Information about green building in Washington


Green Building Basics

Sustainable building, also known as a green building, creates structures that are designed, built, renovated, operated, reused or deconstructed in an environmentally-sound and resource-efficient manner. The United States Green Building Council defines green building as: design and construction practices that significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of buildings on the environment and occupants in the five broad action areas of: Note that each one of these can benefit the project development budget, as well as reduce the ongoing operations and maintenance costs throughout your project's life, when planning is done early and well.

SEA Street low impact development
in Seattle.

Plan for a Sustainable Site

Buildings have a dramatic effect on the land they occupy. Without forethought, many of their environmental impacts are negative:
  • Loss of habitat from grading, vegetation removal, light trespass, and noise, among others.
  • Increased stormwater runoff and erosion as the site is cleared, topsoil removed and hardscape (pavement, buildings) installed.
  • The heat island effect where impermeable, dry, and un-shaded developed areas absorb then emit more heat than natural, moist and shaded environments.
  • Increased transportation infrastructure required for occupants to travel to and from buildings and essential services.
  • Introduced, non-native vegetation, where more irrigation and herbicides and/or pesticides are often applied for plant survival and once established, these plants may displace native food sources.

Establishing sustainable site objectives both in and outside any building, along with considered site selection, are the first steps in limiting these impacts on local ecosystems. Sound site objectives also help you recognize and take advantage of the valuable yet free environmental services your building site and landcape can provide. Proactive strategies for more effective project site planning follow.
  • Perform a site inventory on all natural and man-made features of the parcels being considered for the project.
  • Select sites and buildings near basic services (utilities, bus routes, bank, stores, daycare facilities, fitness center).
  • Make your site walkable, rather than car-centric.
  • Choose well-thought-out, multi-purpose designs that allow buildings to occupy a smaller site footprint (amount of site covered), which also can reduce construction costs by requiring less building materials.
  • Preserve rather than develop inappropriate sites or critical areas (agricultural land, wetlands, floodplains, or steep slopes).
  • Limit grading, and preserve and cover topsoils to reapply onsite and amend post-construction.
  • Chip woody debris generated onsite and use as mulch to suppress weeds, retain moisture, control erosion, and provide a base for pathways.
  • Specify low-impact development (LID) for Western WA or for Eastern WA that incorporates site-healthy practices, like minimizing pavement, using compost to stabilize bared ground, and selecting native and other sturdy plants that require no chemicals or ongoing irrigation to flourish.
  • Promote best management practices (BMPs) during construction, such as restricted access for heavy equipment, topsoil retention, clearly marking off-limit areas, like the outside the drip lines of trees to be preserved, etc. (For further tips and specifics that can work wherever your site, see this LID manual or look online.)
  • Look into directed fixtures that reduce or eliminate light pollution when used onsite.
  • Restore aspects of the site by adding other LID features, like green roofs or walls, porous pavement, permaculture plantings, etc. when and where possible.
  • Certify your site using Sustainable Sites Initiative, Salmon Safe or other programs.

Recycled carpet, glass, ceramics, and ceramic
tiles in the - Ballard Branch of the
Seattle Public Library.

Conserve Materials and Resources

Building and remodeling contractors often use new or "virgin" materials made from natural resources, and as part of the process, generate "leftovers". In 2011, approximately 25 percent of all solid waste landfilled in Washington was construction and demolition debris. For more details, see the Solid Waste in Washington Annual Status Reports.

Energy is required to find, extract and transport raw materials as well as to manufacture and distribute the final products. This energy investment is known as the embodied or embedded energy of a product or process. Building materials that last longer and can be reused or recycled reduce the amount of ambient pollution and potential resources buried in landfills or burned as fuel. So, when choosing building materials, consider their embodied energy, their durability, what will become of each product after its useful life, and the following:
  • Choose to reuse/remodel existing buildings - while the "greenest building" is the one never built, the next greenest building is the one already built and reused!
  • For new construction, select the smallest building footprint that meets the needs of your building program for substantial savings on materials and ongoing utility and maintenance costs.
  • Consider showcasing internal building systems as part of the design - another way to save on materials that would normally be used to cover them, as well as a great way to educate building users/visitors about these usually hidden systems.
  • Plan for easy deconstruction, rather than demolition. Deconstruction allows the salvage and future reuse of valuable building materials.
  • Develop and implement a management plan for material overages or debris created during construction to divert material from disposal, i.e. donate remaining materials or use on the next job.
  • Choose durable materials with recycled content where possible, that are locally or regionally produced and/or are rapidly renewable.
  • Plan for occupant recycling in both residential and commercial structures, and include space for recycling bins and onsite composting.
  • Shop local reuse stores for gently-used furnishing, salvaged materials, novel fixtures and/or unique architectural details for your projects.
See more ideas in the Building Materials Alternatives page.

EPS foam applied to exterior OSB sheathing
to create a continuous thermal break and
add R-5 to the wall insulation. Courtesy of
Tacoma-Pierce County Habitat for Humanity.

Maximize Energy Efficiency and Use Renewable Energy

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 30 to 41 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption is attributed to buildings. Primary energy refers to all fuels or other forms of energy that are used to produce electricity or heat, whether from non-renewable and/or renewable energy sources. The generation and use of energy are major contributors to air pollution and global climate change.

A number of organizations and especially utilities are dedicated to the energy facet of green building, as it represents a profitable, yet relatively easy area to reduce costs for business and industry as well as environmentally. Energy efficiency starts with energy conservation, and by reducing building energy needs, immediate payback in lower utility bills is prompted. Less demand also means less infrastructure for utility companies to develop, keeping their costs lower, and allowing incentives to encourage more conservation.

Utilities are also adding renewables to their energy portfolios. Considered placement of solar panels, wind turbines, geo-exchange systems that use the relatively constant temperature of the ground below the frost line, and even wave and tidal generated power, can become viable alternatives to fossil-fuel-fired generating plants where site conditions allow.

Choosing to conserve energy and use renewables increases energy security within our country, and helps to mitigate our impact on local and global climate. Listed below are strategies to minimize electric loads whether building new, remodeling, or retrofitting existing buildings:
  • Passive solar building design involving building shape and orientation, overhangs on south windows, use of natural lighting and more.
  • Well-ventilated, thermally-efficient building envelopes (comprising the roof, exterior walls, insulation, rain-screen/radiant barrier, windows/doors, floor/basement/slab foundations)- see Passive House for information on exceptional building envelopes.
  • Properly sized and energy-efficient heating and cooling systems (as examples: look into the durability and performance of heat pumps, mini-splits, and radiant heating).
  • Energy-efficient appliances bearing the Energy Star® label.
  • Daylighting with light-shelves, skylights and other features, and supplementing with LED fixtures for task and ambient light
  • Occupancy/vacancy sensors that regulate lights, heating/cooling and some equipment when people are present or absent (in lieu of good habits like shutting off the lights or computers at day's end!).
  • Renewable energy purchase from your local utility (examples: Puget Sound Energy and Avista)
  • Onsite renewable energy generation (solar water heaters, photovoltaic systems, wind turbines, ground source heat pumps).

Green roof at The Columbian in
Vancouver, WA.

Safeguard Water and Water Efficiency

Most of Earth's water (± 97%) is contained in the oceans - and salty. Only a tiny percentage of the remaining fresh water is available as rain or from easily-reached streams, rivers or lakes. Add to that the uneven distribution of fresh water on the planet, exponential growth in human populations, and the ever-increasing paved and compacted surfaces and accompanying pollution we're creating, clean water is becoming an increasingly precious resource world-wide.

A surprising number of commercial and residential buildings use a sizable portion of their water budget for landscape irrigation and toilet flushing, while also wasting expensive municipal water through inefficient fixtures and leaks. Green building practices therefore place significant emphasis on reducing a project's water needs, using potable (safe-to-drink) water prudently, and re-using water (greywater and reclaimed water) for purposes other than drinking, bathing and cooking.

Savvy utilities and community leaders are educating more of us to realize the financial and health benefits in recognizing the true value of water in all its forms, along with the costs for its protection and the treating, delivery, and recovering infrastructure needed to have it conveniently piped to and from our homes and places of business. Low-flow fixtures and water-efficient appliances can dramatically reduce water use, while landscaping and irrigation choices will make a significant impact on a building's overall water consumption. While there are many more to choose from, consider the following water-saving strategies for your next building project:

Inside: Outside:
  • Develop your site using low-impact development strategies (for Western WA or for Eastern WA)
  • Landscape with drought-tolerant and/or native plants to eliminate or reduce irrigation.
  • Zone plants by water need and match irrigation delivery.
  • Explore subsurface micro or drip irrigation with greywater or reclaimed water.
  • Meter landscape irrigation separately and audit water consumption.
  • Harvest rainwater for use in irrigation or flushing toilets where permitted by law.
  • Detect and repair leaks regularly!

Low-VOC paints and
sealants. Strawbale home
in Spokane, WA.

Create High Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ)

Great indoor environments depend on the quality of the air, light, temperature, sound and sense of physical comfort and safety they contain. For business such environments also result in greater health and productivity from its most important asset - its people.

Indoor Air Quality

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that most of us spend approximately 90% of our time indoors, where measured pollution levels can run two (2) to five (5) times higher than outdoors. Much of this pollution originates from building materials and finishes chosen during construction (example: glues, paints and wood products often contain volatile organic compounds); the furniture, draperies and carpeting we select (example: many fabric goods are treated with toxic fire retardants), the cleaning products we use (more volatile gases and residues), and the bottoms of our shoes (where dust containing particles of pesticides, plasticizers, tire micro-fragments, mold spores, etc. can lodge). The first rule of good indoor air quality is: if you don't put it into the building, you won't have to remove it later. So where possible:
  • Plan and follow a construction indoor air quality management plan.
  • Implement and enforce a no-smoking policy during construction and post-occupancy.
  • Program sufficient air exchanges to maintain good air quality and control the level of moisture in the building to prevent mold growth.
  • Choose non-toxic building materials and finishes (like low-to-no-VOC paint and adhesives, sustainably-grown wood, local recycled-glass tile, etc.)
  • Research the soft goods (textiles, carpeting etc.) to be used in the building(s) and look for green product certifications.
  • Use safer, environmentally-friendly cleaning supplies like baking soda, vinegar and soap.
  • Service duct work and air filters regularly in forced-air systems.
  • Remove street shoes, especially in homes, or provide walk-off mats or install grids at entrances to greatly reduce particulate contamination inside.
  • Invest in a powerful HEPA-filtered vacuuming system that is centrally-located (or a well-built portable vacuum with HEPA filtering) and use frequently.
  • Add plants known to absorb certain gases and particulates to spaces that can accommodate their light and temperature needs - like golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum), peace lily (Spathiphyllum) and English Ivy (Hedera helix); besides better air quality, plants give a strong biophilic benefit or help to satisfy the innate human drive for connecting with other planetary life.

Lighting and Visual Comfort

Being able to see well in our buildings enhances our ability to work as well as relax. Our eyes have evolved to see best in daylight, which varies in intensity and color as the day progresses, and in situations when focal length changes from distant to close to distant. When visual environments accommodate these needs, greater productivity and well-being result.

A more recent challenge to visual comfort and lighting design is finding ways of dealing with viewing lit screens, best done in lowered light, versus illumination of paper that needs bright light. Use these strategies for superior indoor light:
  • Design, size and place windows, skylights and light shelves for maximum use of daylight and occupant views.
  • Choose artificial lighting with good color temperature and rendering.
  • Match colors to space functions and light levels present.
  • Select glazing, surfaces/finishes and furniture placement to minimize glare.
  • Use task lighting where computers and paperwork share space.
  • Consider art/photography displays that enhance focal length changes where outside views are unavailable.
  • Consult a lighting professional for commercial and multi-family projects.

Under-floor ventilation
"registers" spaced for
individual desk control
at Bellevue City Hall.

Thermal Comfort

Feeling comfortably warm or cool is a very individual thing and is a result not only of the temperature of the air, but the humidity level, the amount of air movement, the number and activities of people and equipment in the space, and the sense of control over these factors one has. Strategies to heighten thermal comfort follow.
  • Use tools like the psychrometric chart to better understand the interplay of the thermal aspects listed above and the thermal range desired.
  • Evaluate natural ventilation opportunities, which if practical, can also save on energy costs.
  • Specify operable windows where possible.
  • Explore the use of fans to circulate air and lessen the need for air conditioning.
  • Design for plenum or subfloor delivery with under-floor delivery systems if using forced air ventilation.
  • Consider radiant heating systems that heat masses, like people and objects, within the spaces they occupy, rather than the air, which is present in many spaces people aren't using (near ceiling, etc.).


Noise is an often overlooked, yet powerful factor in determining whether an environment is welcoming or harmful. We humans and our inventions, technology and cities can be incredibly noisy. In terms of sones and decibel levels, too little can make us anxious, and too much can irritate, deafen, sicken, and even kill us. Finding a "sound balance" can be facilitated by these strategies.
  • Insulate walls and floors well: sound follows air pathways, so where air leaks exist, there sound leaks as well.
  • Consider noise levels of mechanical devices; for example, select fans with a low sones rating.
  • Where quiet equipment choices are not possible, group and isolate noisy equipment (example: air-to-air heat pumps) from the workforce, visitors and neighbors.
  • Select finishes and furnishing that mute sound (example: wooden or concrete floors are often muffled by area rugs, carpeting, and floor padding).
  • Recognize that a number of us (± 30%) process information and learn auditorially; noise will impede this process and often results in mistakes, misunderstandings, increased stress levels, and lowered work output.
  • In open-office environments, offer noise-cancelling headphones, and provide acoustically secure rooms for private/sensitive calls or conversations.

Accessible kitchen for both wheelchairs and
walkers. Built Green® 5-Star Carr home in
Suncadia, Kittitas Co.


An erg is a unit of energy and nomos is Greek for "natural law". The discipline of ergonomics has been making our workplaces safer since 1949 and has became better known as our workplaces computerized in the 1980s and 1990s. Attention to the design, adjustability and placement of spaces, furniture, equipment, and people in relationship to each other provides an additional level of physical comfort and sense of safety that contributes to quality indoor environments.

Most of the strategies for IEQ already listed above are actually applied ergonomics: these two fields intertwine. Some additional points:
  • Specify adjustable settings in all office chairs and desks.
  • Install dimmable fixtures where possible and adjustable, dimmable task lighting.
  • Provide individual or area controls for ventilation, temperature, and light where possible.
  • Consider the psychological aspects and impacts of the workplace on those employed there, for they are the most expensive part of most business. Providing better environments and fostering more choice not only generates a greater sense of belonging, appreciation and loyalty, but also one of control, all of which help people relax, stay healthy and be more productive - nicely benefitting your bottom line: less mistakes, injuries, turnover and absenteeism; more output.
  • Keep an eye on trends like greener workplaces.
  • Consider implementing a flexible hours/work schedule program.

Green Jobs in Washington, Ecology Video

Another key principle of sustainable building is important to name here: the recognition that sustainable systems - especially in our complex built environments - are interdependent, and require whole-systems or integrated design for success. Please visit The Integrated Process page for more on this.

Finally, in addition to the environmental and human health benefits, the green building sector is contributing to the emerging green economy and creating what may become hundreds of "green jobs" in Washington. As energy costs climb and more emphasis is placed on climate change and adaption to it, on stormwater management, and on toxics reduction and mitigation, the importance of having well-trained trades people to build and retrofit buildings will become even more evident.