Planning new facilities, expanding existing ones, or renovating requires specialized guidance and resources.

Energy Efficient Buildings

In designing your new or renovated facility, you will work with your architect and engineers to determine building aesthetics, systems, and functions. This typically includes exploring strategies to heat, cool, ventilate, and power your building, including operating efficiency and green building benchmarks.

The degree of desired energy efficient features for a high-performance building should be discussed early in the design process as this decision will have cost, health, environmental, and potential aesthetic ramifications. Your architect and engineering consultants will help guide you through these decisions. The following summarizes elements of high-performance sustainable buildings to support your understanding of what to expect.

What is a high-performance building?

A high-performance building, also known as sustainable or green building, is the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s lifecycle. The goal is to maximize occupant health and productivity, use fewer resources, reduce waste and negative environmental impacts, and decrease energy costs. See more at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) website.

If built properly, high performance buildings last longer, have better indoor air quality, save operational costs, and contribute to fewer greenhouse gases. Comprehensive sustainable design concepts also support responsible construction practices, water use, storm water management, and land use.

High-performance buildings can cost up to 1% to 10% more to build. Though they initially cost more to build, there is typically a return on investment through reduced energy demands, sometimes providing payback within a few years. Additional benefits are better indoor air quality through improved moisture control strategies and efficient heating and ventilation systems, providing a positive health benefit for the occupants.

Why is an energy efficient building important?

Our buildings have an enormous impact on our environment, economy, and health. Through sustainable design and building practices, these harmful impacts are minimized.

High-performance buildings generate less waste and lower the use of energy, water, and other resources. Poorly designed and constructed buildings increase the demand on energy production and contribute to climate change.

According to the USGBC, buildings currently account for:

Impact of Buildings

Sustainable building practices reduce the impacts on the environment and the operating costs of your building.

Green buildings account for the following savings:

Green Building Savings

A Critical Component: The Building Envelope

The building envelope has significant influence on energy efficiency. It represents the largest exterior surface of the structure, comprised of the exterior walls, windows, doors, roof, and foundation. Building envelopes must be thermally efficient as well as moisture safe. Building envelopes that leak air, transfer cold from the outside to inside through thermal bridging, or incorporate inefficient windows and doors will place a higher demand on heating and cooling systems. These conditions also create the potential for problematic moisture build up from condensation with the potential of developing mold.

Visit the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC) website for more information on building envelopes.

Other High-Performance Building Concepts to Improve Energy Efficiency

In addition to constructing an efficient building envelope, the following strategies contribute to energy efficient buildings.

  • Energy efficient windows and doors
  • Heat recovery ventilation systems
  • Efficient hot water systems
  • Efficient heating systems
    • Tighter buildings, which minimize heat leaks through building envelope gaps
  • High R-value insulation – example locations:
    • Exterior rigid wall insulation
    • Attic insulation
    • Insulated slab on grade
  • Eliminate cold bridging – example:
    • Double walls
    • Wall frame from 16” stud spacing to 24”
  • Thermal Mass – example:
    • Radiant in-floor heating with concrete floor

Is a high-performance building considered “green” certified?

Best practice concepts can help inform many design decisions. Benchmark certification with a third-party agency such as LEED* may be appealing if you wish to enhance your facility’s image and establish yourself as a leader in green building. If you decide to pursue certification, it will increase the project cost. Whether certified or guided by green building practices, your building choices will have immediate and long-term environmental, economic, and health benefits.

*LEED or (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to set a benchmark for design, construction, maintenance, and operation of high-performance green buildings and homes. 

What are common LEED sustainable building practices?

In addition to common strategies for improving energy efficiency in building design and construction, LEED benchmarks also outline categories of green building practices that can be applied to any project in order to reduce or even eliminate negative environmental impacts. The following examples are drawn from the LEED Visual GA v3 from USGBC.

Water Management

Increased public consumption of limited water supplies generates wastewater and overwhelms the treatment facilities. The untreated overflow contaminates rivers, lakes, and other potable water sources with nitrogen, bacteria, toxic metals, and other contaminants.

LEED Goal: Integrate water management practices and promote design and building practices that conserve water usage and minimize the impacts on storm drainage.

Green Building Strategies: Reduce the amount of wastewater generated, reduce water consumption through use of low-flow faucets and fixtures, and reduce use of process water.

Site Selection

Development of the site affects the ecosystem, can impact endangered species, wetlands, and the site hydrology.

LEED Goal: Avoid the development of inappropriate sites and reduce the environmental impact from the location of a building on a site.

Green Building Strategies: Conserve existing natural areas and restore damaged areas to promote habitat and biodiversity, maintain a high ratio of open space by reducing the building and parking footprint, limit the disruption of existing hydrology, manage stormwater run-off, reuse an existing building or site when possible to protect new undeveloped land.

Indoor Air Quality

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that indoor air pollution, from pollutants such as pollen spores, dirt, dust, smoke, and vehicle emissions, may be 2-5 times, and occasionally even 100 times higher than outdoor levels (Source: US Environmental Protection Agency. Healthy Buildings, Healthy People: A vision for 21st century. 2001)

As most Americans spend 90% of time indoors, the indoor environment has a significant influence on an occupant’s health and quality of life.

LEED Goal: Maximize indoor air quality.

Green Building Strategies: Establish minimum indoor air quality with a mix of mechanical and natural ventilation, reduce the amount of harmful indoor air contaminants associated with off-gassing from paints, adhesives, carpets and furniture.

Materials and Resources

Building construction and operations generate huge amounts of waste that end up in landfills and incinerators, creating environmental impacts.

LEED Goal: Reduce construction waste. Encourage reuse and recycling.

Green Building Strategies: Reuse existing building elements where possible, divert construction and demolition debris from disposal in landfills and incinerators, use more recycled building materials and products rather than virgin materials, and use building products extracted and manufactured within the region.

Energy and Atmosphere

According to the Department of Energy, buildings consume approximately 39% of the energy and 74% of the electricity produced annually in the United States. (Source: U.S. Department of Energy,

LEED Goal: Reduce energy consumption and eliminate emission of harmful gasses into the atmosphere.

Green Building Strategies: Reduce energy demand by optimizing building form and orientation, reduce internal loads, harvest free energy such as daylight, solar, and wind energy, increase efficiency with an energy efficient building envelope, recover waste energy through exhaust air energy recovery systems, encourage use of onsite renewable energy (photovoltaic, wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave and tidal), and reduce stratospheric ozone depletion.

Source: USGBC LEED Visual GA v3

What about Alaska? How do you apply these concepts to your project and region?

The green building concepts presented here apply generally to all cooler climates. Note that there are special considerations for building in Alaska that are not typically included in milder climates.

Given the scale and size of our state, there is also a tremendous difference between climates from one region of Alaska to another. For example, the building practices within the rainforest of Southeast Alaska are notably different from those of the Arctic regions where extreme cold, permafrost, and resulting frost heave require unique considerations.

From the Cold Climate Housing Research Center website:

“Arctic and subarctic climates pose unique building science challenges. Two of the biggest issues we face in Alaska are moisture and indoor air quality. For one thing, extremely cold air is typically drier than levels considered ideal for human health (30-50% humidity). However, high humidity levels inside a home can lead to mold and structural problems, which also pose a health risk.

This paradox means we have to design buildings that can withstand higher humidity levels without compromising the building structure, an ongoing process that evolves as new techniques and building materials emerge.”

For more information on energy efficient building strategies unique to Alaska, visit the Cold Climate Housing Research Center. They are located in Fairbanks and are an excellent resource on cutting edge building technology applications in Alaska.

Additionally, Richard Seifert’s publication, Special Considerations for Building in Alaska, provides an excellent overview, particularly for building in Arctic climates.


USGBC Website,

LEED Visual GA. , 2009.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Healthy Buildings, Healthy People: A Vision for 21st Century, 2001

U.S. Department of Energy,

Cold Climate Research Center website,

Seifert, R. Special Considerations for Building in Alaska, University of Fairbanks, Cooperative Exchange, 2000.