BA-0801: Towards Sustainability—Green Building, Sustainability Objectives, and Building America Whole House Systems Research

Effective Date

This paper discusses Building America whole house systems research within the broad effort to reduce or eliminate the environmental impact of building and provides specific recommendations for future Building America research based on Building Science Corporation’s experience with several recent projects involving green home building programs. The four main recommendations include understanding the context, maintaining objectivity, engaging builders in green home building activity, and broadening scope. With due consideration given to these recommendations, Building America research is found to be well positioned to derive mutual benefits from continued involvement with green building programs to move the residential housing industry towards sustainability.


Executive Summary

This paper discusses Building America whole house systems research within the broad effort to reduce or eliminate the environmental impact of building and provides specific recommendations for future Building America research based on Building Science Corporation's experience with several recent projects involving green home building programs.

Part 1, "Green Building and Sustainability," offers a working distinction between the terms 'green' and 'sustainable,' and identifies a framework of green building objectives. Building America research is then compared to national green building programs based on these green building objectives. Although Building America research goals are found to not address some aspects of green building, the program is found to excel in core areas including energy efficiency, durability and indoor environmental quality. Further, the program is characterized as 'very progressive' with regards to longer-term sustainability objectives based on its commitment to rigorous research; focus on industry transformation; and study of the environmental impact of energy use in a broad context.

Part 2, "Green Building and Building America Whole House Systems Research," discusses BSC's past experience and current projects involving one national green building program. Eight observations with relevance for future work involving green building programs are put forward:

  1. Building America research goals do not address all green building objectives
  2. Green building objectives should be addressed as early as possible in the design process
  3. Green goals can assist project visibility
  4. Building America research enables green building
  5. Collaborative efforts with green building programs can encourage market transformation
  6. Conflicting project goals must be managed
  7. Maintaining objectivity and neutrality in technical recommendations may be difficult
  8. Green building programs can offer an effective method of on-site quality assurance

Following these observations, four primary recommendations are made:

  1. Understand the context – Building America teams should be aware of how their research efforts relate all major green building programs and, most importantly, to the sustainable design objectives outlined in Part 1.
  2. Maintain objectivity – A clear view of Building America research goals must be maintained despite the apparent compatibility with major green building programs.
  3. Engage builders in green home building activity – Despite the likely challenges, Building America teams should use green building programs to secure builder commitment to advanced research and promote project visibility.
  4. Broaden scope – While emphasizing a depth of knowledge and experience, Building America teams should be open about the limited scope of BA research goals and seek to support the same rigorous approach in other areas of green building activity.

With due consideration given to the recommendations above, Building America research is found to be well positioned to derive mutual benefits from continued involvement with green building programs to move the residential housing industry towards sustainability.

Overview and Task Description

The Subcontractor shall prepare at least three technical papers for submission to an appropriate major technical conference or journal, describing the team’s overall results from whole-house systems engineering research studies. The paper shall discuss the most promising advanced building system approaches to achieve 40-50% savings in residential space conditioning, hot water, and lighting loads relative to the Benchmark. The paper shall clearly identify the appropriate climate, building type, and building systems addressed by the recommendations. The paper shall summarize the building science knowledge and quality control tools that are required to successfully implement building design recommendations. The paper shall include examples of successful system solutions, examples of common mistakes to be avoided, and basic information about the potential impacts of making changes in the example solutions. The paper may be distributed through the DOE Building America Program Internet web site and hard copy format. The papers shall be delivered directly to the NREL Technical Monitor for peer review at least two weeks before the conference or journal submission deadline.


Green building is becoming part of daily life in the residential construction industry. Over the past few years, the industry has seen a nationwide surge in green building programs for new housing. Consumers are being educated about the benefits of green building; product manufacturers are increasingly aware of the environmental benefits of their products; builders are learning about new techniques and technologies that purport to reduce environmental impact; and lenders, insurers, municipalities, code officials and design professionals are reinterpreting their roles in terms of green design objectives. Green building is growing up in the United States.

Such widespread change often creates uncertainty - knowing what to ask for and what to provide is a challenge. Homeowners’ concern for green building issues is becoming more intense and sophisticated as their knowledge of environmental problems and possible solutions increases. Unlike mature industry products, however, residential green buildings are not themselves readymade, tested and accepted. Builders must sell the environmental attributes of their products inside the market conditions established by consumer demand while at the same time adjusting methods of design, procurement and construction to meet changing standards. Green building is risky business.

Such widespread change and the associated risks, of course, also create opportunity. The combination of a changing marketplace and “external” ecological and social imperatives presents the residential construction industry with an opportunity to offer a new, valuable contribution to society and to make the internal changes to do so in a profitable way. Moreover, a rigorous understanding of environmental issues and the known responses to them is likely to be required if the United States is to address the current environmental problems in a meaningful and timely way.

For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building America research program has been working at the center of efforts to shepherd in this transformation of the residential building industry. Under the mantle “Research Towards Zero Energy” there has been a strong overlap between the program’s research objectives and the fundamental concerns of the green building movement – key green concepts like energy and resource efficiency, durability and indoor air quality are core components of the Building America program. Building America interdisciplinary research teams have been leaders in developing knowledge and experience in these areas and communicating the results to a nationwide audience in the residential homebuilding industry.

This paper first discusses the broad context for action to reduce or eliminate the environmental impact of building, making distinctions between the terms ‘green building’ and ‘sustainable building,’ and providing a framework for understanding the many and overlapping environmental issues. National and international green building programs—including the Building America research program—are then compared on “building-related” issues and discussed relative to sustainability objectives.

In the second part of the paper, future considerations for integrating other fundamental sustainable building concerns into Building America research are discussed with recent Building Science Corporation Building America research as examples. Building America whole house research is described as being both well positioned to support sustainable building and limited in scope relative to several national green building programs.

Part 1: Green Building and Sustainability

1.1: Understanding Green Building and Sustainability

The terms ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ are often used interchangeably but there are fundamental differences between them. In a clear understanding of these differences lies the key to understanding the broad range of theories, agendas, programs, regulations, technologies, and techniques that are confusingly put together under the mantle of ‘sustainable building.’

In its most general sense, ‘green building’ is a label for the process of design and construction which aims to produce buildings that are less damaging to the environment—and the people that use them—than most buildings currently built today. These buildings must be measurably less damaging in significant ways of course, and unfortunately there are many examples of ‘green’ buildings that purport to be less damaging without supporting measurements, or that otherwise claim to be have integrated environmental concerns without addressing the most significant issues.

‘Sustainable building,’ however, refers more precisely to the goal of designing and constructing buildings that have no net impact on the environment, such that a total built environment composed of similar buildings could co-exist with the world’s ecological balance indefinitely.

Green building, then, focuses on incremental steps to solve known and measurable problems with our current practice, whereas sustainable building seeks models for an unidentified future state of society. Each term describes a distinct approach. Most of the environmentally responsible construction practiced today falls into the first category – we have few if any examples of sustainable buildings according to the above definition.

There are two important details that explain confusion about the fundamental difference between ‘green’ and ‘sustainable.’ The first is that environmental action as a whole is made up of many varied and sometimes competing objectives, which are pursued by different people or groups, according to different timeframes, and under different conceptions of the environmental problem itself. The second is that the environmental problem addressed by ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ design is really an amalgam of issues, each affecting our society on different levels from the global to the personal, each therefore considered more or less important by different people, and each one more or less well understood in its internal complexities and external interactions.

Common misconceptions about the purpose of sustainable building efforts in the residential building industry and marketplace can be attributed to this lack of clarity about objectives. Understanding these competing objectives and concerns is a therefore necessary part of understanding how to do ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ design. A framework to help unwind these issues is discussed in the following section.

1.2: The Ecological Crisis and Environmental Concerns

The major environmental concerns that relate to sustainable building, along with the groups having special interest, are listed in Table 1.1 below. While each concern impacts the others in some way, and although each group listed may have multiple areas of interest, the concerns presented tend to be treated by these groups as emblematic of their purpose. . .

Download complete report here.