Green Building vs. Traditional Building: 4 Main Differences

Buildings, be they green or traditional, can vary in terms of their appearance and design. However, the differences between a green building and a traditional one go far beyond how they look.

A green building will try to minimize its environmental impact while still being functional. Green buildings usually use less energy and water compared to conventional buildings. On the other hand, traditional buildings don’t factor in environmental issues or energy conservation during construction.

Environmental considerations can shape a green building’s design in many ways and, therefore, can be different from traditional buildings in several ways. Let’s look at those differences in greater detail.

1. Building Design

The differences between a green building and a traditional one begin right at the design stage.

An issue from the Journal of Cleaner Production details three dimensions of sustainability: people, planet, and profit. These factors also refer to a building’s social, environmental, and economic impact, respectively.

Here’s a brief explanation of the factors and what they mean:

  • People/Social: This refers to a building’s occupants. A building can only truly justify its existence if it can fulfill its occupants’ needs.
  • Planet/Environmental: Everything from the materials used to construct a building to its daily operation will affect how it impacts the environment.
  • Profit/Economic: Every building will have costs associated with it, from construction to operating costs to maintenance.

A green building will consider all three of these dimensions. It will try to fulfill occupant needs in an environmentally conscious manner. Since it counts environmental concerns in its design, a green building will likely be more expensive to build than a traditional building.

In contrast, a traditional building will only worry about economic and social factors. It’s usually enough for the building to be built to code and within budget. However, since conventional buildings don’t usually consider the environment in their design and construction, they tend to be cheaper to build than their greener counterparts.

While green buildings generally cost more to build than traditional ones, this isn’t always the case as operational costs can vary as well.

2. Building Materials

Building materials come with an environmental cost, usually measured in embodied energy.

Embodied energy is the energy it takes to produce, transport, install, maintain, and dispose of a particular material. The higher the embodied energy, the more impact that material has on the environment.

Green buildings will use materials with low embodied energy and use recycled materials where possible. Traditional buildings will use whatever is cheapest and most available regardless of embodied energy.

Common Green Building Materials

Green buildings don’t necessarily abstain from using common construction materials entirely. However, they do make use of greener alternative materials where possible, such as the following:

  • Adobe: Adobe is a highly durable building material made from dirt, water, and straw. It is made from materials that are readily available and require little processing. Adobe is also a natural insulator, which helps regulate a building’s internal temperature.
  • Wood: Wood is a renewable resource with a relatively low embodied energy compared to other common building materials. It can also be sourced from certified sustainable forests, ensuring that its production does not negatively impact the environment. Wood is also common in traditional building construction but for different reasons.
  • Bamboo: A rapidly renewable resource, bamboo is known for its strength and durability which make it ideal for construction purposes. Green buildings use bamboo in various ways, including scaffolding, flooring, or furniture.
  • Cork: A fire-resistant material with excellent insulation properties, cork is commonly used in flooring, walls, and ceilings.
  • Wool: A natural fiber from sheep, wool is used due to its excellent thermal and acoustic insulation properties. Additionally, wool is also rapidly renewable.
  • Reclaimed wood: Often cheaper than new wood, reclaimed wood plays an important role in environmental conservation as it helps reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills.
  • Recycled steel: Recycled steel is usually melted down and reformed into new products and is very strong. The material is often used to construct more expansive green buildings.

Green buildings will avoid construction materials containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) where possible. VOCs are often present in paints, adhesives, and other construction materials. They are known to cause health problems in humans and can be harmful to the environment.

This isn’t to say that traditional buildings are more hazardous to their occupants in comparison. Any building built to code should be safe. It’s just that green buildings will go the extra mile to avoid using any materials that could potentially be harmful.

Common Conventional Building Materials

Chances are you live or work in a traditional building, so the following materials shouldn’t be strangers to you:

Concrete

Concrete is a very common building material due to its durability and cost-effectiveness. It is made from cement, aggregate, and water. Concrete is a versatile material used in foundations, walls, floors, and ceilings. Cement is the binding agent in concrete.

Portland cement, in particular, is made by cooking limestone and clay in a kiln and then grinding the resulting clinker into a fine powder.

Concrete can practically be found anywhere human society exists. However, cement, (a key ingredient in concrete), releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during production.

The widespread use and availability of concrete mean that alternatives are often costlier and more difficult to implement.

Brick

Brick is strong, durable, and easy to work with, features that make it ideal for construction. It is made from clay that is fired in a kiln. The material is found worldwide and has been part of construction for centuries. However, much like cement in concrete, the operation of industrial-scale brick kilns produces a great deal of CO2.

Glass

Glass is a very common material used in conventional buildings, particularly in curtain wall construction. It is made from sand, soda ash, and limestone. The production of glass creates a great deal of air pollution. However, glass can be recycled and reused, which helps offset its environmental impact.

Steel

Steel is a very strong and durable metal often used to construct high-rise buildings. Impressively, steel is one of the most recyclable materials in the world, which helps reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. Steel is also versatile and is used to create a variety of products used in the construction industry.

Wood

Wood is a very versatile construction material. The material can be used in floors, walls, roofs, and framing, virtually everywhere in a construction project. Wood is also relatively easy to work with, and as alluded to earlier, it is a renewable resource.

However, the production of lumber produces carbon dioxide while deforestation for construction purposes can harm the environment.

3.  Energy Consumption

Green buildings are more resource-efficient than their traditional counterparts. They achieve this by leaning into the principles of passive design. Passive design uses materials and design to heat and cool a building with little to no need for mechanical systems like HVAC.

Passive Solar Design

One of the most common ways to use passive design in a green building is passive solar heating. It involves designing the building to use the sun’s energy to heat the interior. This is typically done by incorporating large, south-facing windows and proper insulation to prevent heat loss.

At night, the building can release the heat it has absorbed during the day through thermal mass. Thermal mass is any material that can store heat energy, such as concrete, brick, or water. It allows the building to continue heating overnight without relying on energy from the grid.

Passive solar design factors in little, if at all, in traditional buildings. The readily available nature of HVAC systems makes using them the norm.

Green structures will consider building orientation to maximize passive solar heating potential.

Meanwhile, orientation can be a factor for traditional buildings in terms of appearance and overall appeal. Otherwise, a conventional building will likely prefer to conform to the lot it’s on without considering the sun.

Passive Cooling

Just as green buildings can use passive solar design to heat the interior, they can also use passive cooling to keep the building cool in hot weather.

Passive cooling manifests through a variety of methods:

  • Shading is the simplest way to passively cool a building. A building can keep its interior cooled with shade from outside trees and awnings.
  • Cross-ventilation is simple and doable with enough windows on opposite ends. By opening windows on opposite sides of the building, the wind can help cool the interior.
  • Trombe walls are a passive solar design used for heating or cooling. They are walls coated with a material that absorbs and stores heat.
  • Earth tubes run underground and use the earth’s natural temperature to cool the air inside. They’re also known as ground-coupled heat exchangers.

Traditional buildings incorporate passive cooling techniques, particularly shading and window location. These designs are easy and cheap to implement and contribute to occupant comfort.

Passive Ventilation

Passive or natural ventilation is a way to cool a building without using energy from the grid. It involves using natural processes like wind and convection to move air around the building.

Specific examples of passive ventilation include stack ventilation. It pertains to when hot air rises and is vented out of the top of the building while cooler air comes in from the bottom. Chimneys are a primary example.

Another example is windcatchers. They are a type of vent that uses the wind to help move air through the building. These structures are common in arid climates like in the Middle East.

Traditional buildings will have some form of ventilation, but it doesn’t rely on passive ventilation much. The most common type of ventilation in a traditional building is mechanical or active ventilation, which uses fans and other powered systems to move air around.

4. Energy Generation

Green buildings would like to rely less on external energy sources. It takes a lot of power just to get the electricity produced from a power plant to the building. Green buildings would like to produce some of their resources on-site.

Photovoltaic cells, commonly called solar panels, are becoming more and more common as technology improves and costs go down. They generate electricity from sunlight.

Home batteries are a way to store energy generated by solar panels to be used later when the sun isn’t shining and allow for a building to be powered even when the grid is down.

Because of the ubiquity and relative affordability of today’s power utilities, on-site power generation is not often a priority for traditional buildings.

Why Aren’t Green Buildings More Common?

Green buildings aren’t more common due to the convenience of conventional buildings. From building material transportation to power generation, entire industries exist to construct, design and operate buildings the conventional way. This system has been around for decades and won’t change overnight.

It’s easy to assume that the newer ways of doing things will also be more expensive. In reality, it’s a case-by-case situation. Factors like site location, climate, and the size of the building all play a role in how much it would cost to make a green building.

The upfront costs of constructing a green building are difficult for many to look past. As a result, we miss the point that the green building’s long-term operational costs could be lower.

When we’re used to doing something a particular way for so long, we don’t bother to learn about or invest in new ways of doing things, even if they’re better for us in the long run. We might not even be aware that there are other options available.

Building Types Exist on a Spectrum

We’ve been defining green buildings as a separate category from traditional buildings. In reality, these terms are not black and white. All buildings exist on a spectrum, with green buildings on one end and conventional buildings on another.

A home with solar panels on its roof is not a green building, but it is greener than a home without them.

The building types can also meet each other halfway. There are solar roof shingles that create energy in the same way as conventional photovoltaics but look like and still function as traditional roof shingles.

Traditional buildings can incorporate some sustainable design principles, and green buildings can use some conventional building techniques. It’s all about finding the right balance for each project.

Final Thoughts

Green and traditional buildings are different, but the most important difference is their environmental consideration, which shapes how we design them, what materials we use to construct them, and how we intend them to function.

There may come a time when green buildings and conventional buildings are one and the same, much like how radios, cameras, and GPS are all components of a smartphone. Until then, we can learn from the different building types and their differences and use that knowledge to make all buildings, green or otherwise, better.

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