Focus topics

  • building size
  • Material use
  • operational requirements
  • financing and incentives
  • community links

Good design adds value for owners, occupants, community, and planet, regardless of project size and budget.

  • How do we provide abundance while living within our means?
  • How will the design choices balance first cost with long-term value?
  • How can the performance of this project be improved in ways that are cost and design neutral?

Sustainable design must be accessible to everyone. Strategies that lead to high-performing buildings across all measures are effective only if they are implemented in real buildings; however, these strategies will be implemented on a broad scale only if they make sense financially. There is a misconception in the industry that sustainable design adds costs, so only a few projects with high budgets and ambitious goals can afford to be “sustainable” or achieve high levels of performance across measures. This could not be further from the truth. While flashy features (such as solar panels) do add additional upfront costs, most of the best practices in this guide are either cost-neutral or come with significant savings. Rightsizing is one such strategy. Decreasing a building’s square footage will save costs while conserving energy and material resources. Reusing an existing structure is another example of a strategy for both lower cost and lower embodied energy.

Building size

  1. Space should be seen as a resource to conserve, just like water or energy. Efficient use of space is a good indicator of economical design. Smaller square footage per person or other metric is the goal.
  2. Strategies for reducing square footage include efficient building planning, designing program elements to overlap, building reuse, and eliminating program redundancies. Building programs should be designed for typical building operations and not for an occasional overflow event.
  3. Building efficiency ratio (net square footage divided by gross square footage) can be benchmarked by ) measures the percentage of conditioned space dedicated to building program. While typical building efficiency rations different between building types, a higher efficiency ratio means a more efficient use of space and resources.
  4. Design for flexibility of spaces, so that spaces can adapt to other functions as conditions change. This is the idea of Loose Fit: Interchangeability (the flexibility to easily reprogram a space designed for one function with a different one), which provides economy.
  5. If the project comes in over budget or if the project budget is reduced, cut costs by cutting scope, rather than by downgrading the quality of the materials.

Material use

  1. Limiting material use is an indicator of good economy. This can be accomplished by limiting finish products or eliminating superfluous materials to decrease total cost per square foot. Consider using materials that serve multiple functions. For example, structural shear walls are intrinsically impact-resistant, in addition to serving as sound and fire barriers. Reducing redundancy in the finish materials, such as floor coverings over concrete or gypsum board over plywood, can reduce waste and recovery time after a disaster event.
  2. Think about how material choices improve building lifespan or return on investment (ROI). More durable materials might cost more upfront but could have significant long-term ROI.
  3. Doing Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) can inform material selections/efficient material use. This is especially important when future hazards or disasters are included in future analyses. Studies show that mitigation efforts are often cost-effective, especially if indirect costs are factored in.

Operational requirements

  1. Designing to achieve a better energy and water performance will decrease the operational costs of a building (See Measures 4 and 6). Economy should focus on optimizing both upfront and operational costs; strategies that improve performance without increasing costs are particularly effective.
  2. Lowering maintenance requirements, by choosing more durable materials or materials that require less intensive cleaning or longer replacement cycles, will make projects more economical to operate.

Financing and incentives

  1. Researching and maximizing the use of local, state, and national incentives; grants; and financing options can justify long-term investments to improve performance. Examples include energy-cost payback, water savings, measured productivity gains, third-party power purchase agreements (PPA), etc.
  2. Always seek equitable economic solutions that improve opportunities for disadvantaged economies.

Community links

  1. Locally sourced materials or construction systems can form a link to the local economy. Choose materials with which local craftspeople have experience and give them some freedom to express their skills.
  2. Research workforce training opportunities during the construction of a project. These opportunities teach valuable skills and provide the experience necessary for career growth and future employment.
  3. Saving money on a project often means just shifting the cost elsewhere. Using wood that has not been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) will cost the building owner less but could devastate the community where the lumber was harvested. Try to balance local and global concepts on economy when making financial decisions.

Image credits


Benjamin Benschneider


Thomas McConnell


Daniel Andera


Tim Griffith