Clean Technology

Green Building Standards

This article was researched and written by students at Allegheny College participating in the Encyclopedia of Earth's (EoE) Student Science Communication Project. The project encourages students in undergraduate and graduate programs to write about timely scientific issues under close faculty guidance. All articles have been reviewed by internal EoE editors, and by independent experts on each topic.


Building standards have been around in the United States for nearly 100 years and have changed a great deal over time. Initially, policies were implemented to ensure the safety and adequate sanitary conditions for occupants and the public (from fire, electrical problems, sewage treatment, etc.) while more recently, emphasis has been placed on energy efficiency and sustainable buildings. The process for green buildings is ongoing and the movement has been a gradual process with much of it still evolving. That said, federal, state and local governments are grappling with ideas regarding building policies and the potential benefits to not only the people that use them but the environment in which the buildings exist.

Green Building and Energy Efficiency Policy History

United States green building policies developed not only as a result of environmental awareness, but also because of innovation driven by high energy prices. The first such instance came about during the Arab oil embargo which took place between October 1973 and March of 1974. Oil supplies were restricted to the point that energy rates skyrocketed and in turn, many governments considered means of avoiding such a situation again. In 1974, faced with high energy costs, California was the first state to pass legislation establishing energy standards. Following suit, in 1975, the first Federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act passed, providing money to states that implemented energy efficiency plans.

It was during this time that Standard 1975 was issued by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) was developed, also in response to the energy price and availability concerns of this time.  Over the years, this Standard has evolved to the current form of ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2007.  Standard 90.1 is is the basis of energy efficiency codes and regulations across the USA, and is also the basis from which energy efficiency is measured in LEED green building rating evaluations.  

Issues have varied over time, but more recently the catalyst for policies has come about as a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions from energy consumption, as well as land use practices such as deforestation. Federal, state and local governments have enacted policies to try and reduce energy consumption in buildings because they account for around 40 percent of all global carbon emissions.

Green Building Policy Goals

United Nations conferences in Rio (Brazil) and Johannesburg (South Africa) brought the issue of sustainability to the forefront in international circles. Subsequently the organization has defined goals that buildings should seek to achieve in order to obtain green building recognition. These six goals are:

  • Increase in reliability
  • Increase in indoor air quality
  • Decrease in natural resource use
  • Considerable decrease of energy costs over the lifetime of the building
  • Improving comfort due to improved energy efficiency in buildings.
  • Raise of employment as a result of increased activity in energy improvements in buildings.

These benefits can theoretically take care of any type of increase (typically 3-5%) in construction costs and making improvements will have a direct positive impact upon life-cycle costs.

The U.S. Green Building Council

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)

The U.S. Green Building Council is a non-profit organization that not only promotes green buildings, but rates buildings to give recognition to environmentally friendly structures. This organization developed a method for rating green buildings called The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system. This rates the performance of nine major aspects of a building:

  • Choosing of a sustainable site
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and the atmosphere
  • Materials and resources used
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Location and linkages into the community
  • Awareness and education
  • Innovation in design
  • Regional priority.

The rating in these categories reflects the score a building receives to determine if it is platinum, gold, silver, or LEED certified. This program provides a standard for green buildings and allows them to be compared to one another and benefits brought to the forefront. Many states require a building to be LEED certified if government funds are used. Colorado requires that a building be LEED certified if more than twenty five percent of the project cost come from state funds. Similarly, Florida requires all new government and college buildings to follow LEED or other green building rating systems. The LEED program is at the forefront of sustainable design within the United States. Similar organizations include the Green Globes Initiative, used predominantly in Canada, and the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), which is dominant in many other parts of the world.

ASHRAE Standard 189.1-2009 and the International Green Construction Code

The LEED program was originally intended as a voluntary, green building rating system.  Starting around 2005, localities and states began to require LEED certification for building projects within their juristiction.  The LEED program was not intended for this purpose, nor is the language really suitable for an enforceable building code.  To fill this gap, ASHRAE, in partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council and the Illumination Engineering Society (IES) joined together to created ANSI/ASHRAE/USGBC/IES Standard 189.1, "Standard for the Design of High-Performance Green Buildings".  This Standard has been accepted as an alternative juristinctional compliance option for the new International Green Construction Code (IGCC), in development by the International Code Council.  The IGCC and Standard 189.1-2009 are vehicles by which green building practices may become more widely adopted through mandatory requirements by local or state juristictions.

Government Involvement

Government Incentives

Through providing incentives and more demanding building codes for construction of new, green buildings, or renovation of existing, non-green buildings, federal, state and local governments seek to encourage and/or mandate green standards. Governments seek to achieve full participation through a multitude of ways.

Existing incentive programs include, expedited review/faster permitting processes which lower the amount of time it takes to receive a building permit (saving money). Density bonuses, which allow green buildings to stand out from regular buildings by exempting them from some permitting laws. This can include an increase in floor area ratio or the height of the building, allowing more space to be rented out. Tax credits and abatements may be made available to allow the owner of a green building to be able to lower taxes or be exempt from paying taxes for a certain amount of time. Fee reductions and waivers disregard fees associated with permitting processes. Grants may also be given out by the government as revolving loan funds which provide developers with low interest loans. Technical assistance and marketing assistance can be provided in the form of free expert advice and advertising.

Although these monetary outputs are withdrawing money from public funds, there is a monetary gain in the long run. These policies result in increased property values, taxbase, and an improved reputation which may lead to population and tax revenue increase.

Federal Government

The federal government has encouraged green building through investment and the devotion of resources that are meant to help the builder and occupants alike. One of the earliest federal incentive programs for energy efficiency in building designs came about in 1994 with the introduction of the Energy Star program. Green building policies apply to virtually all new buildings constructed by the federal government including the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Army and Navy, among others, that require all new buildings to meet a certain LEED standard.

The federal government has also developed policies benefitting federal, state and private interests. The federal government has designated $4.5 billion to the construction and retrofitting of federal buildings in a way that will have the greatest positive impact on efficiency and $3.1 billion to states to encourage the construction of and retrofitting to create green buildings. This money is provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Financial assistance from the Department of Energy to businesses that wish to increase their use of renewable energy is available. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 establishes tax credits for energy efficient home improvements, efficient automobiles and installation of solar panels and fuel cells.

State Government

State governments provide many incentives to green building owners and builders. Hawaii recently passed a bill requiring faster permitting processes to LEED buildings certified at silver or higher. Maryland, New Mexico, New York, and Oregon all have tax credits available at different amounts corresponding to different levels of LEED certification. Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Washington offer grants that correlate with the LEED certification level mainly for schools but also for the construction of new homes and renovation of existing homes. 34 states have LEED requirements for their government buildings. Many states also provide economic incentives to the private sector to encourage green building construction. New York recently enacted a program that pays for the upfront costs of energy improvisions, such as solar panels, and allows the individual to pay over fifteen to twenty years through increased property taxes. California recently passed Bill AB 920 which instructs utility companies to pay households that act as energy producers instead of consumers. Other examples include, California’s Emerging Renewables Rebate Program, New Jersey’s Smart Future Planning Grant, and Massachusetts’ Renewable Energy Trust, among others.

Local Government

Local governments throughout the United States are also enacting programs to encourage the construction of green buildings in the private and public sector. Nearly 200 cities in the U.S. have adopted LEED standards for their government buildings. Many cities offer economic, government funded incentives for the construction of green buildings. Berkley, California has instituted a program which accelerates the benefits of photovoltaics to the investor through loans that can be repaid over twenty years. These low payments make solar power more attractive to the average consumer. Public governments are supporting green projects not only by providing favorable financing programs, but offering logistic support. Oakland, California is providing technical assistance, building guidelines, and promotion for free to green buildings. Many other cities are supporting green standards such as Arlington, Virginia’s Green Building Incentive Program, Austin, Texas’ Energy’s Green Building Program, and Portland, Oregon’s Green Investment Fund.




Hedin, B., & Abbott, J. (2013). Green Building Standards. Retrieved from