Do you have to get a special permit to build green?

The permits you'll need will always depend on where you live and what exactly you're building, but figuring it out can be well worth the energy (and monetary) savings in the long run. See pictures of home construction.

It wasn't unusual for tornado sirens to sound in Greensburg, Kan., on a warm spring evening. The town's 1,400 residents were accustomed to taking cover during severe weather warnings: It's part of life in tornado alley. When the sirens went off on May 4, 2007, however, the storm would be anything but the usual near miss or minor hurt.

A tornado nearly two miles wide caused 11 deaths and completely leveled the town of Greensburg that day [source: Lovett]. But the storm would come to be known better as a catalyst of creation than an agent of destruction. As the town's residents attended funerals, removed debris and assessed the devastation, an idea began to emerge: What if Greensburg went green?

Within days, a grassroots organization embarked on a mission to rebuild the town to reduce its negative impact on the surrounding environment. Within years, Greensburg boasted the most buildings certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) per capita in the world [source: City of Greensburg]. (Learn more about LEED on the next page.)

But it doesn't take a disaster to motivate earth-friendly construction. In communities across the nation, an increasing number of home and business owners are navigating the pioneer process of building green.

Outdoor structures such as wind towers may require city, county or state permits -- and there may be restrictions on the books about such structures' allowable height and placement [source: California Energy Commission]. However, for internal features, all the usual permits should be sufficient.

"A green building will require all the permits and approvals that are necessary for a regular building. Nothing more, nothing less," says Stan Samuel, director of sustainable construction at the Society of Environmentally Responsible Facilities. But green building is a bit more complicated: "Building permits ensure that a project meets the minimum requirements of building codes, but a green building exceeds this minimum."

Building codes, which are usually determined and regulated by a city or county planning department, are designed to ensure public safety, health and welfare. However, codes and permits vary from one locale to the next, so it's a good idea to check with your local permit office to find out what types of permits your project will require. Doing so could also help ward off future code violations, which could result in hefty fines or work stoppages, says Ari Meisel, author of "LEED Materials: A Resource Guide to Green Building."