Greening Buildings: The History Behind the Movement


While enhancing building sustainability through green retrofits and improvements has been adopted by countries across the world, evidence of the practice has been discovered in ancient settlements abandoned thousands of years ago.  During the height of their culture between A.D. 400-1300, the Four Corners Anasazi of the American desert southwest utilized local and renewable materials in addition to passive solar design in the development of their village architecture (AGPOM, 2017).  This was done in an effort to provide the inhabitants with an increase in solar heat during the winter period due to the fact that the locations of these settlements were frequently subject to sub-freezing temperatures.  Even though the building designs were extremely rudimentary, they illustrate the point that previous cultures have taken advantage of natural phenomena in local and regional environments for the purpose of efficient resource consumption.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, green building design can be more clearly identified in both North America and Western Europe.  Such examples include London’s Crystal Palace in 1851 and Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in 1877, both of which implemented roof ventilators as well as underground air cooling chambers in an effort to reduce the environmental impact of both structures (Cassidy, 2003; Marble Institute, 2006).  By the turn of the twentieth century, the New York Times Building and Flat Iron Building in New York City had begun to use deep-set windows, which were successful in controlling interior temperature, thus reducing the energy requirements of both skyscrapers and improving their energy efficiency (Marble Institute, 2006).  While useful, these practices were only the precursors to the beginning of the Green Building Movement.  

A handful of environmentalists and architects initially questioned existing building construction on the grounds of poor energy efficiency and potential increase in fossil fuel prices.  It wasn’t until the onset of the OPEC oil embargo in 1973 that these fears became a reality, and the Green Building movement began to capture greater public attention.  Consequently, more people began questioning the conventional wisdom of existing sources of energy consumption for transportation as well as for buildings (Cassidy, 2003).  As a response to the energy crisis, the American Institute for Architects (AIA) formed a multi-group committee on energy in 1975 (Marble Institute, 2006).  One group focused on passive systems such as reflective roofing materials while the second group analyzed technological solutions to improve energy efficiency (Cassidy, 2003).  During the late 1970s through the 1980s and 1990s, significant research was conducted in order to push the boundary on efficiency in both energy consumption as well as renewable energy sources (AGPOM, 2017).

The resulting research was applied under the Clinton administration in the “Green the White House” program of 1993.  The program was created in order to promote “energy efficiency and environmental performance…to reduce waste, lower energy use, and make an appropriate use of renewable energy resources, all while improving the indoor air quality and building comfort” (Marble Institute, 2006).  Utilization of energy efficient light fixtures and appliances, reduction of water consumption for landscaping, leasing of fuel efficient vehicles and recycling plans resulted in saving $150,000 on annual energy costs and 845 metric tons of carbon emissions (Cassidy, 2003; Marble Institute, 2006).  The overwhelming success of the 1993 “Green the White House” campaign encouraged the American people and the federal government to expand the greening of buildings throughout the nation.

In tandem with the “Green the White House” program, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) was founded in 1993.  This membership-based non-profit organization was designed to “promote sustainability-focused practices in the building and construction industry” (USGBC, 2017) and plays a major role in structural sustainability today.  The organization’s infancy was spent gathering and analyzing data to create the best method to rate the green-ness of a building.  After years of work, the US Green Building Council unveiled the newly refined LEED certification program in 2003 (AGPOM, 2017).  The purpose of the LEED program was to create a framework for designing and ranking all types of green buildings, so long as they met a set of predefined criteria (USBGC, 2017).  While initially adopted by government agencies, the certification primarily serves the market place in the expansion of green practices, and their benefits, to buildings throughout the nation.

It cannot be overstated that the movement to green buildings across the planet is extremely important, especially given that buildings account for 25%-40% of total energy consumption (Morrissey et al., 2011).  In the U.S. alone, buildings are responsible for 68% of electricity consumption, in addition to producing 38% of carbon dioxide emissions (WNCGBC, 2017).  This clearly illustrates that buildings have a profound impact on the natural environment, due to both consumption and release of greenhouse gases.  Energy itself is becoming an increasingly critical economic issue, with potential ramifications ranging from influences on household budgets to affecting relationships on an international basis (USGBC, 2014).  Furthermore, given that fossil fuel extraction takes an immense toll on the environment and carbon emissions contribute to a rapidly changing climate, it is necessary to incorporate sustainable techniques in buildings to reduce their carbon footprint.

Improving the sustainability of buildings through renovation or construction, however, entails the challenge of incorporating what the natural world has to offer in an effort to reduce energy consumption.   Such enhancements, whether it be the use of renewable energy or improvements in energy efficiency, will ultimately reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and create a more sustainable society.  The benefits of greening buildings are seemingly endless, including better air and water quality, conservation of natural resources and reducing annual waste output that may affect ecosystem biodiversity (Green Building Design, 2012; WNCGBC, 2017).  Studies have also shown that the adoption of sustainable practices, such as energy efficient lighting (Di Maria et al, 2010) and efficient land use, lead to reduced energy costs, thus saving money for the consumer (USGBC, 2014).  Given this information, it’s safe to say that improving the sustainability of all buildings ought to be a necessary process in any plan to reduce the human footprint on the planet.  


AGPOM, (2017). History of Green Buildings. Association of Green Property Owners and Managers. Web. <>.

Cassidy, R., (2003, November). A Report on the Green Building Movement. Building Design and Construction. 1-48. Web. <>.

Di Maria, C., Ferreira, S., & Lazarova, E. (2010). Shedding light on the light bulb puzzle: the role of attitudes and perceptions in the adoption of energy efficient light bulbs. Scottish Journal of Political Economy. 57(1), 48-67.

Green Building Design, (2012, April). Why Is Green Building Important? Web. <http://>.

Marble Institute, (2006). History of Green Building. Web. <>.

Morrissey, J., Moore, T., & Horne, R. E. (2011). Affordable passive solar design in a temperate climate: An experiment in residential building orientation. Renewable Energy. 36(2), 568-577.

United States green Building Council, (2014, May). Green Building 101: Why is energy efficiency important? Web. <>.

United States Green Building Council, (2017). Our History. Web. <>.

Western North Carolina Green Building Council, (2017). Importance of Green Building. Web. <;.


One thought on “Greening Buildings: The History Behind the Movement

  1. randypeppler March 13, 2017 / 1:35 pm

    Very nice overview – well researched and lots of interesting information. This would fit well in a chapter on sustainable buildings. Think about which concepts from the first 8 chapters now might play into this topic. Perhaps LEED could be part of one – it seems a bit controversial at times. I will email the scores this time.


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