When it comes to commercial spaces, building green and making green aren’t mutually exclusive.

In fact, with the right design plan and professional team in place, business owners can increase productivity and profitability by applying green-building standards to new constructions and old.

Forget what you’ve heard about the costs of sustainable commercial construction outweighing the benefits. Building a green commercial or retail space can be a sure way to help the planet and your bottom line.

What is sustainable commercial construction?

Economic well-being is built into the definition of sustainable development.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is “the ability to achieve continuing economic prosperity while protecting the natural systems of the planet and providing a high quality of life for its people.” Or, as defined in 1987 at the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Future generations will need water, clean air, and resources for building and operating their own constructions.

To that end, sustainable commercial construction uses resources responsibly and efficiently and protects and contributes to the health of the planet and its inhabitants.

These “high-performance” buildings may use gray water or harvested rainwater to irrigate, be located within walking distance of public transportation, and have designated areas for recycling and composting waste, among other measures.

They all take into account the five key aspects of green building: site sustainability, water efficiency, energy efficiency, enhanced indoor environmental quality and sustainable materials.

The goal is to reduce consumption and pollution from cradle to grave — from the building’s construction to its ultimate deconstruction.

A brief history

The idea of sustainable construction is new, but not as new as you might think.

As far back as the 1850s, builders in Europe were implementing innovative measures to moderate indoor air temperatures.

Fast-forward to the early 20th century, when commercial buildings like department stores and high-rises were being built with rooftop gardens and window shades, deep-set windows, and retractable awnings for shading sun.

When gas prices skyrocketed in the United States in the early 1970s, Americans began to see the danger in relying so much on fossil fuels to power buildings and transportation systems.

In short order, the American Institute of Architects formed an environmental committee, the U.S. government created the Department of Energy, and new technologies, such as photovoltaics, began to emerge.

Architects and builders became increasingly interested in using building products that had a minimal impact on the environment throughout their life cycle.

Green building really came into its own in the 1990s, with the federal government leading the way through some important projects, like the Greening of the White House in 1993 — an experiment that resulted in annual savings of $300,000 in energy and water consumption, landscaping expenses, and solid-waste costs and in a reduction of carbon emissions by 845 tons a year.

Keep reading:

Part II: Why go green in commercial construction?

Part III: Green certification and commercial buildings