Optimize Site Potential  

the WBDG Sustainable Committee



Sustainable buildings start with proper site selection. The location of a building affects a wide range of environmental factors—as well as other factors such as security, accessibility, and energy consumption, as well as the energy consumed by transportation needs of occupants for commuting, the impact on local ecosystems, and the use/reuse of existing structures and infrastructures. Therefore, it is important to address site selection early in the project development process to ensure issues like solar access and proximity to public transportation are considered. Equally important is that the person selecting the project site understands sustainable site design, the ecoregion in which the project is located, and the impact it has on sustainable design and the building's overall energy performance. If possible, locate buildings in areas of existing development where infrastructure already exists and consider conserving resources by renovating existing buildings including historic properties. It is imperative that building owners and developers maximize the restorative impact of site design and building infrastructure while meeting the project's other requirements.

Sustainable site planning should consist of a whole system approach that seeks to:

Chicago City Hall

Green roofs can effectively absorb most rainfall events, reverse the urban heat island effect, and provide wildlife habitat. Chicago City Hall. Chicago, IL. Photo Credit: Don Horn

  • Minimize development of open space through the selection of disturbed land, re-use of brownfield sites, and retrofitting existing, buildings;
  • Provide wildlife corridors if possible on a base, campus or facility-wide scale. Link natural areas to the greatest extent possible so that contiguous areas allow for undisturbed wildlife movement;
  • Consider energy implications and carbon emissions in site selection and building orientation;
  • Control erosion through improved grading and landscaping practices;
  • Use native plants and remove existing invasive plants;
  • Reduce heat islands through building design methods, minimizing impervious surfaces, and using landscaping;
  • Minimize habitat disturbance;
  • Reduce, control, and treat surface runoff;
  • Restore the health of degraded sites by improving habitat for indigenous species through appropriate native plants, climate-adapted plants, and closed-loop water systems;
  • Locate the building in walkable distance to a range of stores and services, particularly grocery stores;
  • Incorporate transportation solutions along with site plans that acknowledge the need for bicycle parking, carpool staging, and proximity to mass transit. Encourage alternatives to traditional commuting;
  • Consider site security concurrently with sustainable site issues. Location of access roads, parking, vehicle barriers, and perimeter lighting, among others are key issues that must be addressed; and
  • Work closely with lighting designer to reduce security lighting and its associated light pollution. With overly bright security lighting, often the "bad guys" can safely stage operations just out of range, invisible to the security personnel whose eyes are adjusted to the overly bright immediate environment. (See also Effective Site Security Design.)


Minimize Development of Open Space

  • Retrofit an existing building. When planning to reuse an existing building, there are things to consider like relocating personnel for major renovations, which may include stripping out all interior finishes and insulation, doing energy audits, and replacing lights, HVAC and windows. (See also Historic Preservation.)
  • Use disturbed land or brownfield sites.
Photo of the outside U.S. Navy Building 33-Washington, DC
Photo of the inside of U.S. Navy Building 33-Washington, DC

Naval Facilities Engineering Command Headquarters, Bldg. 33: Formerly a gun turret plant at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC, this facility was renovated into a 4-story office building featuring energy efficient envelope, lighting, and HVAC systems as well as environmentally preferable materials.

Control Erosion Through Improved Landscaping Practices

Reduce, Control, and Treat Surface Runoff

  • Use low impact development principles.
    • Use rainwater cisterns, vegetated swales and depressions, constructed wetlands and other onsite storm water storage to reduce runoff.
    • Understand the site boundaries for LID extend beyond the building construction site and may include the entire campus or installation, a watershed, or the planned construction site for a future building or cluster of buildings.
    • Reduce the amount of impervious site area.
    • Filter surface runoff.
    • Use pervious paving materials.
  • Use Integrated Pest Management to reduce water pollution from pesticides.
  • Consider incorporating green roofs into the project where feasible.
  • Plan for storm water events in the overall management of surface water runoff.
  • Follow EPA's Green Infrastructure policy for managing stormwater.

Consider Energy Implications in Site Selection and Building Orientation

  • Orient buildings to.be able to integrate passive and active solar strategies. If renovating/retrofitting an existing structure (i.e. when employing passive solar strategies is not possible), consider planting trees to shade areas of the building that get more sunshine. Coordinate sustainable site design with site security considerations, including Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) strategies.
  • Take advantage of natural ventilation and prevailing wind patterns.
  • Maximize daylight use, while balancing higher heating and cooling demand resulting from increased glazing.
  • Investigate the potential impact of future adjacent developments to the site (e.g., solar and wind exposure, daylighting, ventilation, etc.).
  • Recycle existing pavement and demolition materials.
  • Provide bike racks, and vehicle changing stations.

Reduce Heat Islands Using Landscaping and Building Design Methods

  • Maximize the use of existing trees and other vegetation to shade walkways, parking lots, and other open areas. Ensure that site work and landscaping are integrated with security and safety design. See also WBDG Balancing Security/Safety and Sustainability Objectives for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Integrate landforms and landscaping into the site planning process to enhance resource protection.
  • In hot, dry climates, like the southwestern states, consider covering walkways, parking lots, and other open areas that are paved or made with low reflectivity (i.e. dark) materials. Ensure that shading devices do not block critical ground level sight lines for security.
  • Finish the facility's roof with materials that have high reflectance and high emissivity to reduce energy loads and extend the life of the roof, particularly in warm climates; consider incorporating green roofs or photovoltaics into the project. Use a roofing product that meets or exceeds Energy Star standards.
  • Consider incorporating green roofs into the project, which bring additional site benefits, including controlling storm water runoff and improving water quality.
Photo of a building with high reflective roof

Energy Star® Roof-compliant, high-reflectance, and high emissivity roofing can lower roof surface temperature by up to 100°F, decreasing the amount of heat transferred into a building.

There are related sustainable site benefits of green roofs. They include:

  • Controlling storm water runoff
  • Improving water quality
  • Mitigating urban heat-island effects

See also WBDG Extensive Vegetative Roofs and EPA's website Heat Island Effect.

Employ Environmentally Preferable Landscaping Practices

  • Eliminate the use of potable water by designing the landscape with drought-tolerant native, or indigenous, plants.
  • Where watering of the landscape is necessary employ zone irrigation, drip irrigation and rain water detectors to minimize water consumption.
  • Develop a Pest Control Plan, which includes information about: materials and equipment for service; method for monitoring and detection; service schedule for each building or site; any structural or operational changes that would facilitate the pest control effort; and commercial pesticide applicator certificates or licenses.
  • Consider composting and/or recycling yard waste.
  • Where necessary, use non-toxic outdoor fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Minimize site disturbance.
  • Use landscaping products with recycled content as required by EPA's Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines (CPG) for landscaping products.
  • See also WBDG Sustainable O&M Practices.

Minimize Habitat Disturbance

  • Keep land disturbance to a minimum and retain prime vegetation features to the extent possible.
  • Reduce building and paving footprints.
  • Limit site disturbance to a minimal area around the building perimeter, including locating buildings adjacent to existing infrastructure.
  • Plan construction staging areas with the environment in mind.
  • In northern climates, site parking and pedestrian areas so that they have sun exposure for assistance in melting the snow or ice.
  • Use non-toxic snow and ice removal methods. See also PROACT Fact Sheet  on de-icing.

Restore the Health of Degraded Sites

  • Focus on restoration of degraded areas, increasing the existence of healthy habitat for native species.
  • Conserve water use through xeriscaping with native plants. See also WBDG Sustainable—Protect and Conserve Water.

Design for Sustainable Transportation

  • Site the building with public transportation access in mind and limit on-site parking.
  • Site the building close to a range of services and stores (especially grocery stores) such that building occupants can walk to conduct errands.
  • Use porous (pervious) alternatives to traditional paving for roads and walkways.
  • Make provisions for bicycling, walking, carpool parking, and telecommuting; and provide refueling/recharging facilities for alternative fuel/electric vehicles (or plan for their incorporation at a later date).
  • Where sidewalks are not provided by the local jurisdiction, provide sidewalks along all adjacent public ways so that no one has to walk in the street to go to or walk by the building.

Balance Site Sustainability with Site Security/Safety

  • Consider installing retention ponds and berms to control erosion, manage storm water, and reduce heat islands while also serving as physical barriers to control access to a building.
  • Use native or climate tolerant trees to improve the quality of the site as well as provide protection by obscuring assets and people.
  • Implement erosion control measures to stabilize the soil (e.g., seeding and mulching, installing pervious paving) and/or to retain sediment after erosion has occurred (e.g., earth dikes and sediment basins). These help to reduce the negative impacts on water and air quality as well as mitigate potential damage to a building's foundation and structural system due to floods, mudslides, torrential rainstorms, and other natural hazards.
  • See also WBDG Balancing Security/Safety and Sustainability Objectives.

Smart Growth

Smart Growth is an issue that concerns many communities around the country. It relates to controlling sprawl, reusing existing infrastructure, creating walkable neighborhoods, and locating places to live and work near public transportation. It is more resource-efficient to reuse existing roads and utilities than build new ones far out from cities in rural areas. Smart growth preserves open spaces and farm lands and strengthens the development of existing communities and their quality of life.

Emerging Issues

As global climate change increases storm events and changes ecosystems, sites are now more frequently threatened with damage from flooding, wind erosion and damage, abnormal temperatures, etc. Consider selecting a site that will limit the intended building's potential damage from global climate change.

Hydrology of site to predevelopment conditions (EISA); energy reduction potential of site; how to use the site to maximize energy development in balance with preserving habitat.

Relevant Codes, Laws, and Standards

Codes and Laws


Additional Resources


Building Types / Space Types

Applicable to all building types. Applicable to the following space types, Parking: Outside / Structured, Parking: Surface

Design Objectives

Accessible—Provide Equal Access and Flexibility, Functional / Operational, Historic Preservation—Provide Accessibility for Historic Buildings, Secure / Safe, Sustainable—Optimize Energy Use, Sustainable—Protect and Conserve Water, Sustainable—Optimize Building Space and Material Use, Sustainable—Enhance Indoor Environmental Quality, Sustainable—Optimize Operational and Maintenance Practices

Products and Systems

Building Envelope Design Guide—Sustainability of the Building Envelope
Federal Green Construction Guide for Specifiers:

Project Management

Building Commissioning

Minimize Development of Undeveloped Open Space

Control Erosion through Improved Landscaping Practices

Reduce, Control, and Treat Surface Runoff

Consider Energy Implications in Site Selection and Building Orientation

Reduce Heat Islands Using Landscaping and Building Design Methods

Employ Environmentally Preferable Landscaping Practices

Minimize Habitat Disturbance

Restore the Health of Degraded Sites

Design for Sustainable Transportation

Smart Growth


  • FedCenter.gov—FedCenter, the Federal Facilities Environmental Stewardship and Compliance Assistance Center, is a collaborative effort between the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive (OFEE), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineering Research Laboratory, and the U.S. EPA Federal Facilities Enforcement Office. FedCenter replaces the previous FedSite as a one-stop source of environmental stewardship and compliance assistance information focused solely on the needs of federal government facilities.
  • Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings Memorandum of Understanding
  • SITES The Sustainable Sites Initiative

Training Courses

Case Study