Sustainability: A Primer

There are a number of various terms in standard use these days that refer to an approach to construction and living that strives to minimize human impact on the environment.  These terms, including "Green" architecture and sustainability though familiar to many can still be obscure.  So, what does it mean when we purport to create a sustainable approach to our built environment?  The most well-known measure of "greenness", is LEED which stands for Leadership in Energy, Environment and Design.  This system of "metrics", or simply and means by which the level os sustainability of a given project can be quantified, created by the United States Green Building Council, or USGBC, breaks the criterion for sustainability into five categories.  These areas of focus range from the expected, such as energy efficiencies and water conservation, to the unexpected, such as the creation of warm, inviting, light-filled spaces that will enhance the quality of the the experience of life spent indoors.  In short, creating a sustainable environment does not equate to trading our "old fashioned", cozy, well-lit homes for a life under layers of clothing in dimly lit rooms.

Here is an outline of the major LEED categories and a description of the intent of each in advancing the purpose of sustainability.


1.  Sustainable Sites:

Emphasis on the wise use and selection of a building site. Addresses issues such as pollution, zoning, heat island (the tendency for a highly built environment to retain heat), rain water control, light pollution and open space.


2.  Water Efficiency:

The focus of this category is fairly self-evident; the efficient use of potable water in sanitary systems for household use, and reduction, or elimination of its use in irrigation through the use of water reclamation systems and rainwater cisterns.


3.  Energy and Atmosphere:

The goal is to provide optimal performance of heating and cooling systems while maintaining quality in terms of comfort and air quality.  The focus is on the selection and careful use of each mechanical, electrical and plumbing system in a holistic way that considers how they work together; it is a mindfulness that these systems can occasionally be operating in opposition to each other.


4.  Materials and Resources:

Materials and the movement of materials, new, used and those slated for disposal, reuse or for recycling, entail the use of energy.  The wise use of new materials, for instance the selection of materials that can be obtained locally, or the reuse of materials that are already on-site such as existing kitchen cabinets that can be refinished, can reduce the "embodied" energy use of the materials in the finished project while enhancing the quality of the design.


5.  Indoor Environmental Quality:

Safeguarding indoor air quality begins before construction when choosing material which do not contain volatile organic compounds, or VOC's.  It continues through construction in the form of the protection of materials and duct-work from becoming contaminated  by dirt and mold and thus becoming a source of problems once the project is complete.