures save money as well!

If you are considering a building project and want to get the biggest return on your sustainability dollar, hire an experienced professional.  They can guide you through the decision-making process when comparing various certifications, rating systems and incentives, while identifying what measures will be most effective and appropriate for your project.  Ultimately, efficiency and economy are the goals of sustainability, and saving money while saving the environment is something we can all feel good about.

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