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Primary Research: Green Architecture: Moving Toward a Cleaner Future

Political science student Madyson Brown discusses existing standards for sustainable buildings and how these standards can be encouraged and expanded upon.

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As urban areas in the United States continue to expand, there is a growing need to collect data on the impact of high population densities on the environment. While urban areas tend to have higher CO2 emissions per capita, studies have shown that people living in these areas have lower CO2 emissions than their suburban and rural counterparts (Griffith, 13). This is important to consider as we strive towards achieving a net-zero world. By increasing urban populations, we have the potential to reduce CO2 emissions, but only if we ensure that buildings in which people live and work are sustainable.  

One approach to achieve sustainability in buildings is through green architecture, particularly in commercial buildings. Sustainable measures such as high-performance insulation, energy-efficient lighting, energy-efficient heating, and cooling systems, alongside renewable energy sources like solar and wind, can drastically improve a building's energy efficiency and reduce its carbon footprint. The integration of green architecture in commercial buildings serves as a great first step toward creating a net-zero world. However, questions arise regarding the feasibility of making these changes and their substantial effects on the clean energy transition. 

While the literature on sustainable technologies in urban commercial buildings is extensive, several key findings have emerged. Firstly, energy efficiency is a key factor in determining sustainability. Secondly, standards for sustainable buildings vary between countries, with the US being more lenient than others. Finally, through the implementation of appropriate policy initiatives, sustainable commercial buildings can be expanded using existing technologies at a reasonable cost.  

The Need for Energy Efficiency  

A recurring finding across various literature in this field is that the first step towards enhancing a building’s sustainability, whether in retrofitting or in new builds, is to ensure it is highly energy efficient.

Often overlooked, energy efficiency is the 'invisible resource,' vital to the success of the clean energy transition."


Madyson Brown

Political Science Student, School of Public Affairs

By increasing the energy efficiency of commercial buildings, one is not only creating a more sustainable building but also decreasing the utility costs for business owners. Improving energy efficiency can be achieved through a range of measures, including upgrading building insulation, replacing outdated equipment with energy-efficient alternatives, and implementing energy-saving practices, such as turning off lights and unplugging electronics when they are not in use. These steps can lead to significant reductions in energy consumption and help support the integration of renewable energy sources. 

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency can also have a positive impact on our economy through the creation of jobs in the clean energy sector that support economic growth. According to a study by Joshua Kneifel, “conventional energy efficiency technologies can be used to decrease energy use in new commercial buildings by 20 to 30 percent on average and up to over 40 percent for some building types and locations.” (Kneifel, 32). This study further concluded that these increased efficiency rates led to a 16 percent decrease in the emissions produced by that building. 

Sustainable, specifically energy-efficient, buildings also offer economic benefits. One study found that green buildings “achieve superior rents and sustain significantly higher occupancy” (Wiley et al.). There was a significant premium for the selling price of Energy Star-labeled and LEED-certified properties which represent a generally high performance on the rental and purchasing market. Furthermore, integrating energy-efficient processes, technologies, and appliances reduces the amount of energy required to perform tasks. This means that companies in commercial sustainable buildings will pay less to accomplish the same tasks.  

US v Foreign Green Buildings  

A stark fact that appears in the existing literature is that the US policy regarding green architecture does not match the standards set by other countries.

The clean energy transition is a global problem that all countries are going to need to contribute to."


Madyson Brown

Political Science Student, School of Public Affairs

With the United States being a highly developed country, it is important that the US take the lead in promoting sustainable initiatives whenever possible. However, reports show that US building regulations are severely lacking. The US Green Building Council has a set of regulations called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Standards that are “critical to addressing climate change and meeting ESG goals. (USGBC)’’ LEED certification is seen as one of the main sources of verification for green architecture in this country (Kubba). To become LEED certified, a building earns points “by adhering to prerequisites and credits that address carbon, energy, water, waste, transportation, materials, health and indoor environmental quality.” Those points are then added up to determine which level of LEED-certified that building can attain. One study examined 953 office buildings in New York City to determine how certified LEED buildings (at all levels) measure up against other NYC office buildings. The findings revealed that LEED-Gold-certified buildings outperformed the comparable office buildings by 20 percent. On the contrary, LEED Silver and Certified office buildings underperformed other NYC office buildings because their lower performance standards fall below current practices. (Scofield)  

Globally, there are many ways for buildings to become green-certified. The Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) Standards, established in the UK in 1990, are recognized worldwide. These standards are based on qualitative measurements, unlike the percentage-based LEED Standards, making them harder and more rigorous to meet. Additionally, the Three Star Building Standards, used in China, only grant the proposed building a green certification a year after completion to confirm the required energy efficiency has truly been achieved. Another notable standard is the Passive House standard, which originated in Germany and has been adopted by several other countries. Passive House buildings are designed for extreme energy-efficiency, focusing on minimizing energy use for heating and cooling. There are also several standards that do not function as rating systems but rather as goals and recommendations, such as ISO 14001, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the World Green Building Council's Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment.  

In terms of the efficacy of these standards, goals, and systems, the numbers speak for themselves. The Smart Market Report on World Green Building Trends (2021) breaks down the use of green products and services in green buildings by country. While the US does a great job of incorporating green mechanical products and services, they are starting to fall behind every other country regarding green building automation systems, waste management, and general furnishings. Globally, green certification standards are a uniform practice, but the technical details of each set of standards vary.  The US LEED Standards, while a step forward compared to having no standards in place, have a long way to go before they make our commercial buildings completely environmentally sustainable.  

Policy Initiatives  

There are numerous ways in which policies can affect our day-to-day lives, and green buildings are not an exception. As climate change is frequently discussed in our state, local, and federal governments, many green policy initiatives have been recommended and implemented. These policies generally fall into four categories concerning green architecture: mandates, financial incentives, market creation, and information disclosure.  

Mandates are pieces of legislation that require the general populace of an area to change their behavior to fit whatever the goal of the legislation is. The US has implemented several mandates related to green architecture. One such mandatory requirement is the International Code Council's 2012 International Green Construction Code, which is a mandatory requirement that has strict guidelines regarding a building’s energy efficiency, water efficiency, materials and resource use, indoor environmental quality, emissions, and operations/maintenance. Several states have gone even further by creating their own mandates like California’s Green Building Standards Code, also known as CALGreen, which has goals of “reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, promoting environmentally responsible, cost-effective, healthier places to live and work, reducing energy and water consumption, and responding to the environmental directives of the administration.” (CALGREEN Code). When implemented, these standards were voluntary but have since become mandatory as the code has been updated. In Colorado, Democratic lawmakers have passed legislation, known as the Colorado Green Building Ordinance, that requires new commercial buildings to be built in regulation with a set of standards that limit the amount of fossil fuel combustion. Notably, California and Colorado rank fourth and seventh respectively in the nation’s green architecture ratings.  

Financial incentives are pieces of legislation that are not mandatory and create a reward system to alter the general populace’s behavior.

The bigger the incentive, the more likely the behavior will change."


Madyson Brown

Political Science Student, School of Public Affairs

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has instituted many financial incentives for green architecture design that will be in place for the next ten years. Commercial buildings can receive $2.50 to $5 per square foot for efficiency improvements that meet a certain threshold.  

Furthermore, all property owners installing rooftop solar, energy storage systems, or EV charging can benefit from a tax credit refunding 30 percent or more of their investment. These incentives were made available when the Inflation Reduction Act was put into effect in January of 2023. The Inflation Reduction Act has gone beyond just tax incentives to also include billions of dollars in grants, rebates, low-cost loans, and other financing. Among many other buildings-related provisions, there is $1 billion from Housing and Urban Development for efficiency and clean energy improvements to affordable housing and a $27 billion national green bank program at the EPA.” (Evans, USGBC IRA Update). The Inflation Reduction Act has also allotted $1 billion in grants for states that adopt updated green building codes at the level of the current International Energy Conservation Code (a model building code that sets minimum efficiency standards in new construction for a structure's walls, floors, ceilings, lighting, windows, doors, duct leakage, and air leakage) or above. 

Market Creation is a type of policy initiative in which a piece of legislation is enacted that requires federal, state, or local governments to stimulate a specific economic sector to promote the economic growth and the implementation of those technologies. Most technologies start out heavily funded by the government until their market grows large enough to reach the private sector. This is where technologies approach the “valley of death.” This concept describes when technology does not receive much government funding or artificial market stimulation and is trying to become profitable in the private sector. If it cannot become profitable on its own, the technology stops growing and “dies” out. Therefore, the artificial market stimulation provided by the market creation policies is crucial to helping new technologies.  

In December of 2021, President Biden signed an executive order which has worked to stimulate the green architecture markets. This executive order instructs the federal government to adhere to specific standards like prioritizing the purchase of sustainable products and achieving 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity use by 2030. Federal buildings will also need to meet a net-zero emissions goal by 2045. By implementing all these standards and more, this executive order works to make the federal buildings more sustainable through their purchasing power, which boosts the economics of green architecture technologies and places them in more demand. When companies see this demand, they will work on creating their own versions to compete and will likely work to improve those technologies. Therein lies the shift between the government-funded stage of green architecture technologies to privately owned and created green architecture technologies.  

Finally, a great policy initiative that would improve our green architecture rates in America is the disclosure of information and the education of information regarding available technologies.

Everyone, from students in STEM classrooms to shareholders of large companies, should be actively aware of the opportunities of green technology and how they can be applied to commercial and residential buildings."


Madyson Brown

Political Science Student, School of Public Affairs

If people are not actively aware of their options, including the potential benefits and drawbacks of those options, widespread implementation of these technologies remains unattainable. 

Overall, we will need a balanced mix of different types of policy initiatives to boost the rates of green buildings created in the US While specific mandates have been proven to work well and are effective on their own, they are even more effective when paired with voluntary transitions from people who can be incentivized through tax breaks. Tax breaks are also effective on their own but can be more effective by stimulating the market, which leads to more improved and affordable technologies. All these measures are more successful when the public has knowledge about why these changes are happening in addition to how they can benefit from them financially and socially. Government policy is essential in speeding up the construction rates of green buildings, which will be beneficial to the broader clean energy transition.  

DC as a Case Study  

Washington, DC serves as a great example of the positive benefits available to a major US city when the recommended policies above are implemented.  Mandate-type policies that have been implemented in Washington, DC include the Green Building Act of 2006 and the Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) Act of 2008. The Green Building Act of 2006 requires all new construction and major renovation projects of government-owned buildings over 10,000 square feet to meet specific green building standards such as LEED certification or an equivalent standard. The Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) Act of 2008 established the SEU, a program that provides incentives and assistance to building owners and operators to improve energy efficiency and promote renewable energy use. These laws have helped to reduce the amount of energy needed to power buildings and thus reduce the amount of CO2 emitted from energy production. According to data from the Sustainable DC Plan, a long-term sustainability plan launched by the city in 2012, Washington, DC has made significant progress in reducing its CO2 emissions.  

Washington, DC has implemented the Green Building Fund Grant Program, a financial incentive program that provides grants to support the implementation of energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable building practices in the city. These grants are intended to encourage building owners, developers, and architects to pursue sustainable building practices and reduce the environmental impact of buildings in the city. The Green Building Fund Grant Program provides funding for projects that meet specific green building criteria, such as achieving a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification or equivalent, reducing energy consumption by a certain percentage, or implementing green infrastructure practices. Qualifying projects can receive grants of up to $200,000. The program has several specific goals, including promoting renewable energy sources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and conserving water resources. 

The city has also implemented The Clean Energy DC Building Code Amendment Act of 2022, a market creation policy that not only created new regulations for buildings but also amended the Green Building Act of 2006 to expand the permissible uses of money in the Green Building Fund. By doing so, construction companies were given more options to receive funding, thereby stimulating, and expanding the green technology market. In addition to stimulating the markets for green technology, this act also incorporated the policy initiative of information disclosure and education. Specifically, commercial companies are required to conduct sustainability audits every three years. This creates the opportunity for companies to gain new information about the latest green technologies, which is important in a rapidly expanding field. By requiring companies to disclose information about their sustainability practices, the government can encourage transparency and accountability in the business sector.

Washington, DC is known for its commitment to sustainability and green architecture. This dedication has attracted investment and encouraged innovation in renewable energy and other clean technologies."


Madyson Brown

Political Science Student, School of Public Affairs

For example, the city has been ranked as one of the top ten cities in the US for solar power. In addition, the city has been recognized for its leadership in green building and sustainability by organizations such as the US Green Building Council. 

By implementing green architecture laws, Washington, DC has played a significant role in reducing the city's CO2 emissions, promoting sustainability, and attracting investment and innovation in clean technologies. 


Green architecture offers a promising path toward a sustainable and environmentally conscious future. By emphasizing energy efficiency, resource conservation, and waste and pollution reduction, green buildings can significantly reduce their negative impact on the planet.  

The academic conversation around green architecture is expansive and has several recurring themes. One of the primary themes is the importance of energy efficiency in the clean energy transition. This involves using energy-efficient technologies and systems in commercial buildings to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. Not only does this benefit the environment, but it can also result in cost savings for building owners and tenants. Another recurring theme is the variability of green building standards around the world. While the United States is a leader in green architecture, the standards for a "green building" can differ significantly depending on geographic location and cultural factors. It is important to expand and make green building standards more rigorous to truly achieve clean, sustainable buildings. Policy initiatives can also play a significant role in the expansion of green architecture. Local, state, and federal governments can adopt measures such as tax incentives, building codes, and green procurement policies to incentivize and promote sustainable building practices. Case studies, such as the laws in Washington, DC, demonstrate the positive impact that sustainable architecture can have on human health, worker productivity, and the environment.  

As the world continues to face environmental challenges, the adoption of green architecture principles can play a crucial role in mitigating climate change and creating a better future for all. By prioritizing sustainable practices in construction and building operations, we can reduce our negative impact on the planet and promote a more sustainable, healthy, and equitable future. 


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