like us on facebook to keep tabs on upcoming events or
CLICK HERE to sign up
on our workshop email list

"Be the change
you wish to see
in the world..."
            -M. Gandhi

t a k i n g   g r e e n   t o   t h e   e x t r e m e



excerpted from a chapter written by Sigi Koko for the first edition of Interior Graphic Standards.

systems thinking
resource use
additional info
related articles


For thousands of years people have been creating structures that, out of necessity, have been specific to a given region and its climate. They were by nature "sustainable" within their local landscapes. Design strategies had to work with climate conditions as well as within the limitations of local materials. In the past century, advances in technology have enabled a shift from this model, allowing nature to be simply overpowered. As widespread concern is raised over the limitations of natural resources, as well as the planet’s finite ability to absorb pollutants, the role of technology is being reconsidered. Technology is increasingly being employed to augment natural processes rather than out-do them, and materials are utilized with more efficiency and more in harmony with the earth’s ecology.

Green roof  at Montgomery Park Business Center, Baltimore

Design by KSB Consulting plants by Emory Knoll Farms

So what does it mean to design according to "sustainable" principals? One commonly accepted definition was developed in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, which described sustainable development as that "which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". There are many viable sustainable design models that provide guidance in implementing this overarching goal.

This Overview describes one such model, as broken into four primary categories: Energy, Water, Resources, and Health. Each topic includes a brief description of related environmental concerns, followed by actions that can be taken. The issues regarding Energy, Water, and Resources revolve primarily around efficiency, conservation, and pollution prevention; issues regarding Health deal primarily with maintaining environmental and human health.



When designing with environmental and health impacts in mind, all elements of a project necessarily become interrelated. For example, energy systems design should not be isolated from site selection or building design, since both can have a great effect on energy efficiency and conservation. This "systems thinking" approach is most effective when begun early in the design process. The diagram below illustrates the links between elements in the design process when using the systems thinking approach.



The Worldwatch Institute estimates that buildings are responsible for 40% of total energy use worldwide. Thus energy consumption accounts for a majority of the environmental impacts associated with buildings. Energy generation and use has been linked to air pollution, acid rain, reduced water quality, ozone depletion, risk of global warming, and depletion of non-renewable resources. Energy conservation is a high priority and serves to improve a building’s overall environmental performance while reducing operating costs.

Energy Conservation + Efficiency
Reduction in energy use associated with buildings involves many interrelated actions. Passive techniques involve simple design choices integrated during Schematic Design, and are achieved through building orientation, form, and layout. Energy efficiency focuses on minimizing overall heating, cooling, and electrical loads.

  • align building with solar orientation

  • utilize shading devices to reduce heat gain

  • provide passive ventilation

  • incorporate vestibules at main entrances

  • install vegetated roofs to reduce energy flow through roof envelope and reduce urban heat island effect

  • super-insulate the building envelope and eliminate thermal bridging

  • use high performance glazing (such as low-e)

  • specify Energy Star appliances

  • reduce energy for hot water with solar or tankless "on demand" water heaters, or utilize waste heat from air conditioning systems

  • use energy modeling software

  • install energy efficient mechanical systems, such as geothermal with heat recovery ventilators (HRVs)

  • specify mechanical systems that are free of chemicals with ozone depleting potential such as fluorocarbons

Site location can reduce the energy associated with transportation to a building.

  • locate in urban centers

  • locate convenient to mass transit

  • provide amenities for bicyclists (showers and bicycle storage)

Renewable + Alternative Energy
Renewable energy systems provide "free" non-polluting power for building scale applications without depleting non-renewable natural resources. Alternative energy systems provide cleaner, less polluting options for power generation.

  • incorporate wind, photovoltaic (solar), and/or hydro generation systems

  • implement net metering; eliminates battery systems and allows direct offset of utility costs

  • choose "green power" from utility company

  • supplement with fuel cells and desiccant cooling systems

Lighting + Daylighting
Electrical lighting not only requires energy, but also generates unwanted heat, which subsequently increases the load on cooling systems. Utilizing available sunlight as an additional resource reduces energy consumption while providing high quality light. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that total lighting costs in commercial buildings can be cut by 30% to 60% through efficient lighting and daylighting strategies. Additionally, sunlight produces positive physiological and psychological effects for occupants, thus improving overall Indoor Environmental Quality (see "Health").

  • design glazing to capture available daylighting

  • utilize window treatments to control glare and heat gain without eliminating views

  • utilize automatic daylight dimming sensors

  • specify energy efficient, low-mercury lighting

  • provide occupant-controlled task lighting

  • ensure that all exterior lights focus downward

  • enroll in a fluorescent light recycling program

  • specify low-watt LED exit signs



cubicles made with reclaimed and recycled materials


salvage timbers

The construction and operation of buildings accounts for an estimated 40% of the earth’s extracted raw materials and half of all waste generated according to the Worldwatch Institute. The result is destruction of landscapes, air and water pollution, deforestation, depletion of non-renewable resources, and overburdening landfills. By reducing the total resource burden through preservation and conservation strategies, the health and balance of the earth’s ecosystems are preserved. "Think globally, act locally."

Building Reuse
Existing buildings are themselves a resource, with aesthetic, historical, and cultural value. Reusing an existing building promotes resource efficiency in two ways: demolition materials are not sent to landfills, and fewer virgin materials are used in construction.

  • consider building reuse in site selection

  • salvage and/or recycle demolition waste

  • retrofit the thermal envelope to increase energy efficiency (see "Energy")

Building Materials
Often the most visible element of Sustainable Design is the selection of finish materials. This is especially true with Interior Design, which frequently involves renovation of high turnover lease space. Often materials are removed and discarded before their useful life is over. Dealing with such high rates of remodeling magnifies the overall environmental and health impacts of materials selection. It also creates a unique opportunity to promote Healthy & Sustainable building materials in a visible setting.

Healthy resources are those that:

  • do not threaten human health and

  • do not negatively impact natural ecosystems.

Sustainable resources can be defined as:

  • renewable or regenerative,

  • acquisitioned without ecological damage, and

  • used at a rate that does not exceed the natural rate of replenishment.

Resource conservation can ultimately result in "closed-loop" acquisition streams, where existing "waste" is viewed as valuable raw material for new products. Closed-loop models are economically sustainable, as they do not rely on non-renewable resources. Specifying environmentally preferable building materials involves establishing a priority of health and sustainability criteria.

Product Labeling
Several organizations and agencies provide product labeling to help identify environmentally preferable choices.

Green Seal – nonprofit organization that evaluates material categories and awards a "Green Seal of Approval" to products.

Energy Star – federal energy efficient product labeling program through the EPA and DOE.

Certified Forest Products Council (CFPC) – nonprofit organization that promotes responsible forest products through an online database listing suppliers of certified wood products.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – member of CFPC that certifies wood for sustainable forest management and chain-of-custody.

Construction Waste Recycling
Recyclable waste materials are generated during demolition, construction, and remodeling. The key element of successful construction waste recycling is on-site separation. Once separation methods are established, recycling can be accomplished with little effort. Most job sites experience increased materials-use efficiency with the act of separation, ultimately resulting in increased profits.

  • include a construction waste recycling specification with construction documents

  • outline separation, salvage, and recycling strategies

  • identify categories of recyclable and salvageable waste

  • list local recycling purchasers and salvage organizations

Categories of Recyclable Construction Waste:

  • land clearing debris

  • concrete & masonry

  • metals (steel, aluminum, copper, iron, other)

  • untreated wood

  • gypsum wallboard

  • insulation

  • paints

  • cardboard

  • paper goods

  • plastic

  • glass

  • salvaged goods

Building Waste Management
Commercial operations realize savings on disposal expenses by maximizing waste recycling efforts. In a typical office, wastepaper is the predominant component of the waste stream, representing an average of 70% of total waste. The remaining 30% waste includes glass, metal, plastics, food, and miscellaneous trash.

  • outline items to be separated for recycling

  • identify local haulers/recycling facilities for each waste category

  • provide convenient, centralized recycling containers and/or chutes

  • participate in programs that assist in educating all building occupants on reducing and recycling waste (see "Programs")

Categories of Recyclable Building Waste:

  • white paper

  • mixed paper

  • cardboard

  • mixed containers (metal, glass, plastic)

  • food & landscaping waste (compostable)


native plants are beautiful are climatically adapted to their region.

Stormwater Management
The primary goal of stormwater management initiatives is to promote the absorption of normal rainwater flows.

  • reduce impervious surfaces with pervious paving and vegetated roof systems

  • place vegetated swales and infiltration strips to absorb excess stormwater runoff (especially from parking areas)

  • utilize native plant species that are appropriate to climatic conditions for all landscaping

  • collect rainwater in cisterns for irrigation or toilet flushing

Water Use
Buildings rely heavily on clean water. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that U.S. buildings alone use 17% of all fresh water flows. Growth in development has been linked to lower water tables worldwide. Rainwater is diverted along impervious surfaces and prevented from replenishing ground water tables and aquifers. Increased run-off flows promote erosion and contribute to non-point source pollution. Water treatment facilities are responsible for introducing environmental pollutants such as chlorine and phosphorous into natural bodies of water in unnatural quantities. Sustainable sites encourage natural water filtration processes and reduce overall use of potable water.

Water Conservation
Water conservation provides savings in operating costs while reducing the burden on local water processing facilities. Potable water resources are most efficiently used when limited to applications where it is reasonable that a person may ingest water, such as drinking fountains, sink faucets, and showers. Non-potable uses of water, such as irrigation and toilet flushing, can utilize site-processed graywater or collected rainwater.

  • specify ultra-low flow faucets with aerators and automatic shut-off sensors

  • specify toilets that meet or exceed EPACT

  • specify waterless urinals

  • consider use of recycled graywater or collected rainwater for toilet flushing

  • specify water-efficient appliances

  • do not use potable water for irrigation

Green Roofs
Vegetated roof systems, also called "living roofs" or "green roofs", are typically thin layer roofing systems composed of a waterproofing membrane, a root resistant layer, planting medium (soil), and appropriate plants. The plants serve to filter and absorb rainwater, thus reducing and delaying total stormwater flows. The soil and vegetation additionally reduces heat gain and heat loss, thus enhancing the total energy efficiency of the building as well as reducing urban heat island effects.


The term Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) is commonly used to encompass all conditions that potentially affect occupant wellbeing in a given space. This includes thermal comfort, light quality, and Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Thermal comfort is addressed by code for all public spaces, but should be designed for efficient and flexible delivery. Diffused natural daylight provides the highest quality light (see "Energy"). IAQ deals with indoor pollutants that have the potential to cause negative health impacts.

The EPA has consistently ranked indoor air pollution in the top five environmental risks to public health. EPA studies have shown that indoor levels of pollutants can be 2-5 times, and in some cases more than 100 times, higher than outdoor levels. Indoor air pollution has been linked to Building Related Illness (BRI) and Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), Pwith symptoms such as chronic fatigue, burning eyes, dry coughs, headaches, dizziness, rashes, and temporary loss of memory. Research indicates that people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, thus increasing risk of exposure to pollutants.

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
Sources of indoor pollution include combustion gases, airborne chemicals, particulates, and microbes (such as mold). Some of these sources release pollutants constantly while others are related to specific activities. Inadequate ventilation and high humidity can compound problems.

  • specify building materials that are non-toxic and do not support microbial growth (see "Resources")

  • control moisture to prevent mold and mildew growth

  • specify that materials with off-gassing potential are installed prior to absorptive materials (with a flush-out period between)

  • require a final flush-out period when construction is complete

  • provide ample ventilation and monitor CO2

  • place building air intake away from sources of combustion gases

  • design air distribution systems to be easily cleaned and maintained

  • incorporate interior plants that filter pollutants from air

  • eliminate smoking indoors

Harmful chemicals such as benzene, butyl carbitol, chlorine, and formaldehyde are found in the solvents, fragrances, and degreasers of cleaning products. Many of these chemicals are known or suspected human carcinogens; others are narcotic and target the central nervous system. In addition, disposal of chemical cleaning agents can pose a serious threat to environmental health. While some of these chemicals legitimately improve product effectiveness, few are vital. A growing number of products are available that are safer to use yet provide the same performance at similar cost.

  • utilize maintenance products that are non-toxic, biodegradable, and zero-VOC


Cost Considerations
When Sustainable Design principals are addressed throughout the design process, many decisions reduce environmental impacts with no associated cost penalty, and possible cost savings. Also, when first costs are assessed for complete systems, certain strategies may show an increased line item cost, but will be offset by a cost reduction for some other component. (For example, an increase in first costs for lighting fixtures and daylighting strategies may reduce the size and cost of mechanical systems, resulting in a net decrease in costs.) Implementing such measures should be automatic, and can be incorporated into standard specification documents.

Other decisions may increase first costs, but will save money over time. Many energy strategies fall into this category. If building costs are evaluated utilizing a 10 to 20 year life cycle, these costs can be justified by showing how long it will take for the savings to pay off.

Finally, buildings that are constructed using sustainable design principals are generally higher quality and have increased value to owners and occupants. "Green" projects also tend to be published more often, thus increasing the marketing potential for developers and owners. Making sustainable projects visible and publicly accessible helps to educate others on what is possible with respect to "green" buildings.

– a free waste reduction program through the EPA. Local recycling programs are also available throughout the country.

Energy Star – an energy-efficiency labeling program of products, homes, and buildings through the EPA and DOE

Fluorescent lamp recycling programs – several national and regional programs provide recycling and mercury recovery for fluorescent lamps. Contact local/regional department of waste management or search for "fluorescent lamp recycling" on the Internet.

LEEDTM Green Building Rating System – a comprehensive rating system applied to completed buildings; developed by the US Green Building Council.

Additional Resources
Brown, G.Z. and Mark DeKay. Sun, Wind & Light: Architectural Design Strategies. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001.

Environmental Building News (newsletter, website)

Mendler, Sandra and Bill O’Dell. HOK Sustainable Design Guide. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000.

Schmitz-Günther, Thomas, ed. Living Spaces: Ecological Building and Design (Lebensräume). Slovenia: Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft, 1998.


Natural & Healthy Materials

Natural Building Overview

Down to Earth Design
Sigi Koko, principal
215.540.2694 PA
202.302.3055 DC

©2000 Sigi Koko & Down to Earth