Sustainability seems to be the hot topic in the design and construction industry. But what does “sustainable design” really mean? And, knowing that, how easy is it to be sustainable?

Sustainability covers more than environmentally conscious aspects, although that is a large piece of the concept. Use of the “triple bottom line” concept—which measures organizational success in the areas of economic, social, and environmental initiatives—is growing. Part of the motivation for this concept has been the push of individual industries toward a more “green” designation.

Why move toward sustainability?

Organizations should consider sustainable issues when building for many reasons, not only environmental, but social and financial as well. For example, EPA's ENERGY STAR program determined that every dollar spent toward energy improvements in a leased property increases its asset value by $3. Each dollar saved in energy performance is equivalent to generating new revenues of $20 for hospitals and $10 for nursing homes and medical offices.

How to measure sustainability

Various organizations have systems in place to evaluate specific industries' impact on the environment. For the construction industry, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is the nation's foremost coalition of leaders from every sector of the building industry working to promote buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy places to live and work. This organization has created a nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy aimed at saving money and protecting the environment through energy-efficient products and practices. In 1992, ENERGY STAR started as a voluntary labeling system to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The label is now found on major appliances, office equipment, lighting, home electronics, and more. The EPA has also extended the label to cover new homes and commercial and industrial buildings using a benchmarking system to rate building performance against other similar types of buildings.

The International Organization of Standardization's (ISO) principal activity is the development of technical standards. The ISO 14000 family is primarily concerned with “environmental management”—minimizing harmful effects on the environment caused by an organization's activities and working to achieve continual improvement of its environmental performance.

A new organization has been created to serve as a best practices guide for healthy and sustainable building design, construction, and operations for the healthcare industry—the Green Guide for Health Care (GGHC). The program is a voluntary, self-certifying metric toolkit of best practices that designers, owners, and operators can use to guide and evaluate their progress towards high-performance healing environments. Qualifying buildings earn points similar to the LEED program's, but with some specific modifications towards healthcare building.

How to move toward a sustainable future

Realizing that there are many organizations with guidelines defining what it means to be sustainable, a major concept of sustainability is as a collaborative effort toward designing a highly efficient and high-performing building that is woven into the fabric of its facility, surroundings, and community infrastructure. The following are measures used to help define what it means to be sustainable:

Site. When reviewing building sites, do not select one that is prime farm land. According to the National Resources Conservation Services' 2001 Inventory, between 1982 and 2001, about 10 million square acres of prime farm land were developed. This amount of development affects not only the aesthetics of an area, but also wildlife, water management, and traffic.

Reading the site is the next step. Position the building to take advantage of as many natural elements as possible, including solar gain, grading, and storm water management. When these elements are used effectively, there are not only environmental advantages, but a potential for lower development costs.

Site disturbance should be minimal. Some approaches to minimizing disturbance are to exceed local zoning open space requirements by 25% and to limit site disturbance on a green field site to 40 feet beyond the building footprint and five feet beyond primary roads (figure 1). During construction and/or demolition, recycle or re-use waste by relocating trees or soil so as to not affect the surrounding site.

Aquinas College—Jarecki School for Advanced Learning, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Photo courtesy of Balthazar Korab Ltd.

Transportation. When evaluating the energy use of a corporation, one might think that electricity is the greatest contributor. But if you consider the energy spent on employee commutes, they would probably turn out to be the largest users of energy. To respond to transportation issues, green designers have different opportunities to enhance the transportation network.

Most buildings are within a greater network of roadways, bus lines, and pedestrian pathways. Allowing each of these to work together enhances the community network, while providing the building occupants with alternative ways to get to work. For example, there might be a designated bus station with a network of pedestrian pathways leading to the building entrance, and a designated roadway to the building, as well—a transportation network (figure 2).

Interurban Transit Partnership—The Rapid, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Photo courtesy of Chuck Heiney Photography/

Alternative and shared vehicle uses should be encouraged. You can do this by providing preferred parking for alternative vehicles and for car pools. Also, don't provide more parking spaces than required by code. This will minimize the paved surface of the site.

Water and light. Using natural landscapes with native plants has significant benefit to potable water use or irrigation (figure 3). A goal for landscaping is to use from 50% less to no potable water for irrigation. This can be achieved by using reclaimed or recycled rainwater or through a modified drip irrigation system that uses between 30 and 50% less water, and delivers water where it's needed most. Look for opportunities inside the building to use low-flow fixtures to reduce overall water use.

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park Outdoor Ampitheater, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Photo courtesy of Chuck Heiney Photography/

Light pollution is caused by over-lighting the inside and outside of a building. To avoid polluting the sky with unnecessary light, light only the ground for safety, and design all interior and exterior lighting to avoid light spill to surrounding sites and to the sky. According to Kim E. Shinn, PE, LEED AP, more than 44% of site electricity use is for lighting. If lighting is designed more effectively, that percentage could be lower and costs could be reduced. Inside the building, the use of high-efficiency lamps and occupancy sensors or light sensors can minimize the overall cost of lighting in the building.

Interior lighting is unique in that you end up paying twice—first to light the space and second to cool the space from the heat gains—so small savings on lighting add up quickly. Designing a space that takes advantage of natural light and reduces the need for artificial light is ideal.

Energy. With occasional blips, the cost of energy is on the rise, largely because resources are dwindling. Try to engage in a two-year contract of power from a renewable source. Many local utilities providers offer a “green power” option for a portion of their supply. Help reduce ozone depletion by reducing recharges of refrigerants using hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) or halons in heat pumps and air-conditioning systems. Also, ongoing commissioning of mechanical systems can help save money and excessive strain on the system; ensuring that all systems are working as designed can provide a cost-efficient environment where occupants are comfortable.

Materials. The prevailing concept is to “think locally”—specify building materials that are manufactured within 500 miles of the site. While this theory can be applied to many spending avenues, it is particularly important to the construction industry because of the added energy use in transporting large and heavy quantities of materials. Looking at products that have a portion of recycled content is also important to reduce the amount of virgin material used.

When reviewing materials and resources, another main consideration is construction waste management. When considering a green building project, recycle/salvage 50% to 75% of construction, demolition, and land-clearing waste.

Indoor environment. When specifying interior materials, use adhesives, sealants, paints, composite wood products, and carpet systems that meet or exceed VOC (volatile organic compounds) restrictions and avoid other exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals that adversely impact air quality. Provide for a thermally comfortable environment that supports the productive and healthy performance of the building's occupants using environmentally safe materials.

Green principles can also be encouraged for activities of the building's occupants, i.e., provide easy methods for recycling paper, metals, plastic, batteries, and other items, and use point-of-use task lighting wherever possible.

Sustainability benefits

Sustainability has economic benefits. When the indoor quality is improved, worker health is improved, resulting in more productivity toward the economic bottom line. High-performing buildings mean lower energy use.

Sustainability has environmental benefits. When buildings are planned carefully and efficiently, the impact on local ecosystems is reduced and waste is minimized.

Green building has social benefits. The concepts of thinking green support local economies and infrastructure, affecting business and government. Buildings become part of the infrastructure of a community; if they are not within that fabric and network, the link is broken. Looking at the community and enhancing it with a community asset is really what socially responsible building is all about. Thinking and working towards sustainability benefits us all.

Lorissa MacAllister has been Health Care Studio Leader at Progressive AE since 2003. She has served as the healthcare designer, planner, and programmer for several hospital master plans and hospital expansions and new projects. Educated as a social worker and as an architect, MacAllister is also an active LEED professional, a Steering Committee member of the Green Guide for Health Care, and a Planning Commissioner of the Charter Township of Cascade, Michigan.

For further information, including a copy of the poster “25 Steps to Sustainability,” send an e-mail to, phone 616.361.2664 or visit