Green Buildings in the United States—Regulations, Programs, and Trends: an Interview with William Sanders

bridges vol. 11, September 2006 / Green Buildings Focus
by Sonja Strohmer


The following is an interview with William H. Sanders III, who serves as the US EPA senior executive representative to the Federal Green Building Council, and as the executive champion for green building at EPA.

sandersportrait_captionbridges: What is the current number of "green buildings" in the United States? Are there specific goals that the US has set in terms of the increase in sustainable construction?

Bill Sanders: There are a wide variety of approaches to green buildings, from organizations sponsoring Web sites and other resources with principles of green building and green materials, to certification programs for products (e.g., the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) Green Label program, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) wood certification program, Green Seal, etc.), to evolving certification programs for entire buildings and neighborhoods (such as the US Green Building Council (USGBC) LEEDTM certification program). But many green buildings that most would consider to be sustainable were constructed before there were such certification programs around to stamp them "green." And structures are being built today that have many, if not most, of the attributes we would define as sustainable, yet they elect not to pursue an "official" green certification.


So, there is no universally accepted, quantitative number that constitutes the state of green building in the United States. There is, however, ample evidence of a growing foothold in the building market, particularly via programs such as the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEEDTM) certification program. The rapidly growing numbers of practitioners (e.g., LEEDTM Accredited Professionals), the number of buildings certified as to various levels of greenness, and the expanding number of new projects undergoing the certification process at the USGBC and other organizations, do provide good qualitative indications of the past and future of green building in the US over the past few years. But even at these venues, where we have actual numbers of certified projects and a much larger number of projects undergoing certification, we recognize that these lists do not constitute a true and accurate representation of green buildings completed and under construction.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} bridges: What is, in your opinion, the single biggest barrier to making green buildings more common across the United States?

Bill Sanders: The short answer, as with anything considered to be new or different, is gaining sufficient momentum to overcome the inertia of the status quo. Of course, it is a bit more complicated that that. We do have in the United States, just as other countries have, a well-structured, existent system for construction consisting of laws, regulations, model building codes, certification requirements, trade associations, and building professionals.

The good news is that the infrastructure for sustainable building is gaining momentum. We are seeing greatly increasing numbers of design and building professionals with expertise and experience; acceptance of certification programs as official sanctions of "greenness"; incorporation of new materials and green equipment into construction standards and specifications; more and more green materials and equipment entering the market; an increasing penetration of green materials at prices comparable to non-green alternatives occurring in the consumer marketplace; and a growing acceptance of the significance of having a green building, along with a growing demand for green buildings (for improved indoor air quality, increased productivity, reduced energy cost, and lowering the impact on the environment, among other concerns).

We also recognize the ongoing challenge of educating those involved in building-construction decisions to look beyond the first costs of construction, to consider the life cycle costs of construction and the operation of the structure, as well as other benefits that may not yet be as cost quantifiable - for instance, increased productivity and a healthier indoor environment. And, of course, new products must meet building codes, standards, and regulations, whether federal, state, or local. In addition, it does take time and effort to gain acceptance of new products and technology. But we are beginning to recognize that there are few barriers to green building that cannot be managed. This is evident particularly in the increasing numbers of successful projects. Moreover, this trend will become more evident as our collective experience grows and serves to "prime the pump" for future building products.

auduboncenter_captionbridges: How would you describe the current US initiatives meant to foster sustainable construction in the United States?

Bill Sanders: The federal government in the US has been a leader in the procurement of green buildings through policy, by fostering green building practices, by encouraging the market and, perhaps most important, by leading the market via procurement of green buildings. Thus, the federal government has used its tremendous purchasing power to sustain the growing green building market and to lead the way, by example, for state and local units of government, private industry, and homeowners.

bridges: Are there any US regulations or directives in the area of sustainable construction? How would you estimate the influence that these regulations have had so far in the spread of green building technology?

Bill Sanders: Yes, there are a number of presidential Executive Orders requiring federal government agencies to address a multitude of concerns regarding green building, including the use of life cycle analysis for building construction, reducing energy demands of new as well as existing buildings, and the purchase of environmentally preferable materials and equipment.

A key outgrowth of these Executive Orders and the work of federal agencies under the leadership of the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive and the Federal Green Building Council is a recent Memorandum of Understanding, signed by nineteen federal agencies representing over 95 percent of federal facility square footage. The Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings Memorandum of Understanding intends to reduce ownership costs of buildings, improve energy efficiency, provide a safe, healthy, and productive built environment, and promote sustainable environmental stewardship.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides, among other things, for enhanced energy efficiency and renewable energy in the US. The Act establishes mandatory efficiency requirements for federal buildings, provides for a renewable energy production incentive program to increase production of energy via solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass sources, and provides a rebate program for renewable energy systems installed in homes and businesses. It also establishes energy efficiency performance standards for federal buildings that require, e.g., a 30 percent reduction in energy consumption levels from today's standards. And it sets sustainable design principles to be used in siting, designing, and constructing new federal buildings. The Act further provides for grant assistance to help local units of government build new, energy efficient public buildings.

bridges: What are typical examples of green building regulations on national/regional levels?

Bill Sanders: At the national level, one of the most prominent and promising is the recently developed Federal Green Construction Guide for Specifiers, developed via a partnership with the Office of the Federal Executive, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Whole Building Design Guide. And there is now a growing number of initiatives by the states and cities.

bridges: What kinds of programs or regulations have proven most effective in the past?

Bill Sanders: There are a host of public and privately run programs addressing various aspects of green building, including the well known Energy Star program conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy; the USEPA Indoor Air program; the USGBC's LEEDTM green building certification program; the Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG) principles of green design; the National Association of Home Builders Green Home Building Guidelines; and the American Lung Association Health House Builder Guidelines, to name a few of the more prominent programs.

But there are many more. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for example, conducts a program to advance housing technology via its Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) that encourages new building products and technology to improve, among other housing attributes, energy efficiency and environmental performance.

bridges: Are there some US states that have assumed a leadership role in the area of sustainable buildings?

Bill Sanders: Yes. In the US, many ideas and advances begin in a state and, after successful "piloting" and experience, gain acceptance and adoption in additional states and ultimately may become a part of the federal government fabric. There are a number of cities in the US that have also taken on a leadership role. So, besides the federal government, we are seeing more and more regional and local efforts.

bridges: In which counties or geographic areas (rural/urban areas, warm/cold climate) are green buildings most prevalent?

Bill Sanders: There does not appear to be a discernable pattern. We are experiencing a growing green building movement across the country, in warmer (greater ability to harness the energy of the sun) as well as colder climates (where there is a greater need for heat energy), in states such as California and New York, in cities from Chicago, Illinois, to Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, to Los Angeles, California. Although we have many pockets of green visionaries spread out geographically across the country, the movement appears to be rapidly spreading to many additional locations in the US.

bridges: What are your expectations regarding the acceptance and spread of green buildings in the United States over the next few years?

Bill Sanders: Succinctly, my expectations are exceedingly high. It is, indeed, getting easier to be green, as the market matures; as demand for sustainable building increases; as our joint experience and experience base continue to grow; and as the number of green practitioners and professional services increases. As green material and products become more commonplace in the market - resulting in more readily available materials and equipment - we are beginning to realize lower costs. This all contributes to a growing green building movement in the United States. This is spurred on by a growing public - as well as green professional - recognition of the need to conserve and use our natural resources wisely, the impact of our building choices on the environment, and a growing awareness of the impact of the built environment on global warming.

So, my outlook and expectations are optimistic that building green will soon move firmly into the mainstream of construction, and that the only questions we will be asking are how to make our buildings even better for the environment, even more energy efficient, and even healthier for occupants. In a word, the question will be how to improve on making our buildings more sustainable.


The author, Sonja Strohmer, has been working at the Office of Science & Technology (OST) in Washington, DC, since October 2005.