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Published: 28 May 2024
Contributors: Alice Gomstyn, Alexandra Jonker

What is green building?

Green building is a resource-efficient construction and development approach that considers environmental impact and human health. In green building projects, sustainability is incorporated throughout the building’s lifecycle, from planning to demolition.

Green building concepts include environmentally conscious site selection, practices to facilitate and improve energy efficiency, water efficiency and indoor environmental quality, and efforts to limit carbon emissions. Successful green building projects often meet widely adopted green building standards, such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) framework.

The term green building might also describe a structure developed with green building practices. It is sometimes used interchangeably with other terms, such as “eco-friendly building,” “high-performance building” and “sustainable building.”

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What is the history of the green building movement?

The green building movement can be traced back to the 1980s, when growing concerns about the destruction of the natural environment led to heightened awareness of built environments’ impacts. Accordingly, in 1987, the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission released a report on development and the environment. The Commission defined sustainable development as “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1

Organized efforts to encourage sustainable construction and better environmental performance of buildings soon followed. The 1990s saw the advent of multiple green building rating systems and evaluation methods.


The Building Research Establishment in the United Kingdom launched the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM). BREEAM eventually served as the foundation for a Canada-based green building rating system, Green Globes, that today is also used in the United States.


In the United States, the US Environmental Protection Agency introduced a program promoting energy efficiency for lighting in industrial and commercial buildings. This program was later integrated into the broader US ENERGY STAR program, promoting energy efficiency in appliances and buildings.


A coalition of construction industry professionals formed the US Green Building Council. In 1998, the coalition released the first LEED certification system. Today, LEED ratings systems are widely used to evaluate not just American buildings but also structures around the world.


Real estate developers in Hong Kong S.A.R. of the PRC joined together to create the Building Environmental Assessment Method (BEAM) Steering Committee. The group released its environmental assessment methods the following year.

Since the 1990s, other organizations have formed to promote green building practices, including GRESB (originally known as the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark) and the World Green Building Council.

Green building standards and rating systems initially covered only new or commercial buildings but have expanded to evaluate existing buildings, residential buildings and communities.

Over the years, governments have also taken a more proactive role in encouraging green building, increasingly incorporating green building practices into building codes. As of 2022, some 80 countries had mandatory or voluntary building codes in place to promote better energy performance and energy-efficient buildings, according to the International Energy Agency.2

Why is green building important?

Some 38% of global energy-related carbon emissions stem from building construction and building operations.3 With greenhouse gas emissions known to be the leading cause of anthropogenic global warming, sustainable design and sustainable building are emerging as critical efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

In addition to environmental impact, green building programs also yield other benefits such as:

  • Lowering building operating costs and utility bills through reduced energy consumption and water use.
  • Enhancing public health, quality of life and productivity through more comfortable and healthier indoor environments.
  • Helping developers and building owners meet environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards.
  • Increasing the likelihood of buildings becoming high-performing assets, with green buildings often achieving higher market value than comparable structures.
What features are common to green building projects?

Green buildings often feature some or all of the following:

Sustainable site selection

A sustainable site can include buildings that are close to public transit and have amenities that reduce the need for occupants to drive, helping limit transportation-related carbon emissions. Locating a building in an area with existing infrastructure such as water and utility lines can also limit the need for new infrastructure development, further mitigating the impact on the natural environment.

Sustainable materials

Sustainable building materials have little or no negative impact on the environment as they’re produced and used. They also tend to be more durable, allowing for less maintenance. Examples include reclaimed wood, sustainably harvested lumber and recycled glass and steel.

Decarbonization measures

A lower carbon footprint is a hallmark of green buildings. High-quality insulation and windows optimize HVAC performance and conserve energy. Energy-efficient electric appliances and renewable energy sources, both onsite and off-site, reduce fossil fuel reliance. Smart technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, smart lighting and intelligent climate control systems automatically adjust indoor conditions to achieve energy savings while accommodating occupant needs in real time.

Higher indoor environmental quality

Effective ventilation systems and air monitoring systems ensure that buildings have high indoor air quality, while sustainable building designs that allow for access to natural light and outdoor views can support occupant well-being.

Water efficiency

Green buildings might include features designed to minimize water consumption, including water-efficient appliances and fixtures, stormwater collection and storage, water reuse for mechanical purposes, and landscaping that requires minimal irrigation.

What are examples of green building?

According to the World Green Building Council, examples of cutting-edge green buildings include:4

The Kaiser Permanente Medical Office Building, Santa Rosa, California

The medical office building includes heat pumps that reduced annual energy use by approximately 40%. A photovoltaic array was also installed in the building’s parking lot, producing enough electricity to offset the building’s energy use.

Urbanización El Paraíso, Colombia

The residential multiunit project in a small Colombian city features natural lighting and ventilation systems that prevent disease associated with indoor air pollution and mold. It also includes a rainwater storage system and landscaping with native species. The project was built near a municipal transport route, a park and several public services.

18 King Wah Road, Hong Kong S.A.R. of the PRC

This commercial building was retrofitted with upgrades that promote sustainability. The interior surfaces of its car park were covered in a special photocatalytic paint that breaks down air pollutants for better air quality. It also features an energy-efficient, solar-powered air conditioning system, design elements that allow more daylight into the building, and air filtration and ventilation systems to ensure indoor air quality.

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Resources The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment explained

The Commitment calls on organizations and cities to take action to reduce all operational and embodied carbon emissions within their building portfolios by 2030.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is the long-term ambition for people to coexist on Earth without depleting its natural resources.

What are ESG frameworks?

ESG reporting frameworks are used for the disclosure of data related to the ESG aspects of the business.

What are greenhouse gas emissions?

Greenhouse gas emissions are certain gases released into the atmosphere that create a “greenhouse effect”.

What is electrification?

Electrification is the conversion of a device, system or process that's dependent on nonelectric energy sources, such as fossil fuels, into one powered by electricity.

What is a green data center?

A green data center, or sustainable data center, is a facility that houses IT infrastructure and uses energy-efficient technologies to optimize energy use and minimize environmental impact.

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1  Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future” (link resides outside ibm.com), The United Nations, 1987.

2  All countries targeted for zero-carbon-ready codes for new buildings by 2030” (link resides outside ibm.com), International Energy Agency, September 2022.

3  Launched: 2020 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction” (link resides outside ibm.com), Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, 16 December 2020.

4  Case Study Library (link resides outside ibm.com), World Green Building Council, accessed 23 May 2024.