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Optimize Building Space and Material Use

Use Greener Materials and Facilitate Material Reuse and Recovery

by the WBDG Sustainable Committee

Last updated: 10-21-2014


The composition of materials used in a building is a major factor in its lifecycle environmental impact. Whether new or renovated, federal facilities must lead the way in the use of greener materials and processes that do not pollute or unnecessarily contribute to the waste stream, do not adversely affect health, and do not deplete limited natural resources. As the growing global economy expands the demand for raw materials, it is no longer sensible to throw away much of what we consider construction and demolition waste. Using a "cradle-to-cradle" approach, the "waste" from one generation can become the "raw material" of the next. The recycling and reuse of construction and demolition (C&D) materials offsets impacts associated with the input of virgin material into construction and renovation of buildings and infrastructure.

When developing specifications, product descriptions and standards, consider a broad range of environmental factors over the product's lifecycle. Such environmental preferability considerations may include: optimizing the use of building space and materials, preventing waste, using recycled content (see EPA's Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines) and safer chemical alternatives, energy & water efficiency, and other factors such as life-cycle cost and end-of-life options.

As early as during conceptual design and design-development stages, federal construction/renovation projects must have a comprehensive, integrated perspective that seeks to:

  • Salvage and utilize existing facilities, products, and equipment whenever possible, such as historic structures, previous brownfield or greyfield sites, and reconditioned fixtures and furnishings;
  • Reduce overall material use through optimizing building size and module;
  • Evaluate the environmental preferability of products using lifecycle thinking and lifecycle assessment (LCA)
  • When new materials are used, maximize their recycled content, especially from a post-consumer perspective;
  • Specify materials harvested on a sustained yield basis such as lumber from third-party certified forests;
  • Encourage the use of recyclable assemblies and products that can be easily "de-constructed" at the end of their useful lives;
  • Limit the generation of C&D materials, encourage the separation of waste streams, and encourage reuse and recycling during the construction, renovation and demolition process;
  • Eliminate the use of materials that pollute or are toxic during their manufacture, use, or reuse;
  • Give preference to locally produced products and other products with low embodied energy content; and
  • Encourage success of operational-waste recycling through planning in the design-development phase.


Salvage and Utilize Existing Facilities, Products, and Equipment

  • Use reconditioned products and equipment, such as furniture, whenever economically feasible and resource efficient.
  • Evaluate if components of existing buildings or facilities, such as windows or metal door frames, can be incorporated in any new construction. Ensure that the salvaged materials meet all federal, state and local laws and regulations as well as currently applicable construction codes, in addition to the new facility's security and accessibility requirements.
  • If developing a new facility, attempt to clean up and redevelop brownfield, greyfield or other contaminated, previously used, or impacted sites.
  • Employ regionally appropriate design that considers local resources and climate conditions.
  • When using existing facilities, products and equipment, work to find ways to reduce potential sources of toxicity (e.g., PCBs in lighting ballasts, paints, caulks and sealants, lead and cadmium in paints, and asbestos) and to improve energy and water efficiency.

Reduce overall material use through optimizing building size and module

  • Reduce the overall building size by optimizing the functional relationships between program spaces and shortening circulation, adhering to space criteria (number of square feet per person or unit), and configuring individual spaces to accommodate several complementary functions.
  • Ensure buildings are designed to minimize cut-offs and optimize purchasing to prevent excess materials from arriving at the job site. For example, minimize cut-offs by designing to use standard material sizes and reducing customizing spaces.

Note: "module," in architecture, is an arbitrary unit adopted to regulate the dimensions, proportions, or construction of the parts of a building. Modules can also serve as the basis for coordinating the dimensions of the various materials and pieces of equipment to be assembled in the course of constructing a building. (from Britannica)

Evaluate Environmental Preferability Using a Life-Cycle Perspective

  • Purchase environmentally preferable products as described in EPA's Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) Program, which promotes Federal Government procurement of products and services that have reduced impacts on human health and the environment over their life cycle.
  • Use EPA-designated recycled content products to the maximum extent practicable-as is required by federal agencies under the 42 USC §6962, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1994, Section 6002.
  • Within an acceptable category of product, use materials and assemblies with the highest percentage available of post-consumer or post-industrial recycled content.
  • In addition to products with recycled content, optimize product durability by purchasing products with extended warranty, upgradeability, spare parts, service information, and mold resistance.
  • Follow the EPA's five guiding principles established to help Executive agencies identify and purchase environmentally preferable products and services.
    • Environment + Price + Performance = EPP. Include environmental considerations as part of the normal purchasing process.
    • Pollution Prevention. Emphasize pollution prevention as part of the purchasing process.
    • Life-Cycle Perspective/Multiple Attributes. Examine multiple environmental attributes throughout the product and service's life cycle.
    • Comparison of Environmental Impacts. Compare environmental impacts when selecting products and services.
    • Environmental Performance Information. Collect accurate and meaningful environmental information about environmental performance of products and services.
  • The life-cycle of a product includes sourcing of raw materials, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, distribution, retailing, installation, use of the product, and management of the product when it is no longer needed (through reuse, repair, upgrading, recycling, or safe disposal). To capture the benefits of reuse, repair, upgrading and/or recycling, quantify the impact offsets that can be accomplished when the product is used in place of a virgin material in another building or infrastructure.
  • Where there are certain life-cycle stages or attributes that dominate the opportunity for environmental improvement, those key impact areas (or "hot spots") should be given greater emphasis in a material specification.
  • Consider trade-offs among multiple environmental impacts (e.g., global warming, resource depletion, indoor air quality, waste streams) when determining environmental preferability. That is, look at the "big picture" rather than simply shifting problems from one impact to another.
  • Employing LCA Tools like ATHENA and BEES can simplify the process and give more credible results.

Limit the Generation of C&D Materials; Encourage the Separation of Waste Streams; and Encourage Reuse and Recycling during the Construction, Renovation and Demolition Process

  • During the design phase, require the development and implementation of a Construction Waste Management Plan to maximize the reuse and recycling of C&D materials generated from the project. Aspects of the Plan should:
    • Identify the local recycling and salvage operations that will be used to manage site-related C&D materials, to maximize the effectiveness of diversion efforts, e.g., by ensuring a common understanding of requirements for sorting C&D materials; confirm that the chosen recycling facilities are in compliance with state and local regulations, state licensing or registration and/or third-party independent certification.
    • Set targets for waste diversion, such as salvaging or recycling on-site or off-site at least 50%, by weight, of the nonhazardous C&D materials generated, excluding land-clearing debris.
    • Consider the use of deconstruction techniques to the building or structure, or its portion, planned for demolition, in order to maximize the recycling or salvaging of the disassembled materials, products and components; consider linking a deconstruction project with a current construction or renovation project to facilitate reuse of salvaged materials.
    • Require the submission of a Materials Management Summary report documenting the diversion results at the conclusion of project.
  • Use products and assemblies that minimize disposable packaging and storage requirements.
  • When procuring construction materials and products, select manufacturers and vendors with take-back programs whenever the cost of their products is reasonable, adequate competition exists, products are available within a reasonable period of time or distance, and products meet performance specifications.

Encourage the Use of Recyclable Assemblies and Products that can be Easily "De-constructed"

  • Where possible, avoid materials not compatible with reuse and recycling.
  • Design for interior adaptability and reuse of non-structural components: include adaptable interior non-structural components and plan to dismount, disassemble, re-configure and reuse interior elements such as non-loadbearing walls, partitions, lighting, and electric systems, suspended ceilings, raised floors, and interior air distribution systems in interior renovation projects.
  • Design major systems with differing functions and lifespans to promote disentanglement.
  • Design access to and types of connections that allow disassembly.
  • Maintain a Disassembly Plan yielding information about the method of disassembly of major systems and the properties of major materials and components.

Specify Materials Harvested on a Sustainable Yield Basis

  • Use timber products obtained from sustainably managed forests, certified through third-party organizations.
  • Evaluate the substitution of bio-based materials or products, such as agricultural-fiber sheathing, for inert or non-recycled alternatives.
  • Specify rapidly renewable materials that regenerate in 10 years or less, such as bamboo, cork, wool, and straw.

Eliminate the Use of Materials that Pollute or are Toxic During Their Manufacture, Use, or Reuse

  • Within an acceptable category of product, use materials and assemblies with the lowest level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). See WBDG Evaluating and Selecting Green Products.
  • Eliminate the use of asbestos, lead, and PCBs in all products and assemblies. See WBDG High-Performance HVAC.
  • Eliminate the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) as refrigerants in all HVAC systems.
  • Evaluate the use of materials and assemblies whose manufacture does not pollute or create toxic conditions for workers. See the following sections of WBDG Secure/Safe—Occupant Safety and Health: Provide Good Indoor Air Quality and Adequate Ventilation and Eliminate Exposure to Hazardous Materials.
  • Select paints, coatings, plastics, rubbers, and seals that are free from flame retardants and / or softeners containing SCCPs [short-chained chlorinated paraffins] (not more than 0.1 percent by weight), 10 carbon atoms to 13 carbon atoms, minimum 48 percent chlorine by weight, unless it can be shown that the SCCPs are present above this threshold due to the use of recycled content.
  • Select paints, coatings, plastics, rubbers and seals that are free from flame retardants and / or softeners containing PBDEs and HBCD.
  • Avoid product coatings that contain fluorotelomers based on C8 or higher fluorocarbon chemistries.
  • Select textiles, paints, printing inks, and paper that are free of benzidine and benzidine congener-based dyes.
  • Use detergents that do not contain NPE and APE surfactants.
  • When possible, give preference to products that openly disclose substances used in the manufacture of a product and substances comprising the final product.
  • Avoid Ground-level Ozone in buildings. It can contribute to health problems for the building's occupants and damages vegetation and ecosystems.

Give Preference to Locally Produced Materials with Low Embodied Energy Content

  • Evaluate the use of locally produced products to stimulate local economies and reduce transportation burdens and greenhouse gas generation.
  • Evaluate the use of materials and assemblies that require minimum "embodied" energy for raw materials acquisition, manufacture, transport, installation, and use.
    • Within an acceptable category of product, evaluate the use of materials and assemblies with low embodied energy content.

Encourage Operational Waste Recycling Success through Planning in the Design Phase

  • Establish an operational waste management plan in cooperation with building owners to encourage recycling.
  • During the design and construction phase, designate adequate area(s) for collection of ongoing recyclables. Local salvage/recycling/collection services should be identified during the design phase to maximize the effectiveness of the designated areas.
  • Investigate providing locations at the project site for organic waste composting.

Related Issues

Durability of Materials

It is important that 'green' products perform the same as 'standard' products over their expected life cycle, therefore, it is valuable to develop a durability plan, which informs material and systems decisions assessing potential risk factors and damage functions. Once identified, measures can be made in the building design to address the risk factors. This process follows every phase from pre-design to building occupancy. Durability plans consider effects related to moisture, heat, sunlight, insects, material failure, ozone and acid rain, building function, style and natural disasters. Consider materials that age gracefully. Often traditional materials used in building construction are easily refinished, repaired, or are partially replaceable to ensure a potential lifespan measured in human generations.

Balancing Sustainability and Security/Safety

To ensure that security strategies are appropriately implemented for the desired level of protection, designers are encouraged to conduct threat/vulnerability assessments and risk analysis. To prevent unnecessary use of resources in a project, include only the security measures identified by assessment and analysis. Evaluate the cost of comparable security measures before making your final decision. For high-risk and critical facilities, the increased use of materials and products is inevitable. In such cases, designers and builders are encouraged to specify and use environmentally preferable products to the maximum extent feasible. For example, as part of the Pentagon renovation work after the 9/11 terrorist attacks concrete rubble from damaged parts of the building were crushed into gravel and reused as aggregate under concrete slabs. More

Preferring Bio-based Products

Section 9002 of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (Public Law 107-171, May 13, 2002) confers Federal purchasing preference to bio-based products on the basis of five criteria: environmental performance, cost performance, bio-based content, technical performance, and availability. In support of this legislation, a Federal rule was developed specifying that the USDA establish a "USDA Certified Bio-based Product" label.

Emerging Issues

Many new products have appeared on the market in recent years, all claiming to be 'green,' yet they sometimes offer little proof to back up those claims. The term 'Greenwashing' has come into vogue to describe products having unsubstantiated and misleading green characteristics. It is a challenge to specifiers and purchasers to determine the validity and relevance of environmental claims. Evaluate green products using recognized testing laboratories and test methods and read the UL Greenwashing Report and "The Sins of Greenwashing."

Relevant Codes, Laws, and Standards

Codes and Laws


Major Resources


Building Types / Space Types

Applicable to most building types and space types.

Design Objectives

Aesthetics—Engage the Integrated Design Process, Cost-Effective, Functional / Operational, Historic Preservation—Update Building Systems Appropriately, Productive, Secure / Safe, Sustainable—Optimize Site Potential, Sustainable—Optimize Energy Use, Sustainable—Protect and Conserve Water, Sustainable—Enhance Indoor Environmental Quality, Sustainable—Optimize Operational and Maintenance Practices

Products and Systems

Section 07 41 13:Metal Roofing, Section 07 92 00: Joint Sealants, Building Envelope Design Guide—Sustainability of the Building Envelope
Federal Green Construction Guide for Specifiers:

Project Management

Project Planning, Delivery and Controls, Building Commissioning


Construction Waste Management Database

Use Green Products

Renovate Existing Facilities, Products, and Equipment

Evaluate Environmental Preferability Using LCA

Maximize the Recycled Content of All New Materials

Specify Materials Harvested on a Sustained Yield Basis

Limit Construction Debris



  • The Waste Reduction Model (WARM)—WARM calculates and totals life cycle GHG emissions avoided through alternative waste management practices (reduced, recycled, combusted, or composted) in comparison to a baseline scenario (landfilled) for various materials
  • U.S. Life-Cycle Inventory (LCI) Database—Created by NREL and partners, this publicly available database allows users to objectively review and compare analysis results that are based on similar data collection and analysis methods.

Training Courses