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."

Permits Needed to Build Green

You recycle everything from plastic bottles to shoe boxes and you wouldn't dare leave a room without first flipping off the light, so building a sustainable living or working space certainly suits your sensibilities. But how much will a permit cost, and how can it help a building achieve green certification?

The cost of a building permit for green construction is the same as one for traditional construction. Permit costs vary by city or county, but the cost of a permit is usually based on a percentage of the proposed project's value. In some cases, small home improvement projects like decks or room additions have a set fee for permits.

Although green building projects typically require the same permits as traditional construction, case-by-case reviews may be necessary if certain codes don't apply to a green building, says Meisel. For example, a traditional building permit may require a structure to have a certain number of dry wells -- subsurface storage repositories designed to dissipate excess water runoff -- per square foot, which doesn't make sense for a green building that captures rainwater for reuse and eliminates the need to manage it in the ground.

A permit also can help lead to future green certification. There are several green-certified building programs out there, but one of the most prevalent is the LEED program. Created by the U.S. Green Building Council and managed by the Green Building Certification Institute, LEED is a consensus-based rating system. "The goal is to continue to raise the standard for a green building and the LEED rating system," says Ted van der Linden, director of sustainability for DPR Construction.

To gain LEED certification, the builder or owner hires an independent third party to perform a green building certification. "Green building certification is generally voluntary, although some states or local governments require it for their building projects or affordable housing developments," says Abe Kruger, author of "Green Building: Principles and Practices in Residential Construction."

A green-certified building owner may expect to receive financial incentives from governments, Samuel adds. These incentives may include tax credits or abatements, grant funding or low-interest loans. In addition, some municipalities may waive permit fees or expedite permit approvals for green projects.

Author's Note

In my work as a journalist, I've covered a number of residential and commercial construction projects that have been built with an eye toward sustainability or LEED certification. And, because I grew up on a working farm with a family who was (and is) concerned about soil, water and energy conservation, I witnessed many green practices first hand. The two-story farmhouse I lived in, for instance, was heated by solar panels (before solar panels were cool.)

That said, I've never actually embarked on a green construction project as an adult, so I didn't know the first thing about permits. I was surprised to learn that green building projects don't require a different set of certifications. They do, however, require a dedicated set of professionals who can build them to the exacting standards needed to obtain green certification by a reputable rating system. One thing I know for sure? If I ever embark on a green building project, I'll seek the counsel of a sustainability experienced architect and general contractor.

Related Articles


  • California Energy Commission. "Permitting Small Turbines: A Handbook." (Feb. 25, 2012)
  • City of Greensburg. "Welcome." (Feb. 23, 2012)
  • Columbia Green Builders. "Building a Certified High Performance Home." Feb. 8, 2012. (Feb. 23, 2012)
  • Greensburg Greentown. "After LEED, Then What?" Feb. 19, 2012. (Feb. 23, 2012)
  • Greensburg Greentown. "Background." (Feb. 23, 2012)
  • Kruger, Abe. Personal interview. Feb. 23, 2012.
  • Lovett, Richard. "How Kansas Tornado Became a Monster." National Geographic. May 8, 2007. (Feb. 23, 2012)
  • Meisel, Ari. Personal interview. Feb. 23, 2012.
  • Samuel, Stan. Personal interview. Feb. 23, 2012.
  • van der Linden, Ted. Personal interview. Feb. 23, 2012.