Sustainable design concept is as old as human settlement history. People back then designed their dwellings according to local parameters since they were inevitably dependent on them. Today, this concept is referred as vernacular architecture since there are many other interpretations of sustainability emerged. Different definitions like green architecture, passive building, high performance building, and sustainable building come with their own standards but they all aim to reach a similar point. Further definitions of these concepts create qualification systems with defined parameters with mostly different approaches. Every new qualification system claims to be “greener” or “more sustainable” than the former ones. But does these labels really carry different meanings?

This research concentrates on “green building”, “high performance building” and “sustainable building” concepts and aims to define their main parameters to see their differences and similarities. For this purpose, different definitions of these concepts are analyzed one by one to form a solid ground for a comparison. Method of this research depends mainly on literature view.



2.1.1. Sustainability Concept

Sustainable building definition seems to be the most comprehensive of the three. The term is used by many sources without a certain reference to its meaning. On the other hand, the sustainability term is a rather large topic that is referred by many fields of science and industry. According to Kuhlman Farrington (2010) sustainability is an expression of what public policies ought to achieve in a general definition. They claim that the meaning is shifted after its principal utilization in the Brundtland Report in 1987. It was first originated as a foresting term meaning “never harvesting more than what the forest yields in new growth”. The term is also commonly used in economy. A famous example for its usage in economy is the publishing of Thomas Malthus (1789) of his theory about a prediction of future mass starvation due to the inability of available agricultural land to feed an expanding population. The precision of his prediction is disputable however, it is a well-known example of the term “sustainability” as a measure of economic balance.

Sustainability is a concept that belongs to ancient times before creation of legal social regulations like capitalism. Today, this lost moral is being regenerated in an accordance with current legal system. Sustainability can be counted as one of the main human rights. Because, the concept of sustainable development represents a balance between concept of development and concept of environmental protection which are both among very important foundations of basic human rights. (Weeramantry, 2014)

There are three main pillars of sustainability that are usually referred by many sources in the literature to define it better. However, there are different approaches about these main pillars as well. For example, according to University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF, 2008), it implies that the critical activities of a higher education institution are ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable, and that they will continue to be so for future generations. This definition creates three pillars on an equal base with equal emphasize. This definition is visualized with three overlapping circles model. (see:fig.1)

Fig.1:3-Overlapping Circles Model

However, there are different interpretations to this three pillar model. In some sources, a three nested model is used instead (see:fig.2) where three pillars exist co-dependently. In this model, environment element contains society element implying that no society can be possible without nature. Furthermore, economy is a sub-set of society to emphasize that it is a regulating mechanism that is created by humanity. In this model environment creates society, society creates economy and all together create sustainability in co-existence. (Willard, 2010)

Fig.2:3-Nested Dependencies Model

On the other hand, some sources claim that there are four pillars of sustainability. A famous example is the sustainable Kingston Plan that is being formed on four pillars to create a sustainable community. The fourth pillar, in addition to other three mentioned before, is culture. To have a general idea about what The Kingston City Sustainability & Growth Group aims under this cultural topic, it is helpful to list their themes for this category. They aim to enhance organizations for arts, creativity and environment, protect and promote their history and heritage, promote community development throughout active citizenship and accept the diversities in community. (Sustainability & Growth Group, 2010)

Considering all these expositions, even main concepts of sustainability are not defined clearly and making a true definition of sustainability that is covering all the aspects which are related to it seems unfeasible for even experts in this area. However, in order to form a more secured base of debate for the concerning concept, it is better to narrow its scope down to sustainable buildings.

2.1.2. Sustainable Building Concept

Similar to its definition in other sectors, sustainability in building sector depends on main pillars like the ones mentioned in the previous part. In order to compare it with other topics (green building and high performance building) environmental sustainability is kept on the center of the discussion. Thus, one of the main differences of sustainable building with other topics is defined naturally: Sustainable building concept is not only environmental sustainability but it covers other aspects like social, cultural and economic sustainability. However, these main pillars that are not mentioned in this section are going to be referred since all these pillars are connected somehow. For example, energy efficiency can be a subject of economic sustainability as well as environmental sustainability.

According to Albattah, Roucheray and Hallowell (2013), “Sustainable buildings are structures that are built in an environmentally responsible manner by maximizing use of materials, minimizing use of resources and ensuring the health and well-being of occupants and the surrounding built environment both today and for generations to come.” According to this definition, building materials have to be selected from environmentally friendly ones, use of resources should be limited, and user health should be obtained. However, by using the statement of “environmentally responsive manner”, the definition aims to cover other parameters of sustainable buildings in a large perspective. Some of these parameters can be sustainable site selection, innovation and transportation.

At this juncture, it would be appropriate to mention certification systems for sustainable buildings. Certification systems are measurements of how sustainable a building is in quantity. In order to be able to compare different types of buildings, certification systems are based on some clear parameters. LEED is probably most common of them. According to their own definition: “The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System is the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) primary vehicle for promoting sustainable design and construction.” (USGBC, 2015) The key challenge of sustainable building certification systems is universality. Sustainable building concept is hard to define in universal context. However, there is a key parameter that allows certification systems to form a solid base for comparison and evaluation; which is “regional priority”. This parameter gives importance to vernacular factors in evaluation. Accordingly, some parameters of sustainable buildings cannot be valid for every part of the World. For example, in colder climates, buildings should be designed to maximize heating efficiency; in hotter climates cooling and water usage would gain more importance in the design process. (Albattah, Roucheray and Hallowell, 2013)

In LEED certification system, “sustainable building” and “green building” terms are used casually instead of each other. However, “high performance building” term is used as a subcategory of former two and it is used to emphasize a building’s environmental performance. In BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology) however, -which is another certification system based on UK standards and which is one of the most common assessment tools worldwide- “green building” term is hardly mentioned. The concept is referred only as “sustainable building” and they use “green” prefix for their other features like green events, green books or green technologies. In this sense, BREEAM brings a more consistent definition to the term. By the way, assessment tools like LEED and BREEAM provide market recognition and reduction in building maintenance costs that eventually serves economic sustainability concept.

To conclude, sustainability is an extensive concept that covers many sectors from forestry to law. Sustainable building term, on the other hand, can be defined distinctively by different parties because even main elements of sustainable building varies from perspective to perspective. But it is clear that sustainable building definition is the broadest one of other two definitions in question of this research. If sustainable building concept is narrowed down to environmentally sustainable building, it becomes almost the same term with green building so that assessment tools can use one instead of the other.


Green building can be described as a sustainable building that only covers the environmental sustainability subject. In this sense, it can be accepted as a sub-set of sustainable building. In another sense, it can be used as a label of sustainable building since green building is a more popular and market friendly definition while sustainable building definition is generally used in academic sources.

2.2.1. Green Building Definition

Similar to sustainability, green prefix can be used before any word to emphasize that it is environmentally friendly. But this section focuses on green building term only. Green building is an integrated practice of design that aims to protect the undeveloped habitat of its context and to be a net producer of resources, materials and energy rather than being a net consumer. Green building practice creates the healthiest environment possible for its occupants while minimizing the effect on its land, water and energy sources. (GGGC, 2010)

A green building’s quality depends on its use of renewable resources in an optimized manner, ensuring indoor air quality, specifying sustainable building materials and sources and providing efficient use of water. (Doren, 2007) Alongside energy efficiency, it is essential to indicate the energy source of a green building. Renewable sources like wind, solar or geothermal energy are accepted as sustainable sources and they should be utilized instead of fossil fuels. Some of these renewable sources can be accepted as more sustainable than others according to the context of the building. To ensure healthy indoor air quality, building should be well ventilated. All the ventilation system has to be controlled and filtered if the air quality is low in the building site. It is an important key point to select materials responsively to reduce volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the building which are one of the main components that effect human health. (Europan Commission, 1997) Water efficiency is one of the main elements of green building design and there are many strategies to reduce water usage like using efficient appliances, xeriscaping (landscaping strategies that reduce irrigation need), water recycling and rainwater capturing. (Doren, 2007)

On the other hand, some sources claim that there are four pillars of sustainability. A famous example is the sustainable Kingston Plan that is being formed on four pillars to create a sustainable community. The fourth pillar, in addition to other three mentioned before, is culture. To have a general idea about what The Kingston City Sustainability & Growth Group aims under this cultural topic, it is helpful to list their themes for this category. They aim to enhance organizations for arts, creativity and environment, protect and promote their history and heritage, promote community development throughout active citizenship and accept the diversities in community. (Sustainability & Growth Group, 2010)

Considering all these expositions, even main concepts of sustainability are not defined clearly and making a true definition of sustainability that is covering all the aspects which are related to it seems unfeasible for even experts in this area. However, in order to form a more secured base of debate for the concerning concept, it is better to narrow its scope down to sustainable buildings.

2.2.2. Green Building Elements

Unlike sustainable building, there are many sources that define green building elements consistently. According to US Green Building Council, there are five key strategies of a green building:

- Sensitivity about site sustainability.

- Minimizing water usage and protect water sources.

- Minimizing energy consumption.

- Using sustainable materials and resources

- Ensuring indoor air quality. (State of California, 2004)

One of the most basic principles of site sustainability is using an already developed urban area. Construction on an undeveloped area requires its own infrastructure and resources. Furthermore, greenhouse construction on a brownfield area (polluted urban area) is a way of green redevelopment on the site that reduces polluted areas in an urban context via green building construction. (Green Buildings 101, 2015)

In US Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes certification, some further main elements are defined as:

- Location and Linkage

- Awareness and Education (MacDonald, 2008)

Location and linkage category covers some of the principles of sustainable site category. Brownfield redevelopment is a virtue according to this category as well. Furthermore, a bad location is defined as natural areas, remote areas that require people to drive long distances and polluted areas that expose habitants to toxic substances. Accessibility is the other feature that is essential for this category. According to this, a green building should be close to public services and it should be connected to public transport network of the city. Building in infill areas can be an example to a good location for green buildings. (Welch, Benfield, Raimi, 2011)

Awareness and education category is divided into two subcategories: Education of the homeowner or tenant and education of building manager. First one includes giving necessary information to the owner to operate a green building in a sustainable way and create public awareness. For this purpose, anything that will advertise the green strategies or the green house itself is rewarding including publishing a website, generating a newspaper article or displaying the green building certificate in signage. The second one includes informing building manager about building technologies, systems and maintenance. (USGBC,2008)

2.2.3. Economic Aspects

Green buildings have an indirect relation with economic and social sustainability. First of all, green buildings are sold or rented in higher prices because of the demand which makes them more preferable for developers and owners. Common demand in the market for green buildings keep them sustainable. Secondly, green buildings have lower maintenance costs resulting from their lower energy usage rate, less water usage and recycle of building materials and sources. Also, rising energy costs, stricter CO2 emission legislations and increasing demand in the market show that green buildings have future. However, constructing a green house is a bit more costly. So, contractors and project owners have to consider advantages and disadvantages before deciding on initiating a green building project. (Saylor, 2009)


High performance building concept has some intersecting points with green building and they show similarities like measurability and assessment systems. High performance building concept is a sustainability based consciousness like green building concept. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 defines a high- performance building as a building that integrates and optimizes on a life-cycle basis all major high- performance attributes, including energy conservation, environment, safety, security, durability, accessibility, cost- benefit, productivity, sustainability, functionality and operational considerations. The National Institute of Building Sciences established the High Performance Building Council to assess the existence of guidance and technology for achieving high performance, identify research needs and make recommendations to accelerate development of high- performance building processes in USA. (HPBC, 2011)

A high performance building carries similar sensibilities to green buildings in terms of energy conservation, environmentalism and accessibility features. On the other hand, it can be accepted as economically sustainable in terms of cost-benefit, energy conservation and durability issues. Also, it can be labeled as socially sustainable for security, safety and functionality features. This concept is a different approach to sustainability that points out some new key points. However, the concept is not so definitive. It leaves some points that are open to interpretation. For example, a learning environment that is well designed and suitable for education can be labeled as high performance learning environment. The concept is mostly measurable but it is also open-ended at some points.

High performance buildings are assessed mainly according to their profit and loss balances in not only financial context but also in time, space and energy. In other words, it is a performance based approach. Within the United States, high performance buildings are a topic of interest to industry, academics, the research community and government. (Lewis, Riley, Elmualim, 2010)

High performance building practices have their own possible costs that needs to be considered since it is a performance based practice. For example, it requires a longer and multidisciplinary design phase. The lifecycle cost of the operational life of a building is about 60 to 85 percent of the total lifecycle cost, whereas the design and construction is about five to ten percent. (Lewis, Riley, Elmualim, 2010) Also, higher construction costs have to be considered. Acquisition, renewal and disposal costs are between five and 35 percent of the total life cycle cost. When employee salaries and benefits are included in the lifecycle cost, design and construction costs make up only one percent of the lifecycle cost. Operations and maintenance make up 11 percent and employee salaries and benefits make up 88 percent of the lifecycle cost. (Statistics are given for commercial buildings) (Lewis, Riley, Elmualim, 2010) Development of performance measurement processes has to be done for each project individually. Documentation of the design decision-making process and post-occupancy follow through to check if the building is performing as expected is needed. And finally, development of new tools, resources and processes to make high performance buildings the norm for future state building projects is a subject of high performance development as well. (MPCI, 2002)



3.1. Comparison

In literature, green building, sustainable building, ecological building, high performance building terms are used interchangeably. Green building and high performance building definitions are generally used in the context of sustainable building but both are different perspectives of the same sensibility. Both have different measures, parameters and assessment tools. Thus, speaking of assessment of green and high performance buildings, they are generally not used instead of each other. Green building practice mainly covers environmental sustainability and it has a more detailed and sensitive approach in this sense whereas high performance building approach have different parameters and a larger scope. There are many sources accepting that all three practices are different perspective of the same kind and they use the terms instead of each other on purpose.


3.2. Literature Definitions

Pennyslvania GGGC defines standard for high performance green buildings to combine two practices. (see: table.1) In their extended definition, high performance is classified as a type green building with certain aspects about design and construction phases like multidisciplinary work, collaborative approach between all stakeholders and minimizing construction and demolition. (Kibert, 2012)

-A project created via cooperation among building owners, facility managers, users, designers and construction professionals through a collaborative team approach.

-A project that engages the local and regional communities in all stages of the process including design, construction and occupancy.

-A project that conceptualizes a number of systems that, when integrated, can bring efficiencies to mechanical operation and human performance.

-A project that considers the "true costs" of a building's impact on the local and regional environment.

-A project that considers the "life cycle costs" of a product or system. These are costs associated with its manufacture, operation, maintenance and disposal.

-A building that creates opportunities for interaction with the natural environment and defers to contextual issues such as climate, orientation and other influences.

-A building that uses resources efficiently and maximizes use of local building materials.

-A project that minimizes demolition and construction wastes and uses products that minimize waste in their production or disposal.

-A building that is energy and resource efficient. " A building that can be easily reconfigured and reused.

-A building with healthy indoor environments.

-A project that uses appropriate technologies, including natural and low tech products and systems, before applying complex or resource intensive solutions.

-A building that includes an environmentally sound operations and maintenance regimen.

-A project that educates building occupants and users to the philosophies, strategies and controls included in the design, construction and maintenance of the project.

Source: Pennyslvania GGGC high performance green building standards

The Triangle J Council of Governments in North Carolina and the City of New York provide similar definitions for "green" and "high performance buildings and the authors preface their definition by pointing out that the terms "green," "sustainable," or "high performance" are interchangeable. (Prum, 2010)

USGBC (2005) defines LEED as "a third-party certification program and the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings." It also uses terms “sustainable building” and “green building” interchangeably.


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