Why isn't green construction required by law?

By: Brian Boone

Should people be required to build homes and offices in an environmentally friendly fashion? See pictures of green science.
Andrew Bret Wallis/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

First emerging to mainstream acceptance in the early 1970s with the adoption of Earth Day, the "green" movement has picked up a lot of stream in the last decade or so. Now, more than ever, people are aware of their environmental impact and want to know what they can do to help preserve the planet and its resources for future generations.

But let's be realistic: In an ideal world, we all want to live in the comfortable ways to which we are accustomed, while also being as green as possible. This has given rise to things like gas-efficient hybrid sedans and SUVs, for example.

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But what about the homes we live in, or the offices we work in? It's clear that putting up a new building uses a lot of resources -- there's wood, plastic and metal, and gasoline is needed to power the trucks to bring all those materials to the construction site. Is there any way that an inherently resource-consuming process could be altered to be more planet friendly? Absolutely. Green construction is a new, thriving industry, and by using sustainable and energy-efficient materials, people are living and working in beautiful, modern buildings, all the more modern because they aren't damaging the planet as much.

Governments on the local and national level recognize the importance of green construction, and the balance of employment, financial and environmental issues it represents. Read on to find out more about the green movement, how it has affected the construction and remodeling industries, and what's being done to encourage it on the legal level.

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What counts as green construction?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), green construction is the process of making a building that uses sustainable materials, and that building should protect and/or restore the environment, generate limited waste and emissions (both during construction and in day-to-day operation), and use reduced amounts of water and energy [source: EPA]. It should also be cost-efficient, functional, and durable -- because building another structure after you've already built one isn't the best use of resources.

Generally, green buildings incorporate recycled or reused materials (such as salvaged steel beams), use renewable energy (solar power via solar panels, for example), emit less greenhouse gases than a comparable standard building, and use less fresh water. In short, sustainable materials and energy-efficient operation leaves little to no environmental impact.

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Builders and building owners can experience lots of financial advantages from going green. There are tax cuts and rebates for many greening measures, but you can't just say you're green and ask for a check. "Official" green buildings are deemed LEED-certified (on a 100-point scale) by an independent organization established in 1998 called the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It determines what makes a building green, and it continually revises its standards, based on input from 20,000 member organizations. With different standards for many different kinds of buildings (including homes, schools, stores, hospitals and commercial spaces), the USGBC hands out LEED certifications, which stands for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design."

Read on to see how the government is encouraging green construction.

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Incentives for Green Construction

How can lawmakers encourage green building?
How can lawmakers encourage green building?
Paul Oomen/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Local governments are the biggest landholders around, and many jurisdictions are setting the example for green construction with environmentally sound public buildings. The USGBC keeps statistics on LEED projects at different levels of government. As of February 2012, California and Texas lead the country in LEED projects, with 1,671 and 698 certifications, respectively. In cities, New York City has 229 LEED-certified works, while Washington, D.C., is in second place with 233 -- and since that city is the seat of the federal government, the government is vividly setting an example with green construction [source: United States Green Building Council].

Further, hundreds of individual tax credits are available throughout the U.S. The Department of Energy maintains a list of all energy-related tax breaks available state-by-state, including recycling appliances, buying Energy Star-certified appliances, and installing solar panels or water-recycling systems [source: Department of Energy].

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Governments at various levels also offer tax breaks for green builders or for people or organizations that buy green buildings. In 2012, the Michigan legislature proposed a Bill (4286) that would introduce some of the most sweeping green tax credit laws in the nation: New green (or refurbished-to-be-green) homes and commercial buildings with a LEED certification would generate a rebate of $50,000 or 50 percent of construction costs (whichever was less). The bill calls for more, separate tax credits on buildings that use green generators or renewable energy options [source: Wilmot].

So why isn't everybody on board with this? If this is all so beneficial for both the environment and the economy, then why isn't green construction the only construction? Read on.

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The Possibility of Green Construction Legislation

According to the Energy Information Administration, the construction industry is responsible for 40 percent of energy use, 40 percent of raw material consumption, and 32 percent of waste [source: World Business Council on Sustainable Development]. For the green movement to have a lasting impact, it stands to reason that the construction industry would have to be a leader. But if green building is beneficial for both the environment and economy, why aren't green construction practices aren't legally mandatory? Simply put: It takes a lot of time and effort to change laws, and about as much to change long-ingrained industry practices.

The United States is a representative democracy that enjoys a free market economy, and new government regulations, especially when choices are eliminated, are often met with resistance. Construction is a multibillion dollar industry that employs thousands of people. That industry is already subject to government regulatory practices and involves lots of labor unions, so changing the world of construction from the inside out would be a long, uphill legal battle to create workable compromises. But it's not outside the realm of possibility. Strict vehicle emissions standards set by the California Air Resources Board, which have now been adopted in more than 15 other states, went into effect on new cars in 1994. The program wasn't fully phased in until 2009.

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And finally, it comes down to money. Green materials are produced on a smaller scale, and so are more expensive than more traditional construction options. In a down economy, cheaper is usually seen as the more attractive option, and it can be difficult to convince builders or consumers to pay more for something with long-term benefits.

For lots more information on environmentally friendly construction, see the links on the next page.

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Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Babwin, Don. "Chicago mayor Emanuel, former President Clinton announce plan to retrofit city's buildings." The Republic. March 1, 2012. (March 1, 2012). http://www.therepublic.com/view/story/6cb2042716dc4f5b987a32af66c0229a/IL--Chicago-Energy/
  • George, Patrick E. "How the California Air Resources Board (CARB) Works." HowStuffWorks.com. Sept. 12 2008. (March 1, 2012). https://auto.howstuffworks.com/fuel-efficiency/fuel-economy/carb4.htm
  • Clancy, Heather. "Green construction project targets 5 states with 'no electric bill' homes." ZDNet.com. Feb. 24, 2012. (Feb. 29. 2012). http://www.zdnet.com/blog/green/green-construction-project-targets-5-states-with-no-electric-bill-homes/20462
  • Kell, Brian. "How Green are Today's Modular Home?" Living Green Magazine. Feb. 29, 2012. (Feb. 29. 2012). http://livinggreenmag.com/2012/02/29/home-garden/how-green-are-todays-modular-homes/
  • The Leader. "Why Go For Laminate Floor Instead of Hard Wood." Feb. 28, 2012. (Feb. 28, 2012). http://www.leaderlive.co.uk/news/110696/why-go-for-laminate-floor-instead-of-hard-wood.aspx
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency. "Green Building Frequent Questions." Dec. 22, 2010. (Feb. 28, 2012) http://www.epa.gov/greenbuilding/pubs/faqs.htm
  • United States Green Building Council. "50 U.S. States Ranked by Total Number of LEED Projects/Top 50 U.S. Cities Ranked by Total Number of LEED Projects." Feb. 3, 2012. (Feb. 29, 2012). http://www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=7744
  • United States Green Building Council. "Roadmap to Green Government Buildings." 2011. (March 1, 2012). http://www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=5486
  • Wilmot, Alex. "Tax Credits for 'Green Buildings.'" Michigan Policy Network. 27 February 2012. (Feb. 28, 2012). http://www.michiganpolicy.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1171:tax-credits-for-qgreen-buildingsq&catid=39:energy-and-environment-policy-briefs&Itemid=138
  • World Business Council on Sustainable Development. "Initiative highlights North American innovation in green building and sustainable cities." March 2, 2012. (March 2, 2012). http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/north-america-green-building-sustainable-city?newsfeed=true

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