Facilities Toolbox: Sustainability Tools
Engineering Home | Toolbox Home

Is sustainability affordable?

Photo of a log building with a sign in front that reads, Republic Ranger Station, Colville National Forest.

The Republic Ranger Station was designed with
a strong emphasis on sustainability.

Forest: Republic
District: Colville
Region: 6

Sustainable construction can be more expensive than ordinary construction, but it doesn't have to be.

It's not economically practical to retrofit most existing buildings with high-profile sustainable features such as grid-independent photovoltaic systems, but plenty of things can be done inexpensively to improve the sustainability of existing buildings. Incrementally Greener—Improving Sustainability Over Time Through Operations and Maintenance (Optional link for FSweb users) tells how to do it. The Sustainability Solutions web site contains examples of how sustainability has been improved at Forest Service locations.

When designing new structures or developments, sustainable features could be selected and added to an otherwise ordinary structure or development, but that's not the most cost effective way to build sustainably. Far better results can be obtained if a unified vision of the desired image and performance of the structure and site is developed first, then design characteristics are created to respond to the vision. Using this process, the structure and site are treated as a single entity whose various features are chosen because they will work in synergy to achieve optimum appearance and performance. This approach is called integrated design.

The most effective integrated design solutions are achieved when a multidisciplinary design team works together from the earliest stages of planning. For instance, basic building configuration and orientation choices provide the most opportunity for energy and lighting efficiency. Building configuration choices that are less than optimal can double or triple the cost of mechanical and electrical systems and energy usage. Teams that include the input of the landscape architect, mechanical engineer, structural engineer, electrical engineer, and lighting engineer from the very beginning are more likely to produce sustainable designs that are cost effective to build than if the other specialists aren't consulted until after the floor plan, size, shape, and look of the building have been finalized by the architect. More information about integrated design is available in an article titled A Group Effort in the November 2006 issue of GreenSource magazine.

How much extra should you expect to pay for a LEED Silver or Two Green Globes building instead of ordinary new building construction? The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) found that extra design and documentation costs are up to 40 cents per square foot and that construction costs range from slightly lower than ordinary costs to about 4 percent higher than normal costs. These costs are documented in GSA's 2004 LEED Cost Study. That cost study doesn't include commissioning or energy modeling, which each cost about ½ to 1½ percent of the construction cost. So costs for a sustainable office building could range from the same as an ordinary building to 15 percent higher, depending on how cost conscious and integrated the design is. Buildings with special requirements may have higher extra costs. A 2010 article summarized the results of various LEED cost studies and found no significant difference between LEED certified buildings and standard construction.  Construction funds are applied in different ways for sustainable, energy-efficient buildings, but costs are no longer higher.

When considering the cost of sustainability, remember that initial cost is only about 10 to 40 percent of the total cost of building ownership. Operating and maintaining a facility costs more than initial construction. Durable, efficient materials and systems such as those normally included in LEED-certified and other sustainable buildings are frequently much less costly over the entire life of the structure than materials and systems that cost less initially. Executive Order 13693 of March 19, 2015, recognizes the wisdom of making decisions based on life cycle costs and requires that life-cycle costs be used when making energy efficiency, clean energy technology, water conservation, and energy management implementation decisions.