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Has green construction made an impact on the environment yet?

Back in 2007, Atmosphere EcoManor was the first LEED certified residence in the American Southeast. See more home design pictures.
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Besides being noisy and dusty, construction projects also come with a hefty environmental footprint, and that's what green construction aims to fix. Green builders look at the entire construction process from material sourcing to the building's energy use, and try to construct the most environmentally friendly structures possible.

The major factors that green builders look at are: energy and water efficiency, the impacts of the materials themselves, indoor air quality, and waste both on-site and in the completed structure. Many green builders also take the lives of the buildings' inhabitants into account, so convenient access to public transportation and green space can also be considered part of green building.

The green building industry has been around since the turn of the last century, but it didn't begin to really take root until the late 70s after the rise of oil prices made people think twice about relying so heavily on fossil fuels [source: US Green Building Council].

As it becomes more hip to go green, many construction companies do the bare minimum to qualify. Green building proponents are calling foul, saying that what many builders are actually doing is adding "green" accessories (like a solar panel) to otherwise wasteful buildings [source: Bredenberg].

Buildings account for almost 70 percent of America's electricity use and 12 percent of our water use, and a major part of green building is reducing those numbers [source: EPA]. Instead of a conventional gas or electric hot water heater, a green builder might install a solar hot water heater which uses the sun's energy to heat the building's water. Green builders also beef up a building's insulation, so you won't have to run the heat or air conditioning as much to keep the temperature comfortable inside. These types of upgrades reduce the building's environmental impact, and they benefit the inhabitants by reducing energy bills. Glen Meyers, editor of the Web site Green Building Elements, says this is why energy efficiency upgrades are the most common green building technique.

But even the best-intended gestures have unintended consequences. A 2010 study found that the impact of installing thick, blown insulation actually outweighs the energy efficiency benefits because after a certain amount of thickness the environmental impact of producing, shipping, and installing the insulation outweighed the energy savings [source: Wilson]. Green builders also argue that you have to look at the building's overall footprint – that there's no such thing as a green mansion, for example [source: Bredenberg]. So, how do green builders measure their impacts?