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Sustainable Sites

Choosing a building's site and managing that site during construction are important to ensure a project’s sustainability. Environmentally responsible site selection discourages development of previously undeveloped land; minimizes a building's impact on ecosystems and waterways; encourages regionally appropriate landscaping; rewards smart transportation choices; and controls stormwater runoff. Additionally, appropriate site management can reduce erosion, light pollution, the heat island effect and construction-related pollution. Buildings can be placed in various locations; project teams should choose the environmentally preferred option and follow up with responsible stewardship of the site.

For new federal construction projects, the Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildings require the following: “Consider the environmental impact of siting decisions when making new facility investments and balance those concerns with cost and security. The guidance included in Sustainable Locations for Federal Facilitiesopens in new window highlights the need to strike the appropriate balance. Consider site-specific long-term climate change impacts such as drought, flood, wind, and wildfire risks. Prioritize sites that offer robust transportation options, including walking, biking, and transit, and minimize the combined greenhouse gas emissions of the building and associated commuter and visitor transportation emissions over the project’s life. Leverage existing infrastructure, and align, where possible, with local and regional planning goals; protect natural, historic, and cultural resources.”

Building Selection

For building interiors, a variety of physical building characteristics and operations policies should be evaluated for compliance with and support of the spaces’ health and wellness goals.


When evaluating potential sites, inquire whether basic environmental pathogen testing has been performed. This might include air quality testing for VOCs and particulates, and water quality testing for turbidity and coliforms, among others. An understanding of the exterior noise intrusion is also beneficial. Requesting copies or evidence of lead, asbestos, and PCB testing and abatement is advisable in buildings of a certain age. For buildings of all ages, understanding whether envelope commissioning has been carried out will provide information on envelope surety against unwanted air or pest infiltration.


Inquire as to the general capabilities of the system(s) present in the building. Does the building have mechanical or natural ventilation? If mechanical, what filtration systems are in place, and is ventilation provision separated from heating and cooling? Understand the level of outside air provided as well as the type of system and its benefits or limitations for comfort.

Lighting and Electrical

Understand the extent of penetration of daylight into the floorplate, and how glare and heat gain are controlled. If there are building standards for light fixtures or lamps, evaluate them for their ability to support circadian photoentrainment and accurate color rendering.

Common Areas and Separation

Keeping pollutants on the exterior of the building will depend in part on the entryway system—look for entryway mats and grilles to minimize pathogen infiltration. Vestibules can help with pollutant infiltration as well and can help to maintain thermal comfort in many climates. Evaluate whether the building is fully accessible, and whether it provides the fitness center, active transit support, exterior active design, accessible and attractive stair and circulation spaces, and other desired amenities for occupant well-being. Finally, understand the separation between your space and other tenant or common spaces for pathogen and acoustic control.

Policies and Maintenance

Investigate the policies and maintenance procedures employed by the management and operations teams. What policies are in place to control construction pollution, and gases and particulate from idling vehicles or combustions sources inside or adjacent to the building? This can include areas where smoking is permitted, but also combustion-based building equipment. Inquire as to how often inspections or testing are carried out for microbes, mold, pests, legionella control, and air and water filtration media—and whether reports of these inspections are regularly made available to occupants. Also develop an understanding of the cleaning procedures, frequency, and types of chemicals used in and around the site.

See EPA's "Enhancing Sustainable Communities with Green Infrastructure"opens in new window for more information.

Related Topics


Albedo, or solar reflectance, is a measure of the ability of a surface material to reflect sunlight, including visible, infrared, and ultraviolet wavelengths, on a scale of 0 to 1.  The more sunlight that is reflected, the higher the albedo. Albedo is used when measuring the reflectance of white roofs, in order to prevent Heat Island Effect.

Alternative Fuel Vehicle

Vehicles that use low-polluting, nongasoline fuels to power their engines. Alternative fuels include electricity, hydrogen, propane, compressed natural gas, liquid natural gas, and ethanol.

Alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) are defined by section 301 of the Energy Policy Act of 1992 and otherwise includes electric fueled vehicles, hybrid electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, dedicated alternative fuel vehicles, dual fueled alternative fuel vehicles, qualified fuel cell motor vehicles, advanced lean burn technology motor vehicles, human-propelled vehicles such as bicycles and any other alternative fuel vehicles that are defined by statute.

Electric Auto Associationnon government site opens in new window

DOE | Alternative Fuels Data Centeropens in new window

Alternative Transportation

Alternative transportation allows people to travel without the need for a single-occupancy vehicle. Examples of alternative transportation methods include human-powered conveyances (e.g. biking, walking), public transit, ridesharing options (e.g. vanpooling, carpooling), and telework. Having an office near alternative transportation options (like buses, light rail and subway) and facilitating access to such hubs through shuttle services makes it easier for occupants to use alternatives, thereby minimizing the pollution and land development impacts of vehicle use. 

EPA | Transportation, Air Pollution, and Climate Changeopens in new window

Alternative Work Arrangement

An alternative work arrangement is any arrangement that differs from an organization’s standard work schedule and/or location. Examples can include telework, a compressed work week, and flexible time.

Bicycle Storage and Changing Rooms

By providing secure bicycle storage, changing rooms, and showers, employers can make the option of biking to work much more accessible and enticing.

DOT.gov | Bicycle and Pedestrian Programopens in new window

Self-propelled-city.comnon government site opens in new window

BikeMaine.orgnon government site opens in new window


Brownfields are former industrial or commercial sites that are contaminated with hazardous waste.  Contaminants might include hydrocarbons, petrochemicals and/or asbestos.  Brownfields are typically designated as such by a public agency (e.g. EPA).

EPA.gov | Brownfieldsopens in new window

Building Exterior and Hardscape Management

Building exterior and hardscape management refers to the practices employed to maintain the building envelope, windows, sidewalks, plazas, garages, etc.  Negative environmental impacts can be reduced by instituting environmentally sensitive practices for cleaning and maintaining building and hardscape surfaces. These practices include using Green Seal products, purchasing electric powered equipment that does not consume fossil fuels, using low VOC paints and sealants, using environmentally preferable ice melt, and  capturing excess water when pressure washers are used.

Compressed Work Week

A compressed work week is a type of alternative work arrangement where a full-time employee will meet the basic work requirement for each pay period in fewer days by working longer hours. The most common types of compressed work week schedules are working four ten-hour days in a week (i.e., a 4/10 schedule) or working 80 hours in a two-week period over nine days (i.e. a 9/80 schedule). In addition to offering a benefit to employees, reducing the number of commute trips helps the agency to achieve its Scope 3 greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

Connectivity/Public Transportation Access/Walkable

When building a sustainable project, owners and operators can utilize strategies which maximize occupants’ access to services and alternative transportation. Connectivity is locating a project in a location that takes advantage of existing supporting infrastructure and the availability of common services. This includes access to public transportation and the ability of occupants to walk to desired destinations.

Construction Activity Pollution Protection

The construction of a project can disturb soil, disrupt wildlife patterns, contribute to erosion, introduce toxins to the water supply, and generate airborne dust and other particles. Good site management minimizes these problems and maintains the integrity of the project.

EPA.gov | Erosionopens in new window

Cool Pavements

Cool pavements refer to paving materials that reflect more solar energy, enhance water evaporation, or have been otherwise modified to remain cooler than conventional pavements.

Cooling Tower

A piece of building equipment which uses water to absorb heat from air-conditioning systems and regulate air temperature in a facility.

DOE FEMP | Best Management Practices - Cooling Tower Managementopens in new window

EPA | WaterSense at Work - Cooling Towersopens in new window

Erosion Control

A means of preventing erosion, which is the combination of processes or events by which materials of the earth’s surface are loosened, dissolved, or worn away. Erosion removes topsoil, plant nutrients, and reduces biological activity. Losing this topsoil reduces the soil’s ability to support plant life, regulate water flow, and maintain biodiversity.

www.epa.gov/owow/nps/ordinance/erosion.htmopens in new window


A foot-candle is a measure of light intensity. It can be measured indoors and out or horizontally and vertically. It can be used to measure the amount of light escaping from a project’s boundary. The fewer foot-candles that leave a site, the less it contributes to light pollution.

Fuel Efficient Vehicle

Vehicles that use less fuel to travel the same distance as a conventionally fueled vehicle. A standard used to measure fuel efficient vehicles is the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE):

http://www.greenercars.orgnon government site opens in new window


Greenfield sites are those that are undeveloped – they have not been disturbed by humans.

Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildings

The Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildings are a set of sustainable principles for integrated design, energy performance, water conservation, indoor environmental quality, materials, and climate change adaptation aimed at helping Federal agencies and organizations:

  • Reduce the total ownership cost of facilities
  • Improve energy efficiency and water conservation
  • Provide safe, healthy, and productive built environments
  • Promote sustainable environmental stewardship

Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildings and Associated Instructionsopens in new window

Determining Compliance with the Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildingsopens in new window


Hardscape is the inanimate elements of the building’s landscaping. For instance sidewalks, plazas, parking lots, and stone walls are all hardscape. Hardscape prevents water from being absorbed into the soil and can contribute to the heat island effect if it is dark in color.

Heat Island Effect

Cities tend to be warmer than rural locations. This is typically due to the infrastructure built within a city, such as buildings and roads, which absorb heat from the sun and slowly release it during the day and into the night. This is known as the heat island effect. The heat increases local temperatures. Heat Islands can be reduced by installing cool roofs and other surfaces with a high albedo. 

https://www.epa.gov/heatislands/opens in new windowopens in new window


Impervious surfaces promote runoff of water instead of infiltration into the soil, grass, or gravel. This can create surges of stormwater and can also introduce pollutants into the water table. Examples of impervious surfaces are parking lots, cement sidewalks, and roads.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

Integrated Pest Management is is a process used to reduce or discourage the growth of pest populations. IPM protects human health and the surrounding environment and improves economic returns by employing the most effective, least-risk management option. It uses non-toxic products such as cleaning and physical barriers to entrance before resorting to chemical means. Pests include plants, fungi, insects, and/or animals.

www.birc.orgnon government site opens in new window

http://www.sfenvironment.org/aboutnon government site opens in new window

Joint Use of Facilities

Allowing joint use of facilities reduces the amount of land that must be developed to meet community needs. For example, a school sharing its meeting spaces with a community group eliminates the need to build additional meeting spaces.

http://www.edmonton.ca/for_residents/programs/joint-use-agreement.aspxnon government site opens in new window

http://www.7oaks.org/Pages/default.aspxnon government site opens in new window

Landscape Management

The process of actively and responsibly tending to the living organisms on a property. This includes integrated pest management, erosion control, sedimentation control, diversion of landscape waste from the waste stream, and reducing chemical fertilizer use. Responsible landscape management plans keep toxins and sediment out of the water supply. 

Sustainable Practices for Designed Landscapesopens in new window

Least Toxic

Least toxic is usually used in reference to chemical pesticides for which all active ingredients are known to be inert and that meet the least toxic Tier 3 hazard criteria under the City and County of San Francisco’s hazard screening protocol. The use of least toxic chemical pesticides protects human and animal health, as well as keeping toxic chemicals out of waterways.

www.birc.orgopens in new window

http://www.sfenvironment.org/aboutnon government site opens in new window

Light Pollution

Light pollution is excess or misdirected light. In cities, misdirected light contributes to the visible glow in the night sky. Light pollution is technically wasted light – light that is escaping to the night sky rather than being directed downwards for safety. Light pollution interferes with the migration patterns of certain birds and other nocturnal creatures. It also interferes with the people’s enjoyment of the night sky. 

http://darksky.org/resources/non government site opens in new window

Low-emission Vehicle

A low-emission vehicle releases low levels of particulates and gases into the atmosphere.

Open Space

Open space is land that has no buildings and is used for public benefit. Vegetated open spaces provide habitat for wildlife, enjoyment for occupants, and an improvement in the quantity and quality of stormwater leaving the site. Buildings can choose to retain open space on their own site or maintain off-site open space.


Pervious ground surfaces allow precipitation to percolate through, letting the water be absorbed and naturally filtered by the ground. Pervious surfaces reduce the amount of water that is sent to storm drains. Types of pervious surfaces include landscape, pavers, porous asphalt, and pervious concrete.


Pollinators contribute substantially to the economy of the United States and are vital to keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets. Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States. Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.

Consider planting flowering plants on or around your facility to attract pollinators.

For more information, see:

Presidential Memorandum on Pollinatorsopens in new window
National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinatorsopens in new window
Pollinator-Friendly Best Management Practices for Federal Landsnon government site opens in new window

Preferred Parking

Preferred parking is spaces provided for specific classes of vehicles, usually low or zero-emissions vehicles or vehicle pools. These spaces should be provided in desirable locations (close to the building, covered, etc.) as an incentive for drivers to carpool and use low and alternative fuel vehicles.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy comes from sources that are either inexhaustible or can be replaced very rapidly through natural processes. Examples include the sun, wind, geothermal energy, small (river-turbine) hydropower, and other hydrokinetic energy (waves and tides). Using renewable energy reduces a building's carbon footprint. There are various options for providing renewable energy to buildings, the most common being solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. Buildings can also purchase renewable energy from offsite sources.

EPA | Renewable Energyopens in new window

DOE | Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energyopens in new window

Restored Habitats

When a project occupies a previously undeveloped (greenfield) site, it will likely destroy some portion of the existing insect, plant and animal habitat. Projects should seek to reestablish natural landscape conditions in some portions of the the disturbed areas in order to correct the site’s natural balance in these areas.

www.nature.orgnon government site opens in new window

www.abcbirds.orgnon government site opens in new window

Rideshare Programs

Rideshare programs arrange carpool or vanpool rides for commuters with similar starting locations and destinations.

Site Master Plan

A Site Master Plan is designed to ensure that the environmental considerations made in the initial development of a site continue to be considered for the length of the use of the site.

Site Remediation

Brownfield sites require a cleanup of whatever contaminants are present. The process, called site remediation, involves using physical, chemical, or biological means to remove the contamination from the previous use of the site.

http://www.epa.gov/brownfieldsopens in new window

Stormwater Management

When it rains, stormwater either infiltrates into the ground or flows directly into the storm system.  Pervious paving and landscaping allow water to be absorbed into the ground, percolating through natural filters and into aquifers.  Impervious surfaces, such as sidewalks and roofs, force storm water to flow directly into the storm drain.  This can lead to combined sewer overflow during times of significant rainfall.  Additionally, excess storm water may collect contaminants prior to entering the storm drain, and depending on the location, may drain into natural waterways without being treated.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (§438) requires federal agencies to maintain the pre-development hydrology of the property with regard to the temperature, rate, volume, and duration of flow, to the maximum extent technically feasible. See EPA's 2009 technical guidanceopens in new window for more information.

http://www.epa.gov/greeningepa/stormwater/index.htmopens in new window

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (§438) requires federal agencies to maintain the pre-development hydrology of the property with regard to the temperature, rate, volume, and duration of flow, to the maximum extent technically feasible.  The requirements are contained in the 2009 EPA document titled “Technical Guidance on Implementing the Stormwater Runoff Requirements for Federal Projects under Section 438 of the Energy Independence and Security Act

Sustainable Sites

Choosing a building's site and managing that site during construction are important to ensure a project’s sustainability. Environmentally responsible site selection discourages development of previously undeveloped land; minimizes a building's impact on ecosystems and waterways; encourages regionally appropriate landscaping; rewards smart transportation choices; and controls stormwater runoff. Additionally, appropriate site management can reduce erosion, light pollution, the heat island effect and construction-related pollution. Buildings can be placed in various locations; project teams should choose the environmentally preferred option and follow up with responsible stewardship of the site.

Learn more about Sustainable Sites.


Telework is a work arrangement that allows an employee to conduct work during any part of regular, paid hours at an approved alternative worksite, such as from home. In addition to reducing impacts from vehicle commuting, telework can improve productivity, provide employees with greater flexibility, reduce personal costs, and allow services to continue during emergency situations.

http://www.telework.gov/opens in new window

http://www.actweb.orgnon government site opens in new window

Tenant Design and Construction Guidelines

Project owners and managers put a lot of care and thought into the sustainable features of their project. Therefore, it makes sense to communicate all the features and how to best use them to tenants of the property. Tenant Design and Construction Guidelines can help tenants understand the benefits of occupying a sustainably built project and learn how to utilize the building as it was intended. 

Vegetated (Planted) Roof

A vegetated roof is a layered system of growing medium (soil), filters, and waterproof membrane on the roof of a building. Some or all of a standard roof can be converted into a planted roof. Planted roofs absorb heat instead of reflecting it, reducing Heat Island Effect. They can also serve as gardens and provide excellent insulation.

Penn State | Center for Green Roof Researchnon government site opens in new window

GSA | Green Roofsopens in new window

Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)

Carbon compounds that participate in atmospheric photochemical reactions (excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides and carbonates, and ammonium carbonate). The compounds become a gas at normal room temperatures and degrade indoor air quality.  VOCs can be found in paints, coatings, adhesives, sealants and other finish materials.

Zero-emission Vehicle

Vehicles that are classified as zero-emission vehicles by the California Resources Board. They emit less toxic byproducts into the air than traditional vehicles.

http://www.driveclean.ca.gov/index.phpopens in new window


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