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Green Glossary: ABCs of Sustainable Construction

An abstract image of green paper folded in upon itself in a recurring pattern.

Sustainability is one of the most important topics in construction.

It can be difficult, however, to keep current on all the vocabulary and translate understanding into action without a reference guide–a sustainable glossary, if you will. 

Below you will find the definitions for some key terms and concepts that are essential to any conversation related to sustainability in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry.

This page is a living document that we will periodically update as new terms and concepts enter into our evolving understanding of the ever-growing sustainability lexicon.  

A 

Adaptive Reuse 

The practice of reusing historic or abandoned buildings rather than demolishing them. Adaptive reuse is one of the best sustainable construction strategies because the carbon footprint of a building that already exists is inherently lower than the massive emissions of embodied carbon required to construct a brand new building–even a green one. 

To learn more, check out our article "Green Renovation and Adaptive Reuse: A Sustainable Alternative to New Construction."

Alternative Energy 

An alternative source of power to fossil fuels. Also referred to as “renewable”, “clean”, or “green” energy, alternative energy sources are preferable to fossil fuels from a sustainability perspective because they either emit fewer or zero greenhouse gasses compared to the burning of coal, oil, or natural gas. Examples of alternative energy sources include wind and solar. 

Anthropocene 

The unofficial name of the Earth’s present geological era, characterized above all else by humanity’s impacts on the planet’s biodiversity, ecosystems, and climates.  

 

B 

BIM 

BIM, or Building Information Modeling, is an advanced form of design software that allows architects, engineers, and construction managers to create highly-immersive 3D models of construction projects. BIM is a powerful tool for imagining and designing green buildings: A version called 6D-BIM allows users to simulate and analyze a structure based on its energy efficiency and sustainability profile. 

To learn more, check out our article "How BIM and Sustainability Conceive Green Space"

Bio-Concrete 

A type of self-healing concrete that is grown with microbes in a process that mirrors how coral and seashells are formed in nature. An example of green concrete, bio-concrete requires much less energy to produce, has a longer lifespan than traditional concrete, and absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, making it an attractive prospect for those concerned about sustainability in the built environment.

Biodegradable 

Refers to materials or products that can be broken down in nature in a way that is not harmful to the environment. Biodegradable materials are preferable from a sustainability perspective because their decomposition doesn’t leave behind toxins or other environmental pollutants. Examples of biodegradable construction materials include wood, bamboo, hempcrete, cork, and mycelium.

Biodiversity 

The rich variety of flora, fauna, fungi, and all other forms of life on the macro and micro scale found within a natural ecosystem.

Biophilic Design 

An architectural philosophy focused on putting people in closer contact with nature as a way of increasing the health and well-being of both. Buildings created with biophilic design are heavily interwoven with natural elements such as plantlife, living walls, natural lighting, open-air spaces, and water features. 

Blackwater Recycling 

Blackwater, or wastewater from toilets, can be safely recycled as drinking water if the proper treatment and filtration systems are in place. Though rare because of how expensive and energy-intensive they are, blackwater recycling systems can increase resource efficiency, lower utility bills, and offer a viable climate mitigation strategy in regions of the world where water is scarce. An example of a blackwater recycling system can be found at the Vancouver Convention Centre West.

BREEAM 

The world’s first green building standard, BREEAM stands for Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method. Like LEED, BREEAM is an evidence-based certification system that evaluates individual building projects based on their level of sustainability. Originating in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, BREEAM has since been adopted in 85 countries and has certified more than 590,000 buildings worldwide.

To learn more, check out our article "What is BREEAM: How The First Green Building Standard Works."

 

C 

Carbon Emissions 

Shorthand for the carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses emitted by human activities that involve the burning of fossil fuels. A potent greenhouse gas, CO2 is the primary driver of global warming. As such, the construction industry is a major contributor to climate change, burning roughly 36% of the world’s total fossil fuels while also generating 39% of global carbon emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. 

Carbon Footprint 

Refers to the total amount of carbon and other greenhouse gasses emitted by a particular entity, be it an individual, organization, or project. An entity’s carbon footprint is typically measured in tons per year.  

Carbon Lock-In 

The idea that the world has become locked into a self-perpetuating cycle of dependency on fossil-fuels as the result of inertia systematically generated by wrongheaded institutions, technologies, business interests, policy frameworks, economic forces, and incentive structures. Coined in a 2000 journal article by Gregory C. Unruh, carbon lock-in offers a potential explanation for why industrialized human civilization continues to use fossil-fuels, despite the overwhelming evidence of their destructive effects and the ready availability of more efficient, less-harmful alternatives. 

Carbon Neutral 

When a building’s carbon emissions are brought into balance over time with an equivalent carbon reduction through the use of sustainable construction practices. For instance, a building that generates its own energy from renewable sources in an amount equivalent to the carbon emitted during the construction process can be said to have achieved “carbon neutrality” or “net-zero emissions.” Buildings that are carbon neutral are generally more energy efficient and less harmful to the environment.  

Climate Change 

Climate change–also referred to as "global warming"–refers to periodic shifts in local, regional, or global temperatures and weather patterns. Historically, climate change events have unfolded gradually over thousands of years as the result of small wobbles in the Earth’s orbit around the sun. In its contemporary use, however, climate change describes the rapid acceleration of global warming and catastrophic weather patterns resulting directly from human activities. The planet has experienced a 1.1°C rise in global surface temperature over the last 200 years as a result of the burning of fossil fuels since the dawn of the Industrial Age. Unless we dramatically lower global CO2 emissions within the next few years, climate scientists predict that the planet will warm by 3°C by the end of this century. 

Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) 

A wood-based construction material that consists of layers of lumber boards and panels that are glued together in a crosswise fashion so that the alternating grain patterns in the finished product provide optimal reinforcement and strength. CLT has gained popularity in recent years as a more sustainable alternative to steel and concrete. An example of CLT construction is HAUT, a wooden skyscraper with a concrete core located in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

To learn more, check out our article "Going Green: 5 Sustainable Building Materials To Consider."

 

D 

Decarbonization 

Decarbonization refers to the process of lowering or eliminating carbon emissions with the goal of reaching carbon neutrality, or even zero-emissions. In construction, decarbonization takes two primary forms: Reducing the embodied carbon emissions that occur during every phase of the construction from start to finish and lowering or eliminating the operational carbon emissions that occur from the power usage of a building over its life cycle.   

 

E 

Ecology 

The interconnected relationships between lifeforms and the natural environments that surround them. Humanity’s ability to survive and thrive on Earth is inextricably tied to the health of the ecologies that we are situated within. 

Embodied Carbon 

Embodied carbon refers to carbon emitted by the construction process from start to finish–specifically during the extraction, manufacture, transport, installation, maintenance, demolition, and disposal of the building materials that are used to construct roads, buildings, and infrastructure. Two major sources of embodied carbon in construction are steel and concrete production, each of which emits about 8% of total global carbon emissions. 

To learn more, check out our article "Embodied Carbon in Construction: What It Is And How To Reduce It."

Energy Efficiency 

In the construction and building sector, energy efficiency refers to the ability of a structure to optimally perform its functions with less energy. For example, building insulation can be used to seal in hot or cold air, reducing the use of electricity for powering heaters and air conditioners.

Energy Star 

Energy Star is a program administered by the EPA that promotes energy efficiency in consumer products and buildings. Buildings that are Energy Star certified are at least 10% more energy efficient compared to non-certified structures.  

Energy Use Intensity (EUI) 

A measurement of a building’s energy efficiency in relation to its space, typically expressed as energy per square foot. In construction, EUI is a key concept to understanding and performing a life cycle assessment.

ESG Investment 

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Investment is a growing approach to investing and business leadership that prioritizes the environmental and social impacts of a company, as well as the fairness and equitability of its internal structure. In construction, ESG investment may take the form of a company using sustainable building materials (environmental), embracing rigorous safety practices (social), and adopting a more equitable internal structure such as the Mondragon worker’s co-op model (governance). 

 
F 

No sustainability terms at this time.  
 

G 

Geothermal Heat Pump 

A geothermal heat pump is an eco-friendly heating-and-cooling system that works by drawing ambient energy from under the earth’s surface and using it to heat homes during the winter and cool them during the summer. Geothermal heat pumps are one of the most energy efficient HVAC systems in existence. Following the same principles that make refrigerators work, geothermal heat pumps are composed of buried pipes arranged in a switchback pattern that are filled with circulating water or antifreeze and connected to an above-ground heat exchanger.  

To learn more, check out our article "5 Ways To Make Greener HVAC Systems."

Global Warming Potential (GWP) 

A term used to describe the climate impacts over time of one ton of a particular greenhouse gas compared to one ton of carbon dioxide emissions. The larger the GWP, the larger the impact a particular gas will have on global climate. In construction, GWP is a key concept used in life cycle assessments.

Green Building 

A green building–also referred to as a “sustainable building”–is a structure that has been built or renovated to be less harmful to the environment and healthier for human occupants. Green buildings are typically more livable, more energy efficient, and incorporate a range of sustainable building practices, systems, and materials.  

To learn more, check out our article "Building Green: What Are The Top 5 Most Sustainable Buildings In The World."

Green Building Standard 

Green building standards are action-oriented frameworks that aim to increase the health, efficiency, and sustainability of buildings. Green building standards—also commonly referred to as green building “certification” or “ratings” systems—provide a standardized rubric by which to gauge a building’s level of sustainability, encouraging a departure from traditional construction practices that are harmful to nature. A mark of prestige, green building standards encourage sustainable construction by highlighting systematic ways to build structures that are more energy efficient, less wasteful, and less destructive to the natural environment. Prominent examples of green building standards are LEED and BREEAM

To learn more, check out our article "5 Green Building Standards: From LEED To BREEAM And Beyond."

Green City  

See “Sustainable City.” 

Green Concrete 

Green concrete refers to a wide assortment of more eco-friendly alternatives to traditional concrete. Green concrete typically uses some sort of recycled waste material as one of its components or involves a production process that is far less destructive to the environment compared to the manufacture of traditional Portland cement. Examples of green concrete include hempcrete and bio-concrete

To learn more, check out our article "Green Concrete And Concrete Alternatives."

Greenhouse Gas 

The category of harmful gasses emitted by the burning of fossil fuels that trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere like a greenhouse, causing global temperatures to rise.   

Green Plumbing 

The use of plumbing technologies and systems that optimize water efficiency and reduce environmental harm. 

To learn more, check out our article "What Are Green Plumbing Systems All About?"

Green Roof 

A green roof is a layer of vegetation that either partially or completely covers the top of a human-made structure.  Green roofs are a regenerative design technique that have a number of benefits from a sustainability perspective, serving as vibrant urban ecosystems for local biodiversity and sources of healthy food for human occupants. Green roofs also help purify the air, clean stormwater runoff, and push back against the urban heat island effect by lowering the outdoor ambient air temperature by as much as 5°F.

To learn more, check out our article "How Green Roofs Can Help Cities Fight Climate Change."

Greenwashing 

The act of conveying misleading or even false information about a product, company, or initiative to make it appear more sustainable and environmentally-friendly than it actually is. Greenwashing has become a go-to marketing strategy for everyone from businesses and governments to non-profits and other individuals who use the language of sustainability to cover up environmental harm caused by their actions. In the world of construction, greenwashing is often used to disguise the negative impacts of building projects. A prime example is the Sustainable City in Dubai, which markets itself as “net-zero”, even though this isn’t true. 

To learn more, check out our article "Greenwashing and Green Gentrifications: 2 Common Pitfalls of Sustainable Cities."

Greywater  

Water that can be safely recycled for non-potable purposes even though it has been lightly used for bathing, or washing dishes or clothes. While it may contain traces of grease, dirt, food, and household cleaning products, greywater can be safely reused for watering plants, provided that it goes through the proper filtration process. Though greywater is not safe for drinking, households that use greywater recycling systems for their lawncare needs are more resource efficient, saving as much as 40,000 gallons of water per year. 

To learn more, check out our article "What Are Green Plumbing Systems All About?"

H 

No sustainability terms at this time. 
 

I 

Indoor Air Quality 

The quality of the air within and around our buildings. Poor indoor air quality can have lasting negative impacts on the health of human occupants. Indoor air quality is a major indicator of how livable a structure is, and can be improved by using sustainable building materials that are low in volatile organic compounds. 

International Energy Agency (IEA) 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an international organization focused on providing data, analysis, and policy recommendations related to the global energy sector.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, is a body of international scientists assembled by the United Nations for the purpose of assessing climate change and developing strategies and policy frameworks for overcoming the challenges that global warming presents to life on Earth. The IPCC’s assessment reports are the go-to source of information for the latest in climate science, offering action-oriented guidance on how world governments, regions, and cities should respond to and prepare for global warming. 

 

J 

No sustainability terms at this time. 

 

K 

No sustainability terms at this time. 
 

L 

LEED 

Short for Leadership Energy and Environmental Design, LEED is one of the world’s most widely used green building standards. Since its creation by the US Green Building Council (GCBI) in 1998, LEED has become one of the most popular international green building standards, with more than 100,000 certified projects worldwide.   

To learn more, check out our article "What Is LEED Certification?: How To Become LEED Certified."

Life Cycle Assessment 

A lifecycle assessment (LCA) is a systematic computer-driven method for quantifying the sustainability of a construction project over the course of its entire lifespan. An LCA provides a complete map of the environmental and climatological impacts of your project, from the embodied carbon emitted by material extraction, manufacturing, and installation to the operational carbon emitted by the structure’s day-to-day power consumption.  

Living Building Challenge 

Regarded as one of the most rigorous green building standards in existence, the Living Building Challenge pushes builders to adopt regenerative design as a way of increasing a building’s sustainability. Under the LBC, the sustainability of a project is determined after assessing a year of the building’s performance and by measuring it against seven key performance metrics, or “petals.” 

To learn more, check out our article "5 Green Building Standards: From LEED To BREEAM And Beyond."

 

M 

Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (MTCO2e) 

The official standard unit of measurement for carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gasses.

Mycelium 

Mycelium is a white fibrous material that grows in the soil, forming dense fungal networks underground, of which mushrooms are the fruiting bodies. An essential component of a thriving ecosystem, mycelium and mushrooms can also be used in construction as a sustainable building material. Examples of mycelium’s uses in construction include as insulation, bricks, and decorative wall panels.

To learn more, check out our article "Going Green: 5 Sustainable Building Materials To Consider."

Mycoremediation 

The process of using fungi to breakdown and biodegrade waste materials and pollutants in the environment. 

 

N 

Natural Ventilation 

The process of pulling fresh air into a building from the outside by virtue of passive design elements. An example of natural ventilation is a windcatcher 

Net-Zero Emissions 

See “Carbon Neutral.”


New Urbanism 

New Urbanism is a school of thought in the urban design world that argues against the supremacy of the car and in favor of human-scale cities with compact mixed-use neighborhoods, inclusionary zoning, interconnected trail networks, and robust public transit systems at their hearts.   

 

O 

Operational Carbon 

Operational carbon refers to the carbon emissions that result from the energy consumed by buildings once they’ve been constructed. In other words, these emissions are a result of the fossil fuels burnt to heat, cool, and electrify our buildings during their lifespans.  

 

P 

Paris Agreement 

A landmark international treaty adopted in 2015 by 196 nations during the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. The primary goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep global warming from going beyond 1.5°C by the end of this century. The treaty calls for worldwide carbon emissions to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and for the globe to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.  

Passive Design 

A sustainable method of designing and constructing low-energy buildings that derive their power, heating, cooling, and ventilation needs either partially or completely from naturally occurring “passive” elements within the environment. A building created with passive design can achieve a comfortable and livable interior simply by taking advantage of the surrounding climate and by relying on the innate properties of certain materials, such as the thermal mass of concrete. Passive elements that can be manipulated to positively influence a building’s energy-efficiency include its windows, glazing, blinds, insulation, orientation, tree cover, air-tightness, and evaporative qualities.  

Passive House 

Also referred to as PassivHaus, Passive House is a German green building standard that emphasizes energy efficiency through passive design. 

To learn more, check out our article "5 Green Building Standards: From LEED To BREEAM And Beyond."

Q 

No sustainability terms at this time. 
 

R 

Regenerative Design 

A rigorous approach to designing sustainable buildings and communities in such a way that they have a net-positive impact on the natural environments that surround them. Regeneratively buildings mimic natural restorative processes and integrate living systems into their design. An example of a regenerative design element is a green roof 
 

S 

Solar Photovoltaic Installer 

Solar photovoltaic installers are skilled professionals in the renewable energy and construction sector who assemble and install systems that convert sunlight into electrical energy. 

To learn more, check out our article "Solar Photovoltaic Installer Job Description, Outlook, Pathways."

Stormwater Runoff 

Rain that is not absorbed into the ground but instead flows over hard surfaces in the built environment such as rooftops, concrete parking lots, and paved streets and sidewalks. Stormwater runoff can result in flooding and the pollution of drinking water, as stormwater runoff carries toxins in the form of fertilizers, oil, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals found in the built environment. Stormwater runoff can be reduced with sustainable building techniques such as green roofs.

Suburban Sprawl 

Suburban sprawl refers to the constant outward expansion of the suburbs, seemingly without plan or design, into the natural and agricultural settings that surround them.   

As low-density housing developments and strip malls spread unchecked into the countryside, so too proliferate the networks of roads, highways, and parking lots that connect them. Suburban sprawl is antithetical to the aspiration of a more sustainable form of construction and urban design because it destroys natural ecosystems and upholds the supremacy of the automobile, resulting in unwalkable communities that are detrimental to both human and environmental health.

To learn more, check out our article "Suburban Sprawl: 5 Causes and 6 Tactics To Combat It."

Superblock 

Superblocks are an urban design and transformation technique aimed at calming or eliminating automotive traffic within clusters of blocks that have been organized into a single, larger block. Championed in Barcelona, Spain, superblocks are one way to retrofit existing cities to be healthier and more walkable

To learn more, check out our article "Superblocks: On The Streets Of A Sustainable City."

Sustainable City 

Also referred to as a “green city” or an “eco-city”, a sustainable city is an urban environment whose design, construction, and operation prioritizes the preservation of the natural world alongside the economic, social, and physical health and wellness of the city’s inhabitants. 

To learn more, check out our article "Green Cities: How To Make A Sustainable City."

Sustainable Construction  

An approach to construction that protects and bolsters the health of humans and the environment by adopting renewable energy, sustainable building materials, and other transformative climate-conscious building practices. Sustainable construction becomes more important with each passing day in an era characterized by ever-growing impacts from human-caused climate change. As of this writing, construction eats up 36% of the world’s fossil fuels while also generating 39% of global CO2 emissions.

To learn more, check out our article "Understanding The Importance Of Sustainable Construction: Why Going Green Is An Imperative, Not A Design Fad."

Sustainable Building Materials 

A category of eco-friendly building materials that require less or zero fossil fuels to produce compared to traditional carbon-intensive building materials like steel or concrete. Some examples of sustainable building materials include wood, cork, mycelium, hemp, and green concrete. 

To learn more, check out our article "Going Green: 5 Sustainable Building Materials To Consider."

T 

Tactical Urbanism 

Tactical urbanism–also referred to as guerrilla urbanism, DIY urbanism, and urban acupuncture–is a fast, affordable, action-oriented approach to making meaningful improvements to the physical fabric and feel of neighborhoods, cities, and other communal areas. In practice, tactical urbanism involves people going out into their communities and making the changes to the built environment they want to see, sometimes without asking for permission. According to Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, the co-authors of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, tactical urbanism “is used by a range of actors, including governments, business and nonprofits, citizen groups, and individuals”. An example of tactical urbanism include using tires, spraypaint, or potted plants to reclaim a portion of a street to create a makeshift bike lane, garden, or plaza. 

To learn more, check out our article "What Is Tactical Urbanism: 4 Examples And Case Studies Explored."
 

Thermal Mass 

The capacity of materials in a building to absorb, store, and release heat. An essential passive design strategy, a well-positioned thermal mass acts as a heat sink during the day and a heat source at night, passively absorbing heat from the sun’s rays and releasing it as warmth in the evening hours. Examples of high thermal mass building materials include earth, wood, steel, brick, and concrete. 
 

Transit-Oriented Development 

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is a New Urbanist approach to sustainable city and regional design aimed at creating compact, walkable, mixed-use communities centered around high-quality mass-public-transit systems such as trains and buses.  

To learn more, check out our article "Lessons from Sustainable Curitiba: How Transit-Oriented Planning Can Make Cities More Sustainable." 

 

U 

Urban Heat Island Effect

An urban heat island is an area of higher temperature in urban areas with high-concentrations of heat-absorbing building materials like steel, concrete, and asphalt. These common building materials absorb and re-emit an enormous amount of heat, driving temperatures in cities anywhere between 1 to 7 degrees higher than surrounding areas. Ambient heat generated by vehicles and air-conditioning units have further exacerbated the problem.   

US Green Building Council 

The US Green Building Council (USGBC) is the privately run 501c3 that administers the LEED green building standard.  

 

V 

No sustainability terms at this time.


W 

Walkable Cities  

Cities that are designed more for humans than for cars. Championed by New Urbanist thinkers like architect and urban designer Jeff Speck, walkable cities are healthier and more sustainable than traditional cities. Walkable cities are characterized by compact mixed-use neighborhoods, inclusionary zoning, interconnected trail networks, and robust public transit systems.  

To learn more, check out our article "How To Build Walkable Cities: An Interview With Jeff Speck."
 

WindCatcher

Windcatchers are a zero-emissions, low-tech, and sustainable alternative to air conditioning. Also referred to as wind towers, wind scoops, or bâdgir (بادگیر) in Persian, windcatchers are an ancient architectural technology that cool spaces without the use of electricity. A typical windcatcher is a tall, hollow, chimney-like structure that crowns the tops of buildings. Cooler fresh air from high up in the sky passes through vertical openings in the tower’s sides and is driven downward into the interior of the dwelling below. Windcatchers are most common in Middle Eastern nations, but the ancient Arabian cooling technique has found its way to the US in the form of the windcatcher atop the visitors center at Zion National Park, which can keep the building’s interior temperature as much as 29 degrees cooler compared to outside.  

To learn more, check out our article "Low Tech Sustainable Alternatives To Air Conditioners"

Wind Turbine Technicians 

One of the fastest growing careers in the US as of this writing, a wind turbine technician, or “windtech,” is a skilled professional in the renewable energy and construction sector who is trained to install, inspect, service, and repair wind turbines–massive windmill devices that convert the wind’s kinetic energy into electrical energy. 

To learn more, check out our article, "How to Become a Wind Turbine Technician."

World Green Building Council  

The World Green Building Council is an international non-profit organization focused on increasing sustainability and decarbonization in the built environment. 

 

X 

No sustainability terms at this time. 
 

Y 

No sustainability terms at this time. 
 

Z 

Zero Emissions 

When no greenhouse gasses are emitted at all as the result of a given human activity. A zero or “real zero” scenario is a more ambitious goal than carbon neutrality or net-zero emissions because it calls for the complete elimination of carbon emissions as opposed to the reduction and balancing of them. In construction, achieving zero emissions would require the total elimination of all embodied carbon and operational carbon emitted as the result of a building’s construction and operation. 

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