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Energy and Environmental Guidelines for Construction


installing insulation in a building under construction

Environmental guidelines can be set to lessen the impacts of building construction on the environment.

  • Specify equipment, materials, and products based on performance, not measurements.
  • Use recycled materials to reduce use of raw materials and divert material from landfills.
  • Use local and regional materials as much as possible.
  • Minimize site impact by specifying location of trailers, equipment, storage, traffic.
  • Monitor construction site energy and water use.
  • Develop a construction waste management and recycling plan.


Construction design documents define the contractor's responsibilities during construction, but they typically focus on the design elements of the finished product. They rarely set environmental guidelines to be followed during the construction phase. The design team should work with the construction contractor to adopt environmental guidelines to be followed during construction.

This section addresses the following topics:

Contractors seldom follow environmental guidelines during the construction process unless this guidance is built in as a written part of the contract, plans, and drawings for the building. Integrating construction guidelines with other sustainability guidelines is an essential part of the whole building design process. To develop and implement the guidelines, work with the team, including the architect, engineers, and contractors. Creating the guidelines as a team is helpful for educating contractors about sustainability issues and getting their early commitment to follow sustainability guidance. Environmental guidelines for the construction process should include construction specifications, material specifications, indoor air quality (IAQ) requirements, and specific measures for reducing environmental impact and energy and water use on the site during construction.

The building's impact on energy and environment begins during the construction phase. A sustainable approach to construction leads to reduced resource use, reduced disturbance of the site, and can also lower costs. Attention to environmental issues during construction also leads to a safer, healthier working environment for those people constructing the building, and later for those who occupy it.

Construction Specifications

Include these guidelines in writing in the construction contract and incorporate the guidance into plans, drawing, and specifications.
1. Specify equipment to match the intent of the design.
2. Specify equipment, materials and products based on performance, not measurements.

  • Insulation should be specified by thermal resistance (R-Value), not by thickness.
  • Lighting equipment should match watt densities from the design analysis.
3. When purchasing materials, evaluate the life cycle costs, not just the purchase price.
4. Educate your contractor about sustainability practices through charrettes and through ongoing monitoring and communication.
5. Create a written system for evaluating and monitoring how your contractor is meeting written sustainability requirements.

Purchasing Construction Materials

Define the lowest environmental impact when specifying construction materials.
Questions to ask:
1. Where was the material shipped from?
2. What is the material made of, and can it be recycled or reused when the building is renovated or demolished?
3. Are you ordering the least amount of material necessary?
4. What is the durability and replacement cost of the material?

Material Specifications:

  • Use recycled materials to reduce the use of raw materials and divert material from landfills. Use at least 5%-10% salvaged or refurbished materials, and specify that a minimum of 25%-50% of your building materials contain at least 20% post-consumer recycled content material, or a minimum of 40% post-industrial recycled content material.
  • Use local and regional materials as much as possible, in order to reduce natural resources necessary from transporting materials over long distances. Specify 20%-50% of building materials be manufactured within 500 miles of the building site.
  • Use rapidly renewable materials, in order to reduce the depletion of virgin materials and reduce use of petroleum-based materials. Specify 5% of total building materials be made form rapidly renewable building materials.
  • For components of the building made from wood, such as flooring and framing, use a minimum of 50% wood-based materials certified in accordance with the Forest Stewardship Council Guidelines.

Select materials with volatile organic compound (VOC) limits. Specifically:

  • Select adhesives that meet or exceed the VOC limits of South Coast Air Quality Management District Rule #1168.
  • Select sealants that meet or exceed the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Reg 8, Rule 51.
  • Select paints and coatings that meet or exceed the VOC and chemical component limits of Green Seal requirements.
  • Select carpet systems that meet or exceed the Carpet and Rug Institute Green Label Indoor Air Quality Test Program.
  • Select composite wood and agrifiber products that do not contain added urea-formaldehyde resin.

Reducing the Site Environmental Impact

  • Document a site's existing natural, historical, and cultural features and make specific plans to preserve them.
  • Specify locations for trailers and equipment.
  • Specify which areas of the site should be kept free of traffic, equipment, and storage.
  • Prohibit clearing of vegetation beyond 40 feet from the building perimeter.
  • Explain methods of protecting vegetation, such as designating access routes and parking.
  • Require methods for clearing and grading the site that are as low impact as possible.
  • Examine how runoff during construction may affect the site. Consider creating storm water management practices, such as piping systems or retention ponds or tanks, which can be carried over after the building is complete.

Indoor Air Quality During Construction

During construction, dust, VOCs, and emissions from equipment permeate the building site and the building itself. Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) can damage the health of workers and occupants of nearby buildings. It is important to take specific measures to protect IAQ on the site during construction, and after.

  • Create a written plan for the contractor to use in managing air quality on the construction site.
  • Put up barriers to keep noise and pollutants from migrating.
  • Ventilate the site through the building's HVAC system, once installed, and with temporary exhaust systems before installation.
  • Increase the amount of outside air coming into the building while under construction, to reduce pollutants.
  • Create controls such as scheduling construction activities at the end of the day, to ventilate over night while site and surroundings are unoccupied.
  • Be aware of air quality throughout the project, not just during times of activities that create high amounts of airborne pollutants and emissions.
  • Regularly monitor IAQ with tests and inspections and adjust the ventilation and scheduling if necessary to improve IAQ
  • Prevent poor IAQ by selecting materials and products designed for less off gassing, such as low VOC paints and sealants and formaldehyde-free particle board
  • Keep the site and interiors clean and free of debris, in order to keep dust down. Storing polluting materials in a specified storage area will protect the building from pollutants.
  • Meet or exceed the minimum requirements of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning National Contractors Association (SMACNA) IAQ Guideline for Occupied Buildings Under Construction, 1995.
  • Protect stored on-site or installed absorptive materials from moisture damage.
  • Replace all filtration immediately prior to occupancy. Filtration should have a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of 13 as determined by ASHRAE 5.2.2-1999.
  • Conduct a minimum two-week building flush-out with new filtration media at 100% outside air after construction ends and before occupancy, or conduct a baseline IAQ testing procedure consistent with current EPA Protocol for Environmental requirements, Baseline IAQ and Materials, for Research Triangle Park Campus, Section 01445.

Energy and Water Use

  • Monitor the contractor's energy and water use. Set limits, or place the utility and water bills in the contractor's name to encourage conservation.
  • Use lighting during construction only in active areas of the site. This saves energy and protects the night sky from light pollution.
  • Turn all lights off when work is at a halt. Security lighting can run on motions sensors.
  • Use energy-efficient lamps such as compact fluorescents, for temporary and permanent lighting schemes.
  • Use renewable energy technologies or green power, if locally available, to power equipment and vehicles.
  • Use low-flow fixtures for water siphons you install for construction.
  • Use rainwater or reuse greywater from the construction site.

Construction Waste Management

  • Make sure the infrastructure for recycling of construction and demolition materials is in place and operating at the beginning of the project. Set up an on-site system to collect and sort waste for recycling, or for reuse, and monitor the system consistently throughout all phases of construction.
  • Create a recycling plan that sets goals to recycle or salvage a minimum of 50% (by weight) of construction, demolition, and land clearing waste. Aim for a minimum of 75%.
  • Select products and materials with minimal or no packaging, if possible.
  • Purchase materials in the sizes you will need them, rather than cutting them to size.
  • Consistently track and monitor the amount of waste production during construction and measure it against pre-existing goals and guidelines.

U.S. Department of Energy
1000 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20585