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A Guide to Sustainable Building Design Principles

Living area bathed with natural light

Maxime Brouillet

Sustainable building design is becoming increasingly important as we work to reduce the environmental impact of the built environment. Buildings account for nearly 40% of global energy-related carbon emissions, so designing structures that are energy-efficient and environmentally friendly is crucial. There are several key principles of sustainable building design. 

Site Selection

Choosing a building site with access to public transit, existing infrastructure, and amenities helps reduce sprawl and the need for cars. Sites that allow natural light and ventilation should be prioritized. Brownfield sites that are reclaimed from previous development are preferable to undeveloped greenfield sites, but they can be costly to develop if the soil is contaminated.

Energy Efficiency

The building envelope, including insulation, windows, doors, etc., should maximize energy performance in addition to searching for cheaper commercial energy providers. HVAC, lighting, appliances, and electronics should all be energy efficient. Onsite renewable energy like solar panels can offset grid energy use. Smart meters, sensors, and controls optimize energy use in the office and other areas.

Bathroom vanity cabinet with sink

Water Efficiency

As water resources become more scarce, it is critical to implement water-saving features in new construction and renovation projects. Low-flow plumbing fixtures such as low-flush toilets, water-efficient urinals, low-flow faucets, and showerheads dramatically reduce indoor water usage. Sensor-activated fixtures that use water only when needed are ideal. Dual plumbing systems allow the reuse of greywater from sinks, showers, and washing machines for underground irrigation.

Rainwater harvesting systems collect and store rainfall for landscape irrigation and other non-potable uses like flushing toilets.

Drought-tolerant native plants and xeriscaping techniques reduce the need for irrigation. Drip irrigation, moisture sensors, and weather-based controllers supply landscape water only as needed. Permeable paving surfaces allow water to percolate into the soil instead of running off-site.

Materials Efficiency

Locally sourced, renewable, recycled, and nontoxic materials reduce embodied energy for transport. Durable products with long lifespans are preferred. Design for deconstruction allows the reuse of materials at the end of life.  

Waste Reduction

Construction waste management like recycling debris diverts waste from landfills. Composting and recycling collection built into the design reduces operational waste.

Bedroom with wooden bed

Indoor Environmental Quality

Abundant natural light, ventilation, fresh air, thermal comfort, acoustics, and biophilic elements create healthy spaces where people thrive. The use of low/no VOC materials also improves air quality.  

Operations and Maintenance

Commissioning and proper O&M ensure efficient building performance. Smart systems track and monitor usage data. 

Sustainable building certifications like LEED and Living Building Challenge provide frameworks for designers to create holistically green buildings. The integrative design process brings all stakeholders together early to set sustainability goals and identify synergies between systems. Goal setting and benchmarking using energy modeling informs design decisions.  

While sustainable design may have a higher upfront cost, the long-term benefits related to human health, energy savings, water savings, emissions reductions, waste diversion, and more far outweigh the initial investment. As climate change accelerates, sustainable building design is no longer a luxury but a necessity for the future of the built environment. The choices we make today about how we construct our homes, offices, schools, and other facilities will have lasting impacts for generations to come.