Sustainable Washington

3.8 Construction and Green Building Practices

The construction, operation, maintenance, design, and siting of buildings accounts for a significant portion of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). As planners, we can promote green building practices that reduce these negative environmental impacts by creating incentives, providing resources, and changing local codes, standards, and permitting processes. By taking the actions described below, planners can help bring about a more sustainable building sector.

Climate Change Impacts of Buildings and Construction

  • In Washington, building related energy use accounts for up to 40% of state greenhouse gas emissions.[1]
  • New and existing buildings represent a large store of embodied energy (energy used to produce building materials and during construction).
  • Demolition and construction produce waste that could be salvaged or recycled, saving embodied energy and emissions.
  • Impervious surfaces alter the hydrologic cycle, resulting in greater fluctuation in stream flows, streambed erosion, and higher water temperatures. These impacts will worsen with climate change.

Green Building Benefits

  • Increases the efficiency with which buildings use resources such as energy, water, and materials while also reducing their negative effects on human health and the environment.
  • Reduces the lifecycle impacts of a structure by considering site selection, design, construction, operation, maintenance, and waste removal.
  • Helps minimize climate change impacts to streams and other water bodies through low impact development (LID) and green approaches to site planning.

Barriers to Green Building

  • Approval of green building projects is often delayed or not granted because local governments will not approve designs that may conflict with existing codes and regulations.
  • Some green building design elements require variances or appeals due to codes or design standards that prohibit implementation.
  • Code barriers typically result from issues related to street, parking, or stormwater design standards.
  • International codes such as the International Building Code or Uniform Plumbing Code may not include provisions for the newer design elements incorporated into green buildings.
  • Conventional permit review processes that rely on regulatory silos and piecemeal routing schemes can result in conflicting requirements from different reviewers, delays in processing, or design compromises. These review processes can delay permitting and undermine the environmental performance goals of the green building projects.

Planners are in a unique position to recommend changes to many of these code and process barriers and thus to facilitate green project permitting. Planners can also provide resources to applicants, promote environmental awareness, and create incentives.


The following list of actions is separated into three categories: Getting Started, Making a Commitment, and Expanding the Commitment. This categorical approach allows jurisdictions to implement measures that are appropriate to their community’s current level of involvement in climate change and sustainability issues and in consideration of locally adopted plans, codes, regulations, policies and goals.

Getting Started

3.8.1 Identify local barriers to permitting green building projects.

Evaluate the local permitting process relative to various types of green building projects. Create an inventory of potential building, land use, and development codes or process barriers that may be encountered and propose measures that could remove or mitigate these barriers. Involve stakeholders in the process and publish the study for public viewing. (Local Action)

3.8.2 Establish a public education and outreach program.

Produce informational materials – written specifically for citizens, property owners and managers, business owners, architects, engineers, and contractors – that detail green building practices (construction, operation, maintenance, and retrofitting). Materials should promote awareness of the environmental effects of conventional buildings and offer alternative strategies, highlighting those that have quick returns on investment such as energy and water efficiency measures. A strong economic case for green building should be made, along with information about existing incentive programs. (Local Action)

3.8.3 Establish an integrated permitting process.

Require an integrated, interdisciplinary review process, including mandatory pre-application meetings, for qualified green building projects. A dedicated team of reviewers can facilitate the process. The team should include LEED® Accredited Professionals or others with demonstrable knowledge of green building. Provide staff training that identifies relevant environmental issues and code and process barriers, and that provides up-to-date information on best practices in green code development, design, construction, and operation. Give permitting priority to projects that meet established standards for environmental performance. (Local Action)

3.8.4 Use fee reductions to encourage LID.

As climate change reduces snowpack and spring stream flows and raises water temperatures, stormwater management will become even more critical. Create a rate structure for stormwater management utility fees and sewerage fees (for combined sewer and stormwater systems) that encourages the reduction of impervious surfaces, retention of native vegetation, and implementation of LID techniques. (Local Action)

Making a Commitment

3.8.5 Design, construct, and operate public facilities to green building standards.

Mandate that all new publicly funded facilities above a specified size, constructed by your jurisdiction or agency, are designed and built to a third-party verified green building standard such as LEED® Gold. Existing public building and facility performance should regularly be audited and facilities evaluated for potential retrofits or operational improvements that increase environmental performance. Track and manage building performance using EPA Energy Star Portfolio Manager. (Local or State Action)

3.8.6 Conduct an audit of municipal buildings.

Recently passed Washington State legislation (SB 5854, Chapter 423, 2009 Laws) requires large utilities to maintain records of the energy consumption of all nonresidential and qualifying public agency buildings to which they provide service, and to obtain written authorization to upload energy consumption data to the US EPA Energy Star Portfolio Manager database. Building owners and operators will then complete the portfolio manager and obtain a performance score. Public agencies should conduct audits of their buildings pursuant to this legislation. (Local and State Action)

3.8.7 Integrate green building and LID into engineering and design standards.

Engineering and design standards typically address conventional designs and can preclude green building and LID. These standards should be revised to include details for green building and LID techniques, and should include provisions to grant deviations from standards where an environmental benefit can be demonstrated to result from an alternate design. Jurisdictions should adopt the current highest standards for stormwater management. (Local Action)

3.8.8 Require GHG emissions reporting through SEPA.

Applicants should be required to report probable GHG emissions over the lifetime of a project under the air quality section of the SEPA checklist. The lead agency can allow the use of an emissions generation template, such as the one developed by King County, or can allow applicants to present their own calculations using an accepted method. (Local Action)

3.8.9 Revise parking requirements.

The minimization of impervious surfaces is the first step in improving stormwater management as we adapt to a changing hydrologic regime. Parking requirements should minimize impervious surfaces by lowering (or eliminating where appropriate) minimum parking requirements, setting maximum parking limits so that excessive numbers of spaces are not constructed, allowing shared parking, and revising parking design standards to allow smaller spaces and the use of pervious surfaces where appropriate. (Local Action)

3.8.10 Provide incentives for green building projects.

Projects that achieve objective standards for green building or LID should be encouraged through incentives such as density or floor/area ratio (FAR) bonuses, reduced permit fees, streamlined permit processing, or financial grants. (Local Action)

3.8.11 Promote district or neighborhood scale efficiencies.

Green buildings cannot be successful in confronting the climate change challenge without a sustainable neighborhood context. Establish code provisions and incentivize neighborhood- or district-scale efficiencies and improvements that capture and support green building benefits, such as infill development, cottage housing, district heating and cooling, distributed generation grids, urban stream and waterway protection, and pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use communities. (Local Action)

3.8.12 Provide technical assistance to applicants.

Create a system for collecting and publicizing technical information and assistance for project applicants. This can include case studies, educational materials on green technology and practices, BMPs, performance standards, and a clearinghouse for performance data. (Local, Regional, or State Action)

3.8.13 Remove barriers to alternative energy.

Remove building code and permitting barriers to installing alternative energy systems such as photovoltaic panels or small wind turbines, and passive heating and cooling systems, as part of green building projects or retrofits. Forms of alternative energy should be allowed by right in certain zones, and height limits and setbacks should allow for the installation of these structures. For instance, consider creating a height exception for solar and wind systems up to 15 feet taller than building height limits. In new developments consider requiring “renewable ready” construction. Installing conduit from roof to circuit breaker, larger electrical panels and structural pieces for solar or even wind systems is often much more cost-effective when done during construction than as a retrofit later. This will allow a future building owner to more easily install a solar rooftop or adjacent wind tower system. Work with developers to limit the restrictions on such uses in the development’s CC&Rs. (Local Action) Issaquah’s Zero Energy Project, provides a development demonstrating a combination of strategies that work toward net zero energy use, see Project Example #1.

3.8.14 Remove barriers to building deconstruction.

The demolition of buildings and disposal of materials wastes an opportunity to conserve some of the embodied energy represented by salvageable or recyclable building materials. Preserving and refurbishing existing buildings should be given preference over demolition When demolition cannot be avoided, permitting jurisdictions should facilitate the deconstruction of buildings and reuse of salvageable material. Permitting barriers or disincentives to deconstruction should be removed. (Local Action)

3.8.15 Provide financial assistance for energy efficiency.

Provide funding for property owners for weatherization and other energy efficiency measures for existing homes and businesses, with priority for low-income housing. (Local, Regional, or State Action)

3.8.16 Establish tree and vegetation retention ordinances.

Retaining existing trees and vegetation should be an integral part of our climate change strategy. Trees and vegetation sequester carbon dioxide and reduce the negative hydrologic impacts of development. Establish ordinance provisions for retaining existing trees and native vegetation and for replacing removed trees and vegetation. Trees should be prioritized by species and size. Native vegetation should be prioritized for its habitat value and ability to mitigate stormwater impacts. Such ordinances should be balanced with the need to preserve solar access. (Local Action)

Expanding the Commitment


3.8.17 Support revisions to state-level building and energy codes.

The State Building Code, which regulates energy performance, plumbing, and other aspects of building construction, drives the environmental performance of new buildings. Planners should support revisions to these standards that allow, encourage, or require, as appropriate, green building practices and high environmental performance standards. (State and Local Action)

The Role of Energy Efficiency
While much of the public interest – and planning interest – has focused on Green Buildings and compact communities, a recent report from McKinsey &Company has re-ignited interest in the large potential energy savings in our existing building stock. Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy provides an in-depth analysis of the potential of NPV-positive[2] investments that can result in large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and show net savings to end users.

Looking at the residential sector through 2020, the McKinsey analysis shows a potential nationwide end-use energy savings of 1300 TBTUs[3] from improvements to non-low income housing – a 39% savings. This compares with only 320 TBTUs in savings from new homes over the same period. These savings result from available technologies, including sealing HVAC ducts, basement and attic insulation, and programmable thermostats. With such significant savings available, why haven’t more homeowners chosen to make these improvements? The report cites five primary barriers to shell and HVAC retrofits:

• Awareness – homeowners typically do not understand either their home’s energy consumption or available energy-savings measures
• Agency and ownership – both landlord-tenant issues and ownership transfers prevent capture of savings from investments
• Decisions to pursue changes – due to competing uses for capital and elevated expectations of payback periods
• Ability to pursue savings – high transaction barriers in the choice of improvements and financing; limited availability of “whole house” contractors to make the improvements
• Savings capture – inconsistent quality of installation and improper use of equipment prevent homeowners from realizing the potential savings

Similarly, existing private buildings present an opportunity for end-use savings 810 TBTU, compared to only 270 TBTU from new private buildings over the same period. Many of the same barriers are present – agency issues, expectation of very short payback periods, capital constraints, and lack of awareness.

Finding solutions to these barriers is a significant challenge for the planning community. Available market-based measures have included voluntary standards, monetary incentives (often from utilities who understand that energy savings are less expensive than new generation capability), and education campaigns. As the need to rapidly reduce GHG emissions, regulatory measures that bypass the barriers – such as mandatory retrofits on resale or occupancy change – may need to be implemented.

3.8.18 Strengthen local non-residential energy codes.

Washington State’s energy code has two categories: residential and non-residential (industrial and commercial buildings). State statutes allow counties and cities to pass improved non-residential energy code requirements, but prohibit modifying the residential energy code. Take action needed to require higher levels of energy performance in non-residential codes. Also work with building professionals to increase capacity for local modifications to energy codes.(Local Action)

3.8.19 Require integrated review for all projects.

The integrated, interdisciplinary review process already established for green projects should be implemented for all projects. This will ensure that environmental factors are considered for every project and that opportunities for green design can be identified throughout the permitting process. (Local Action)

3.8.20 Remove barriers to rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling.

As climate change puts pressure on water supplies, rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling can help to reduce demand for potable water, while lessening stormwater impacts and reducing demands on wastewater treatment facilities. Regulations governing the use of water are many and complex. Planners should seek to provide guidance and legal authority for rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling. Local jurisdictions should coordinate with Ecology regarding water rights relative to rainwater harvesting. (Local and State Action)

3.8.21 Require mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions through SEPA.

Lead agencies should establish substantive authority for mitigating the effect of GHG emissions and develop threshold standards.

Threshold standards should be tied to goals for greenhouse gas reduction contained in comprehensive plans or other local government policy standards, as well as State mandates and legislation. The State should follow the recommendations of the 2008 Climate Action Team (CAT) SEPA Implementation Working Group for establishing threshold standards and reporting requirements. The threshold standards should become progressively more stringent over time in order to meet GHG emission reduction goals. Mitigation measures should emphasize reduction of GHG emissions before considering other measures. (Local and State Action)

3.8.23 Advocate for increasingly aggressive building standards.

The green building standards of today should soon become baseline standards for all buildings, while increasingly higher standards are promoted for future development. The Architecture 2030 Challenge lays out a series of increasingly stringent standards for building efficiency, beginning at 60% reductions from current average levels by 2010 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2030. The Cascadia Green Building Council’s Living Building Challenge offers an even broader vision of sustainable building practices. Local governments should progressively increase the standards by which new construction is evaluated while aggressively encouraging development under higher emerging standards. (Local Action)


American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standard Project Committee 189 (SPC 189).

Cascadia Region Green Building Council. "Code & Regulatory Barriers to the Living Building Challenge." 2008.

Cascadia Region Green Building Council.

Center for Climate Strategies. "Washington State Greenhouse Gas Inventory and Reference Case Projections, 1990-2020." 2007.

Central City Concern. "Achieving Water Independence in Buildings: Navigating the Challenges of Water Reuse in Oregon." Mar 2009.

Eisenberg, David, Robert Done, and Loretta Ishida. "Breaking Down the Barriers: Challenges and Solutions to Code Approval of Green Building." 2002.

Environmental Law Institute. "Municipal Green Building Policies: Strategies for Transforming Building Practices in the Private Sector." Apr 2008.

International Code Council. "ICC 700-2008 National Green Building Standard." 2008.

International Living Building Institute.

Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute. "Sustainable Community Development Code: A Code for the 21st Century.
Beta Version 1.2." Jan 2009.

U.S. EPA Energy Star.

U.S. Green Building Council. LEED homepage.

West Coast Environmental Law. "Cutting the Green Tape: An Action Plan for Removing Regulatory Barriers to Green Innovations." Apr 2002.

Wilson, Alex, Jennifer Atlee, and Douglas Webber. "Green Building in North America: Institutional Efforts for Green Building in Canada and the United States." Mar 2008.


1 Center for Climate Strategies, 2007.

2 McKinsey defines NPV-positive to mean the present value of energy, operation, and maintenance cost savings that accrue over the lifetime of the measure are equal to or greater than the upfront investment to deploy that measure when discounted at an appropriate discount rate.

3 TBTU = trillions of British thermal units. By comparison, the nation’s full stock of non-low income housing is estimated to have used 3,830 TBTU in 2008