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It’s no wonder that green building design has become popular in recent years, considering it focuses on maximizing the efficiency in the buildings we live and work in. Which, in turn, is better for the environment, and for our bank accounts.

In this design guide, we’ll talk about the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint (without breaking the bank!) by using products that are certified “green” by organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


1. Lighting

You may be surprised to learn how much energy is wasted through inefficient bulbs and fixtures. Learn which types are the best for the environment.

2. Roofing/Exterior

Did you know your roof can create energy? See how insulation and solar panels can decrease your buildings’ carbon footprints.

3. Appliances

Newer refrigerators, clothes washers, and dryers are incredibly efficient. Here are some tips and tricks for your shopping trip.

4. Flooring

Sustainable flooring and carpeting is better for you, your residents, and Mother Nature. Compare the choices, including recyclable, recycled, and eco-friendly hardwood, laminate, and carpeting.

5. Insulation

Properly insulated roofs and siding make the difference between a tightly-sealed home and an energy-waster. See all of your insulation choices here.


There are endless opportunities to save energy with your heating, ventilation, and air condition systems. See some of the best ways to minimize your energy use.

7. Windows

Even fully closed windows can let cold air seep in (or out, if you live in a warmer climate). Here are some window choices that won’t flush energy down the drain.

8. Foundation/Site

How do you get the most out of your home’s foundation? Insulation, of course. Check out some of these green building materials.

9. Water fixtures/faucets

Saving water is one of the most basic elements of being green. Here are some ways to remember to use less water.

10. Electricity

Learn how to choose green electricity from environmentally-friendly sources, like windmills and solar panels.


When it comes to being green, lighting is low-effort, high-impact. And, it’s more than just buying efficient bulbs: you should also consider the material used to make the lamps.

Let’s start with the basics: bulbs. Different bulbs operate at varying levels of efficiency. Incandescent bulbs, while a forward-thinking invention of the the 1800s, have been banned in several countries, and are currently being phased out in the United States.

The popularity of incandescent bulbs can be explained by the fact that they are cheaper up front. But, as you can see below, incredibly expensive in the long run:

lightbulb comparison Source: For a full efficiency comparison, visit the website.

Here’s what you should buy, instead:

  • Light emitting diodes (LEDs) are, by far, the most cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly choice. Don’t let the upfront cost scare you, as they last 50 times longer than traditional lightbulbs and use a tenth of the energy.

  • Compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs can last up to 4 times longer than traditional bulbs, and use a quarter of the energy. There is a caveat: they can’t be thrown in the trash, be sure to recycle them properly.

But, what are you going to put the bulb in? Many new light fixtures can be made from recycled or natural materials with smaller carbon footprints. Or, if you’re a little handy and willing to rewire an older lamp, you may be able to find some funky and unique fixtures at local yard sales and secondhand stores.

Most of all: remember to turn the lights off whenever you leave the room. Even a few minutes can make a difference for your electric bill and the environment.


Roofing Source: Cool Roofing Rating Council

Obviously, you know that the roof is an essential element in properly insulating your buildings. But did you know you can also use the roof to shrink your carbon footprint?


Green Attic

It’s easy to start in the attic, because they’re easily accessible in single-family homes. It’s also one of the easiest ways to lower utility bills with proper insulation. First, look up the appropriate R-Value for your climate, and then find insulation of the right thickness in recycled material. When you’re done, make sure that access points to the attic are properly sealed; large volumes of heat and air can easily escape through any holes.

Solar Panels

Installing solar panels can be costly (upwards of $25,000 depending on how many panels you need), but many utility companies provide incentives to offset the cost. This may include a 50% subsidy off the cost, or net metering, which allows meters to spin backwards as you create electricity with solar panels.

But, you’ll save a lot of money in the long run. You can even calculate how much this will save you (and your residents), with a solar power calculator.

And, for cash-strapped, environmentally-conscious renters (millenials in particular), saving money on electric bills and shrinking their carbon footprint is a major plus when evaluating apartments.

Green Roofs

It all starts with light-colored roofing materials (as opposed to black or dark gray). Because dark roofs absorb more heat from the sun, they may ultimately increase interior cooling costs in the summer.

In multi-family buildings with larger roofs, rooftop gardens are a great way to provide an extra level of insulation for the building, and create a community space for your residents. Plus, in big cities, many residents appreciate having a green space of their own to grow herbs and vegetables for themselves.


Since 1992, the ENERGY STAR program has helped consumers save more than $362 billion on utility costs, and 2.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases with Energy Star-certified appliances, building materials, and educational materials.

And, appliances are one of the easiest, simplest ways to save money on utility bills. Responsibility swapping out refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes washers, and dryers can save you and your residents money and energy.


According to ENERGY STAR, more than 60 million refrigerators in the U.S. are older than 10 years old. And, the compressors and insulation in decade-old fridges are just not up to snuff, and money is easily wasted. Newer ENERGY STAR-certified refrigerators can easily save up to 9-10% on electric bills.

You may also find that you can apply for tax rebates for buying and installing these energy-efficient refrigerators.

But wait, if you’re upgrading appliances, don’t just throw the old fridges away! They can be recycled, so you’re not piling old appliances in landfills.

To save energy once the refrigerator is installed, set the temperature to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which will keep food at a safe temperate without draining excess resources.


How old are the dishwashers in your rental properties? If they’re more than 20 years old, they could be wasting an extra 10 gallons of water in every cycle!

Again, you can recycle an older dishwasher, and replace it with an ENERGY STAR-certified appliance. New dishwashers are more efficient for a number of reasons, including rack designs that make for cleaner dishes with less water. In fact, with most new units, dishes don’t even need to be rinsed first (which can save up to 55,000 gallons of water).

Once installed, remind residents to:

  • Fully load the dishwasher before the cycle
  • Turn off the heated dry cycle (air drying is fine)
  • Use natural, biodegradable detergents
  • Set the timer to run the dishwasher during off-peak times (overnight, usually)
Washers and Dryers

How many loads of laundry do you think your residents wash every year?

According to the EPA, the average American family washes about 300 loads annually. So, imagine if you could replace their washers and dryers with units that save 25% on electricity costs, and can cut about 40% of water use? They, and Mother Nature, would thank you.

And don’t forget, you can recycle old washers and dryers, too!

Once installed, remind residents to:

  • Wash with cold water
  • Only run full cycles (the same logic applies here as with dishwashers)
  • Clean the lint filter between every single load
  • Line dry laundry whenever possible. If there’s no outdoor space for a clothesline, indoor drying racks cost less than $20.

Sustainable Flooring

Depending on the part of the country you’re in, different types of flooring are major selling points. Hardwood is usually a popular choice because it’s easy to keep clean and wears well. These days, you can find a lot of eco-friendly hardwood, engineered hardwood, cork, bamboo, and laminate options that are recycled and don’t harm limited natural resources.

Look for materials that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), which indicate that the materials are sustainably sourced.

Some demographics do prefer carpet (sometimes, just in the bedrooms, while the common areas are hardwood or laminate). Wool or hemp carpeting have a minimal impact on the environment, and can be recycled for many generations. Look for certification from the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) to improve the ecological effects of carpeting.

Source: Environmental Design Construction Source: Environmental Design Construction


Earlier, we talked about having the right insulation in your attic, but there are so many other places that heat can escape in homes. Poorly insulated walls, floors, and vents allow heat to escape, making furnaces work overtime in the winter. Every property has different insulation needs, depending on its architecture, size, and location. Wondering where you might need more insulation? Check out the EPA’s guide on where you should insulate a typical home.

Insulation is measured in R-values, and the level of insulation you need is directly related to the climate in which you live. In a cold climate, such as Alaska, your insulation’s R-value will be quite high; in areas such as southern Florida, lower R-Value insulation will suffice.

r-value guide Source:

Though you may be meticulous with insulation when you’re installing it, the key to making it last is proper maintenance. For example, a leaky roof will hurt your energy bills, and may even damage your insulation. Be proactive and make repairs to any damages (from weather or wear), as soon as you notice it.


Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems (HVAC), which keep interiors at a comfortable temperature year round, also filter the air that flows through the ventilation system to keep it healthy and clean. For buildings in harsher climates (cold or hot), functional, clean HVAC systems are essential.

There are many ENERGY STAR-certified HVAC systems, but even the most efficient heating and cooling systems need proper maintenance to keep up. Filters should be change regularly (seasonally or annually), maintenance should be performed annually, and it’s a good idea to provide programmable thermostats for each unit (at a minimum).

But remember that even installing a new unit may not save money or energy if your building isn’t properly insulated.


When shopping for new windows for your building, you’ll want to look for efficiency certifications (yes, there are ENERGY STAR windows). But, you’ll also want to be sure you choose the right design for where the windows are in the building.

For example, in a colder climate, you may want windows that allow the sun to warm the rooms facing the right direction in the winter. In a warmer climate, you’ll want windows that reflect the suns solar rays back outside instead of letting them inside. But those are just the basics: different geographies have different efficiency standards measured in U-factors.

Proper maintenance is essential for ensuring that windows provide the right level of insulation for years to come. Look for cracks in the glass and framework, and remind residents to close and lock their windows when running the heat or AC. Older buildings may have storm windows that need to go up in the winter months, or you can provide interior plastic wrap for residents to use when the temperatures drop.

Curtains, blinds, and shades can also improve efficiency, blocking sunlight to keep rooms cool in the summer. Many building provide blinds and shades to their residents to improve efficiencies.


Just like heat can escape through the roof, siding and windows, it can also escape through the foundation. It’s essential to insulate the foundation from air and moisture, too.

Some materials are naturally more efficient and eco-friendly than others, including plywood and aluminum. These materials may be more expensive up front, but they pay for themselves in the energy savings. Use insulated concrete to form foundation walls.

Water can significantly weaken and damage the foundation if not properly irrigated. A perimeter drain at the bottom of the foundation funnels water away from the building to keep it dry and strong.

Prevent moisture and mold growth in basements by insulating the inside and the outside of the foundation. You can insulate the inside of a basement after it is constructed, but it’s more efficient to insulate the outside when building the property.

Water Fixtures/Faucets

Even in the last 20 years, toilet and faucet manufacturers have made huge strides in water conservation.

For example, toilets installed before 1992 may use up to 7 gallons per flush. WaterSense toilets, on the other hand, use as little as 1.6 or 1.28 gallons per flush. There are several different options when shopping for new toilets for your properties:

  • Low-flow toilets, which simply use less water per flush (these are the most common)
  • Dual-flush toilets, which allow the user to select a level of flush that depends on his or her use
  • Automatic sensor toilets, which use electricity to determine the amount of water needed per flush

You can also find WaterSense-certified faucets and shower heads.

Then, remind residents to turn faucets off when they’re not in use (especially while brushing teeth, washing dishes, or cleaning), and to take shorter showers.

You can also turn the temperature down on water heaters to conserve energy.

Source: Home Water Savings Source: Home Water Savings


Renewable Energy

Electricity is essential in our daily lives. But we also use an excess amount, and 98% of it comes from non-renewable resources like coal, oil, and natural gas.

When building or renovating, if you properly insulate and install fixtures that conserve energy, you’ll help your residents shrink their carbon footprint in the long run.

Furthermore, if you live in an area where you can harness the power of windmills or solar panels, it pays to invest in them.

Once you’re done construction, remind residents to conserve water and electricity. And help them by providing opportunities for them to recycle and donate items they no longer need or want.

And, if you’ve done a really good job in building or upgrading your buildings, you may even qualify for LEED Certification, which is good for your residents, the earth, and future generations. Not to mention, you may benefit from a variety of tax incentives and grants.

Consumer Sustainable Building Labels

Look for the following:

LEED_logo_USGBC LEED Certification: Look for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s stamp of approval. This program focuses on every aspect and stage of building a green home. energystar Energy Star Rated Appliances: Make sure your household appliances and electrical equipment are as efficient as they can be by looking for the Energy Star logo. environment-water-sense-logo_463x463 EPA WaterSense: Check for this label on your water-related appliances and fixtures to ensure that they are eco-friendly. These products are guaranteed to use water efficiently and help you save money on your water bill. fsc-logo-green Forest Stewardship Council: This organization works to manage the way resources are taken from forests and prevent deforestation. Products with this label were made without harming the environments from which they came.

Additional Green Building Resources


The Environmental Protection Agency is your source for all things eco-friendly. Stay up-to-date on the latest issues in energy conservation and learn how you can make a difference.

Green Building

This website, which focuses on every aspect of green building, is a great guide for people who are building new homes and those who are remodeling.

Tree Hugger

This website merges green living with current events, providing helpful guides for green living along with the latest news in energy efficiency.

Green Education Foundation

This organization focuses on keeping people informed about the environment. It provides education sessions and grants for those interested in learning more about green living.

Consumer Energy Center

This California-based energy conservation website provides useful tips and information no matter where you live.

Download The Guide

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