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Green Building at the Tipping Point

2008 June 25

About the author: Ken Sandler is Co-Chair of EPA’s Green Building Workgroup. He has worked for EPA since 1991 on sustainability issues including green building, recycling and indoor air quality.

At EPA, we strive to help people make the environment part of their everyday decisions. But how can we tell when we’re succeeding?

In truth, we often can’t. But sometimes the evidence of change is hard to miss.

Take green building (Web site or video) – making buildings and their sites better for the environment and health. It’s an issue on which I’ve worked for a decade, and I’m now leading efforts to establish a new EPA strategy on the subject.

Yet for years, I would draw blank stares when mentioning “green building” in conversation. Some people would even ask if it meant painting buildings green.

And then, suddenly, nearly everyone had heard of it. My Dad was sending me articles on green building from Newsweek. I would mention it at a barbecue and people would come up to me and say, yes, we’re looking to green our homes, tell us how!

Green building seems to have reached its tipping point. But how do such things happen? If there’s a formula to make sustainable practices bloom, we’d like to get our hands on it.

In fact, we’ve seen such phenomena before. Take recycling. In 1988, only 1,000 communities in America had curbside recycling. Just 8 years later, that number had leaped to 9,000. Why? One reason was that in 1989, responding to public concern, EPA set a goal for the US to recycle 25% of its municipal waste.

This helped set off a competition among states to set their own recycling goals. In response, systems were established to recycle a variety of materials. The engine of recycling got going – and keeps on humming.

With green building, the story is different. Since the early 1990s, EPA has successfully pushed voluntary programs covering many aspects of the built environment – energy, water, indoor air quality, products, waste, smart growth and more. Other groups began to put these pieces together in holistic, market-based programs.

The U.S. Green Building Council, a leading non-profit, has its own eye-popping numbers on the transformation they helped bring about. From 2000 to the present, their member organizations went from 570 to over 15,000, the number of buildings registering to use their LEED green building rating system from 45 to 21,000.

So does this mean our work is done? Hardly. The green building field has needs that range from research to stronger standards to more public education and partnerships. We plan to work with a wide variety of groups to help tackle all of these challenges.

But there are many advantages to reaching a tipping point. Those years of struggling in obscurity have given way to lots of new doors opening up. And it’s nice to get fewer blank stares at parties.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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29 Responses leave one →
  1. Claire Wilkinson permalink
    June 25, 2008

    As the Environmental Protection Agency, I would think the EPA works to protect the environmnent and the flora and fauna in the environment. If this indeed the case, I would like to urge the EPA to stop testing on animals and/or requesting that others test on animals.

    Animal tests are scientifically unreliable, expensive, time-consuming, and hopelessly outdated. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the government’s own scientific advisory body, published a landmark report last spring that states just this—and recommends switching to non–animal tests.

    This above and beyond the fact that testing on animals is cruel and inhumane. Gandhi said the the greatness of a nation can be judged by the way it treats its animals. The United States cannot claim to be a great nation while allowing – and even requiring – this kind of suffering and torture to continue.

    Please ban animal testing and switch to more effective, more economical, more reliable and more humane non-animal testing.

    Thank you.

  2. Art Gibert, RLA permalink
    July 8, 2008

    Mr. Sandler,

    Thank you for your concern for the environment and the effects that site development and building construction can have on it. Thanks also for your efforts to educate on the positive opportunities that green building can offer.

    As you point out, a tipping point may have been reached. There are investors starting to get interested, and I think this is one of the factors in any sea change (at least, in this country). In my view, there’s nothing wrong with making money on a good idea as long as it doesn’t get “hijacked” and patented by someone that intends to corner the market and take a profit on everyone else’s hard work.

    Along similar lines, the conversation about environmental issues also can get “hijacked” by others with their own agendas. These may be legitimate issues in their own right, but have no particular relevance to the issue at hand. Such is the case with the comment from Wilkerson. This person could more productively contribute to this conversation by discussing the many benefits to animals that could result from cleaner, greener, leaner development practices. Development, construction and operation of buildings consumes up to (estimates vary) 50% of the energy and 20% of the water used in this country. Since this translates into a host of environmental issues, it stands to reason that animals as a group would be one of the beneficiaries of better building practices.

    I think another major tipping point in reaching toward greener building is the commitment of a growing proportion of young people and workers of all ages to change the wasteful ways of this society. No need to preach on this topic- the numbers and level of dialogue in the “mainstream” media speak for themselves. Everyone is complaining about their costs for gas, and then wasting it circling the parking lot looking for a good parking space at the gym! But there are many who see the silliness of this and are serious about making changes in their lifestyles.

    So, I agree that efforts must be made to reach out to and educate students whose environmental footprint will be with us for a very long time. Clearly, one of the best ways to do this is through the institutions of learning themselves, by making their buildings into examples of best building practices. I would suggest that EPA and the US Department of Education require all schools built from now on to be LEED-certified to at least Silver, if not Gold level. This would be an investment in the nation’s future in several connected ways, since LEED-certified buildings also contribute to better academic achievements.

    Keep up the good work at EPA.
    Thank you.

  3. Jamie permalink
    July 18, 2008

    Green building doesn’t stop once the construction is complete. Regular upkeep and daily cleaning activities need to be designed around reducing the need for harmful cleaning chemicals, which cause disease and have adverse effects on the environment. Natural cleaning forums are out there, like, as well as a number of products to promote green cleaning.

  4. Charles permalink
    July 23, 2008

    I am working with a homebuilder right now called - name removed by editor; please don’t advertise specific products or services -. I am so impressed by how much they care about being a Green builder. I never knew there were so many options that would help from the walls and insulation to the roof and shingles. Their heating and cooling systems were very efficient and I have looked at a lot of other builders. With the way the economy is they have a promotion they are making my payments for the first year too while I sell my existing home. I was really impressed so I thought I would share. I wish more homebuilders were thinking Green as much as - name removed by editor -.

  5. Ken Sandler permalink
    July 25, 2008

    Dear Mr. Gilbert:

    Thank you very much for your support. EPA and a lot of other groups are are very interested in environmental education and greening our schools. Please check out our Healthy School Environments page at for more info.

  6. Ken Sandler permalink
    July 25, 2008

    Reposting web address:

  7. Ken Sandler permalink
    July 25, 2008

    Dear Jamie:

    It is very true that how you operate and maintain a home or other building will determine how green it remains. For example, just changing furnace filters regularly can improve both your energy efficiency and your indoor air quality. Another example is maintaining the integrity of your roof and walls, to avoid both air leaks, which can compromise energy efficiency, and water leaks, which can lead to indoor mold, a major health threat.

  8. Otto permalink
    September 4, 2008

    Talking about green building lets not forget about green sure painting, the optimal green coatings should minimize the impact on air quality. It’s all about avoiding volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are what you smell when you paint and after. The fewer VOCs you have in your paint the better. Common VOC’s are benzene, ethylene glycol, vinyl chloride and mercury. You don’t need to be a chemist to know these chemicals are bad for you! They cause smog, ozone pollution, and indoor air quality problems with negative health effects.

  9. Hulia permalink
    September 23, 2008

    This blog “GREENVERSATION” is useful to all the people who is going to builld a new dream house for their wife or for their parents, etc., Well Done!!!!!!


    Sreevysh Corp

  10. Lacey Greathead permalink
    February 5, 2009

    Dear EPA Greenversations,

    I am a graduate student from the University of Miami in an Environmental Health Course. I noticed that there has been much buzz in your category “green building.” This topic hits near and dear to my heart, as I am a full supporter of green building and also work in a “green building”—quotation marks because the building was actually intended to be one of the greenest buildings in Miami, yet many of us who work here beg to differ (there is no way to turn off the lights and so they pretty much stay on all the time, the air conditioning in uncontrollably cold, and the overall functioning of the building, we believe, did not turn out as planned). I am curious if you all believe, with the new administration and Obama’s push for using alternate energy and reducing carbon emissions, should building codes become stricter and should there be an overall watchdog agency to see that these new “green buildings” adhere to protocols and standards, as to not waste money attempting to be green (as is the case of my office building). Is this a good and feasible direction for the area of green building? If not, what are the next steps we can expect to see?

    Best regards,

    Lacey Greathead
    Masters of Public Health Candidate
    Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami

  11. Top SEO permalink
    May 18, 2009

    Link building requires expertise and experience as well. With Topseotech services, you will not only see improvement in the link popularity of your site but our team will also track and manage back links. Just having a huge number of back links is not sufficient. There are qualifiers that can differentiate between a relevant link and an irrelevant one. So, its important to get the relevant back links for your site to give it more credibility.
    Top SEO, Link Building

  12. Miami SEO permalink
    July 22, 2009

    A long time supporter of the epa, I fully support the Green Building and Environmental education. Greening our Miami SEO Schools is paramount. Everyday is Earth Day

  13. eBusinessGov.Com permalink
    September 1, 2009

    We want to build a green building at Indonesia. The problem is finance source. Could you please tell us, where to get it to support our project?


  14. Green Buildings Advocate permalink
    October 14, 2009

    Great article. Going green is a huge part of the world today, and it is very important to pursue green projects. In order for a successful going green campaign, there needs to be participation from everyone, and the smaller projects such as where a person lives is bigger and more powerful than bigger projects.

    My company works to find and promote green building in NYC.

  15. James Parker permalink
    November 22, 2009

    I am a huge supporter of the Green Building and Environmental education. It is so important to educate the world today and you are doing a fine job with your site. A great tool to assist with generating traffic to your site and increasing environmental awareness is the SEO Training System explained in the Web 2 Mayhem Review

  16. Joe permalink
    December 11, 2009

    I was just now searching for about this when I came by your post. I’m simply visiting to say that I very much liked seeing this post, it is very clear and well written. Are you going to blog more on this? It seems like there’s more material here for future posts.

  17. Royal permalink
    December 28, 2009

    WE celebrate earth day here in our country and personally company too.
    SEO NEPAL has began it’s celebration for about 3 years now.

  18. Suzette Cardozo permalink
    January 14, 2010

    Our company is a huge supporter of the EPA as well as Green Building and Environmental education. We donate over a million yearly to research.

  19. Suzette Cardozo permalink
    January 16, 2010

    Our company is a huge supporter of the EPA as well as Green Building and Environmental education. We donate over a million yearly to research.

  20. Suzie permalink
    January 22, 2010

    Very good article, it is so important to support the green buildings as well as bio fuels and all aspects of lessoning our carbon footprint.
    We also need to ensure everyone is educated on this. Great post.

  21. Joydip@website-development permalink
    August 25, 2010

    This blog “GREENVERSATION” is useful to all the people who is going to build a new dream house for their wife or for their parents, etc., Well Done!!!!!!

  22. Kevin Megan permalink
    September 16, 2010

    do they do these? how did you know it sir?

  23. Kevin Megan permalink
    September 16, 2010

    I think these is excellent options because the materials are cheaper

  24. Haakon Rian Ueland permalink
    September 24, 2010

    It seems to me – and this may be specific to my country, Norway, that while we work on one problem, another arises.

    An example: EU has decided that we all need to save energy, which is good. So, all ordinary lightbulbs are phased out, and replaced with low-energy bulbs.

    Low-energy bulbs are much more expensive, and the market opens for inexpensive ones.

    The expensive ones contain mercury, and the cheap ones contain even more mercury. People toss them in the garbage, and mercury is released into the environment.

    One guy I spoke with said that it was a chrime against nature.

    I hope that you, when greening houses, consider all aspects of building and don’t fall into such traps.


  25. Anthony permalink
    November 2, 2010

    It took me a while but I am glad I finally found some useful information. Thanks for the great post, I look forward to your next.

  26. Blake permalink
    December 28, 2010

    Great Article…Going Green is the future.

    I’ve noticed most people want to go green, but are shocked at the initial high premium price of going green. Although going green will save you more money in the future, some people just can’t see past today. Green buildings, green roofs, green products are the future, and will eventually catch on though increased education. I try to promote and educate people to go green every day.

  27. Xfinity Deals permalink
    May 17, 2011

    I stumbled on this article looking for ways to do a green renovation on a home I’m closing on soon and just want to say thank you to the Green Building Workgroup for bringing this revolution about. I’ve watched several home improvement programs that show you how to make environmentally responsible improvements and I drew my inspiration from those people. Never thought that there was a force powering this and at work for so many years. Thank you, again.

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