The Fire Service and Green Building Construction: An Overview


This article presents the fundamentals of green building construction in the United States. Key terminology, indicated in italics, is included in the Glossary. Green technology is becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the United States and will have to be evaluated from the perspective of preincident planning.


Building construction and occupancy use greatly affect human health and the environment. Vast amounts of resources are employed during construction, renovation, and operation. The production of these resources negatively impacts our environment. Buildings worldwide use an estimated three billion tons of raw materials annually. In the United States, residential and commercial buildings consume almost 50 percent of the total U.S. primary energy and produce more than 130 million tons of construction and demolition waste yearly. Pollutants released from energy consumption in buildings include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and mercury.


Green building construction, also known as sustainable design, allows large metropolitan areas to provide healthful indoor and outdoor environments, fight climate change, and conserve natural resources. Advanced technologies are creating high-performance buildings that use energy efficiently and effectively. These structures are built in an ecological manner. The objectives of sustainable design include protecting the health of building occupants; improving worker productivity; using energy, water, and materials more economically; using recycled building materials; and reducing the environmental impact associated with the building construction industry.


The market for America’s green building construction for 2007 has been estimated to be in the neighborhood of $30 billion. The U.S. market in green building products and services for this same year was approximately $12 billion. Green buildings are being erected in many large municipalities throughout the country.

(1) You never know what you will encounter when operating in and around green buildings. These roof-mounted mirrors (heliostats) are used to reflect the sun’s rays down to a two-acre park below. (Photos by author.)

In San Francisco, municipal buildings (new construction and major renovations more than 5,000 square feet) must be built green. Chicago requires that all new public buildings be of sustainable design. The Windy City has green schools, police stations, and libraries. In September 2007, Orlando opened Florida’s first green firehouse, Station 15 in Lake Nona’s Savannah Park district. Seattle, Washington, passed a law in 2005 requiring new prisons, offices, schools, colleges, and other publicly funded buildings to be constructed in an environmentally friendly manner. New building code regulations in Boston, Massachusetts, necessitate green construction criteria for structures greater than 50,000 square feet. Atlanta, Georgia, recently built an award-winning live-work-play community (Atlantic Station) using sustainable design in an area that was previously the site of Georgia’s first steel mill. In January 2008, Dallas, Texas, became the nation’s first major city to launch a comprehensive Web site dedicated to the environment (, reflecting its commitment to green initiatives.

In New York City (NYC), Local Law 86/2005, known as the Green City Buildings Act, requires most capital construction and major alterations to be built green. NYC owns approximately 1,300 buildings and leases more than 12.8 million square feet of office space. This directive will affect an estimated $12 billion in construction over the city’s 10-year capital plan. In Lower Manhattan, the Battery Park City Authority uses sustainable design for all commercial and residential building construction. The Solaire, completed in 2003, is the nation’s first green residential high-rise building. It has photovoltaic (PV) cell panels on the exterior wall façade that convert sunlight into electricity.


The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), established in 1993, is a nonprofit organization consisting of the nation’s foremost leaders from the building industry. It is composed of more than 12,000 organizations. Members include building owners, real estate developers, facility managers, architects, engineers, general contractors, subcontractors, product manufacturers, government agencies, and nonprofits. The USGBC mission statement seeks to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built, and operated. Its goal is to make them environmentally and socially responsible, healthful, and enhancers of the quality of life.

(2) A bicycle storage room could create an entanglement hazard for firefighters operating under smoky conditions.

The USGBC created in 1999 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®)—a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for constructing high-performance, sustainable buildings—as a rating system for new commercial buildings. It is now used as a model for neighborhood development and a wide variety of building occupancy groups. LEED® addresses new construction, core and shell; system operations; and maintenance. Financial incentives (tax credits and loan guarantees) can be obtained from the federal government under the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005. State and local monetary motivations may also be available to governmental and private builders.

LEED® Green Building Rating System™

LEED® certification is based on the Green Building Rating System™. It has seven prerequisites with specific design and performance criteria and a point system that is organized into six broad categories. Although prerequisites do not provide points toward the overall score, all must be met to qualify for certification. The six general categories are as follows:

  1. Sustainable Sites (maximum 14 points): erosion and sediment control (prerequisite); urban and brownfield redevelopment, building orientation; encouraging the reuse of existing buildings and sites, site selection; reducing the adverse environmental impact of new developments; storm water management; garden roofs; bicycle stands and parking spaces for carpools, alternative transportation; reducing heat island effectand light pollution.
  2. Water Efficiency (maximum 5 points): water use reduction, graywater reuse technologies, high-efficiency plumbing fixtures, irrigation technology, water-efficient landscaping.
  3. Energy and Atmosphere (maximum 17 points): minimum energy performance (prerequisite), building systems commissioning (prerequisite); chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) reduction in HVAC&R equipment (prerequisite); optimize energy performance; Energy Star appliances, compact fluorescent lamps/bulbs, on-site renewable energy, PV cell panels; low-emissivity (low-E) windows; properly sized HVAC systems; additional commissioning, measurement and verification; alternate energy, alternate fuels.
  4. Materials and Resources (maximum 13 points): storage and collection of recyclables (prerequisite); reducing the life-cycle environmental impact of materials; construction waste management; encouraging the use of engineered (prefabricated) lumber in construction; certified (sustainable harvest) wood; reusing an already existing building shell; lightweight building materials, recycled materials in construction; fly ash and slag concrete; use of local/regional (500-mile radius) materials; cradle-to-cradle technology.
  5. Indoor Environmental Quality (maximum 15 points): minimum indoor air quality performance (prerequisite); environmental tobacco smoke control (prerequisite); reducing indoor pollutants; decreasing the threat of sick building syndrome to occupants; use of low-emitting volatile organic compounds (VOC) adhesives, sealants, paints, thinners, carpets, and composite wood; installing permanent carbon dioxide (CO2) monitoring systems; increased ventilation levels; building flush-out before occupancy; acoustic control; daylighting; sun control and shading devices; improving thermal comfort.
  6. Innovation and Design Process (maximum 5 points): using a LEED® accredited professional and incorporating green building features not addressed by the LEED® Green Building Rating System™.

(3) Graywater reuse technology introduces chemicals as part of its odor-control system. Acquire vital information from the appropriate material safety data sheets to enhance firefighter safety.

There are four LEED® certification levels: Basic—26 to 32 points; Silver—33 to 38 points; Gold—39 to 51 points; and Platinum—more than 51 points.


Listed below are five important green building design features that chief officers and firefighters should become familiar with to help ensure successful, effective, and safe firefighting operations.

1 Lightweight building materials. Green building construction design uses lightweight and recycled materials to reduce cost, waste, and energy. They include plastics, straw bale (agriboard), bamboo, lightweight concrete, engineered lumber, laminated wood I-beams, wooden roof and floor trusses connected with metal gusset plates, and light-gauge cold-formed steel and open-web steel bar joists. These materials are alternatives to dimensional lumber, standard concrete, and traditional heavy steel beams. In general, lightweight structural elements are rapidly affected by the heat from a fire, causing them to weaken and eventually fail.

Plastics melt or crumble under fire conditions and emit large amounts of smoke and toxic gases. Engineered lumber allows for less construction waste but usually is less substantial than dimensional lumber. The reduction in size and mass typically correlates to a reduction in the time firefighters have to safely perform interior firefighting operations.

Laminated wood I-beams may have web components constructed of recycled wood chips that can lose their cohesiveness when exposed to fire. The top and bottom chords of these structural elements are glued to the web and may also break apart when heated. The metal gusset plates connecting wooden trusses will fall off as the heat from the fire disintegrates the wood they are penetrating. Light-gauge steel wall studs, C-joists, and open-web steel bar joists will reach their softening point (1,100°F) and failure point (1,300°F) in a very short time (five to 10 minutes). Their low heat threshold corresponds to reduced mass. On a positive note, however, some cement mixes using synthetics, slag, or fly ash aggregate to replace conventional sand and gravel form a lightweight concrete that is stronger than standard concrete.

Lightweight construction should influence the way your fire department operates. Chief officers must be acutely aware of the duration of the incident. Remember, the time your communications office received the alarm is not the time the fire started. This gap could encompass hours. Your size-up strategy should be strictly defensive when you encounter a heavy fire situation in an unoccupied building. Operations should change quickly from an offensive attack to “surround and drown” tactics in buildings constructed of lightweight structural elements when initial hoselines are unsuccessful in controlling a fire threatening lightweight load-bearing elements.

2 PV cell panels. A PV cell panel system generally has four primary components: (1) PV cell panels made from silicon alloys that absorb the sun’s rays and convert them into electricity, (2) a charge controller that protects storage batteries from overcharging, (3) batteries that store the direct-current (DC) electricity, and (4) an inverter that changes the DC electricity stored in the batteries to standard 110/240 volts alternating current (AC).

PV cell panels can be found on building roofs, setbacks, and wall facades. This alternate energy source can inhibit firefighter access to the areas in which it is installed. It could also negate ladder placement (apparatus and portable), depending on the size and positioning of the PV cell system, and hinder egress from the roof or setback. This would be especially important in an emergency where firefighters or occupants must be rescued. Do not breach PV cell panels to obtain a ventilation hole. PV cell panels are wired to enhance volts and amps. Even when power is removed from the panels, wiring may remain energized during daylight hours or when illuminated by lighting. During fire conditions, water and metal tools are used extensively for extinguishment, forcible entry, ventilation, and overhaul. Preplan your firefighting strategy accordingly.

(4) A green building parking garage provides an electric fill station for its residents. Extinguish incipient fires in these areas with dry chemical or carbon dioxide extinguishing agents.

Hauling a hoseline up to the roof that has PV solar panels and maneuvering it once on the roof can be very dangerous. Firefighters snagging hose could lose their balance and fall from the roof. The panels also present a tripping and entanglement hazard. Flames extending through the roof or out of top-floor windows can compromise the integrity of the panels, conduit, and insulation of the system. In these instances, firefighters can suffer an electrical shock, or worse. You will also be faced with electricity hazards in the room or area where the storage batteries and other components of the system are located.

These systems can also hamper or prevent vertical and horizontal ventilation. A PV cell panel roof arrangement, for example, can cause you to cut the primary ventilation hole in an area other than the ideal location (directly over the fire). This can lead to fire’s spreading laterally across the top-floor ceiling to the diverted roof opening, endangering firefighters and occupants inside the building. The lack of a properly placed roof opening can also cause heat and the products of combustion to build up inside the structure. This situation can lead to flashover or backdraft conditions. Inadequate ventilation can also inhibit visibility, making interior searches for victims more difficult.

Also, a PV cell panel system is just more weight the building’s load-bearing structural members must support. This is in addition to what firefighters already have to deal with (cell phone sites, wood decking, furniture, roof gardens, gravity tanks, penthouses, and antennae). This weight increases the chance of collapse should a fire or inclement weather conditions compromise these building elements.

Some recommendations when encountering structures with PV cell panel installations include the following:

  • Preplan sites to become familiar with components’ locations and help formulate firefighting strategy.
  • Train all members of your department on the panel sites; emphasize operational dangers and safety considerations.
  • Include PV cell panel system information in computer communication technologies designed to provide responding chief officers and firefighters with critical building data.
  • Work with legislators in developing codes and ordinances for these systems that meet your department’s requirements for safety. Consider including the installation of placards and signage on the exterior of the structure as well as in areas where PV cell panel components are present. The signs will warn firefighters that PV cell panels are present and inform them where emergency electrical shutoffs can be found.
  • Insist on the provision for remote emergency shutoffs that are separate and distinct from the main electrical panel. Ideal placement would be on the roof or setback where the PV cell panels are found and outside the battery storage room/area.
  • Seek a reasonably wide operating space around the perimeter of PV cell panel configurations atop roofs and setbacks. Furthermore, insist that these systems be installed in a place remote from combustibles (foliage, furnishings, equipment, and paints).
  • Store batteries in isolated areas within enclosed rooms. Batteries should be inside code-approved, properly vented cabinets or on racks situated above the floor.

3 Daylighting. This feature may have a significant impact on the construction of a building’s roof, walls, and interior design. It will also affect the way firefighters access, operate, ventilate, and egress structures during fire situations. Multiple skylights are popular daylighting roof additions. When removed, they provide firefighters with a convenient way to vertically ventilate the building. Firefighters must be careful, however, not to fall through these glass fixtures during nighttime and smoky rooftop conditions. Saw-tooth roofs containing roof monitors (vertical skylights) provide added natural top lighting to the interior of a building. These roofs may be difficult to ladder properly because of their corrugated design. They can also prove problematic to operate on when performing ventilation duties. Venting roof monitors may not provide adequate vertical ventilation during a fire if the wind direction is such that the products of combustion are pushed back into the building.

(5) The Solaire, the first “green” residential high-rise building in the United States, has photovoltaic (PV) cell panels as an integral component of its front façade and doorway canopy.

Clerestory windows, located glazing running along the top exterior walls, are another daylighting design feature. Avoid placing ladders directly onto walls containing these windows. Failure of the glass could cause a firefighter to fall into the building against which the ladder is placed. These windows can be prime locations for initiating horizontal ventilation should the need exist.

Sun control and shading devices are on exterior walls above or adjacent to the building openings and windows they serve. They improve the quality of light inside the building as well as help to reduce heat gain and cooling costs. Overhangs, awnings, trellises, and metal or glass fins are examples. Daylighting systems can hinder ladder positioning, roof access, and ventilation operations on the fireground.

Inside the structure, each window facing the sun may have a sunlight reflector or light shelf installed. The shelf can be a mirror or a shiny metal designed to disperse sunlight toward the ceiling. It can be fixed or tiltable into multiple positions that enhance reflective properties. A light shelf will usually be placed above the height of most people’s heads, but not always. It is important to know where these shelves are within a building; they could cause trauma injury, impair horizontal ventilation efforts, and hinder egress.

The accepted use of atria in green building construction allows the builder to take advantage of available sunlight as well as to supply natural ventilation throughout the occupied area. An atrium is a challenging interior design feature for the fire service. It can provide a vertical flue for fire to spread quickly, endangering occupants who may be trapped in unprotected hallways, corridors, and passageways. Chief officers should review their fire code regulations pertaining to the protection of atria using automatic sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire alarms, fire partitions/separations, and smoke-management equipment.

4 Garden roofs. They are also called green or environmentally friendly and may contain shade trees, ornamental plants, grass, fruits, wild flowers, and vegetables. They can be found in all types of structures from high-rise office buildings to private dwellings. Garden roofs can be open to the public or be private. They help to reduce the ambient temperature inside buildings and energy consumption. These roofs also help protect roofing materials from the elements, thereby extending the lifespan of the roof.

(6) A roof garden affects firefighting strategy and tactics in multiple ways; you must include it in preplanning.

From a firefighting perspective, garden roofs add weight to a structure, which can jeopardize the safety of all members operating at the scene of a fire. The foliage, growing media (natural soil, perlite, vermiculite, rockwool), and membrane components (root resistant layer, drainage layer, filter layer) all add to the live load of the structure. The growing media also tend to reduce rainwater runoff, which will increase the weight the roof must support. During fire operations, exterior high-caliber streams and hoselines will add more water weight to a garden roof whose structural elements may be seriously weakened by the fire. These conditions can lead to a full or partial collapse of the roof and subsequent failure of bearing walls and the floors below. It is imperative that the presence of garden roofs be noted during building inspections and the information be archived in your department’s communications database for transmittal to responding units during fire response.

Garden roofs will also make it more difficult to ladder the roof, access and egress the building, operate hoselines and tools and equipment, and vertically ventilate the roof. A garden roof can make it impossible to cut a primary vertical ventilation hole. This will cause conditions inside the building to worsen quickly, endangering firefighters, occupants, and the building’s structural elements.

5 Alternate fuels. Ethanol, methanol, natural gas, propane/butane (LPG), hydrogen, and biodiesel are hazardous materials you may encounter during operations inside green buildings. These fuels can be used to provide energy for stoves, appliances, furnaces, machinery, engines, boilers, hot-water heaters, air-conditioners, and turbines. They can also be employed to generate electricity. Extinguish fires involving the flammable liquids ethanol and methanol with alcohol-resistant foam concentrates. Spill fires involving polar solvent liquids will quickly absorb the water content of the foam blanket created by standard foam concentrates and continue to burn. Alcohol liquid fires have undetectable flames and generate little or no smoke, making locating the seat of the fire all the more difficult.

Natural gas (approximately 97 percent methane) is flammable and lighter than air. It is colorless and odorless, although the utility company adds an odorant when it is used domestically. These types of fires are also clean burning and can be difficult to see under certain conditions. Using a thermal imaging camera (TIC) is critical in detecting invisible flames generated by alternate fuels. Also employ combustible gas meters to check if the vapors are within their lower and upper explosive limits. Natural gas will ignite if its air-to-gas mixture is between five and 15 percent. Provide adequate vertical and high-point ventilation to allow the vapors to dissipate rapidly.

LPG is a flammable, liquefied gas with vapors that are heavier than air. Explosive limits are between two and 10 percent LPG vapors in air. Ventilation fans may be needed to drive low-lying vapor out of cellar and subcellar areas.

Hydrogen is an extremely flammable gas with a wide explosive range (four and 75 percent hydrogen gas in air). It is the lightest of all gases and will disperse quickly when adequate ventilation is performed. Like the alcohols and natural gas, hydrogen burns cleanly. In lieu of a TIC, extend a pike pole or corn straw broom at arm’s length to safely determine active flaming.

Biodiesel is a combustible liquid with a flash point much higher than petroleum diesel fuel. It is a nonpetroleum-based fuel made from soybeans, vegetable oils, or animal fats. It can be used alone (B100) or blended with conventional petrodiesel (B20). It is immiscible with water. Use dry chemical portable fire extinguishers to eliminate active flaming and standard foam concentrate to produce a blanket to suppress vaporization and cool the liquid. You may also employ a fine water spray to dilute and cool the burning liquid below its ignition temperature if the spill can be contained. Be aware that improperly stored or handled rags soaked in biodiesel can spontaneously combust. All of these fuels are also being used in alternate fuel and hybrid vehicles, which may be parked in and around green structures.


Green building construction has become a global phenomenon. The U. S. green building market share is predicted to grow another five to 10 percent by 2010. New and existing technologies, combined with practical sustainable design, can substantially increase energy efficiency and decrease demand. This article provides only a brief description of some important sustainable design features that can have a tremendous impact on your fire/emergency operations. All chief and company officers, as well as firefighters, should seek first-hand knowledge on this construction trend. Building inspection, on-site training drills, familiarization visits, preplanning exercises, and fire critiques are ideal ways to gather additional pertinent information concerning green buildings in your fire district.


Allen, Margaret, “Dallas going green,” Dallas Business Journal:, November 2, 2007.

Ander, Gregg D. FAIA, “Daylighting,” Whole Building Design Guide,’/, May 12, 2008.

Atlanta Green City Initiatives:

Carlton-Harrell, Debera, “Seattle leads ‘green’ wave in building,” April 22, 2005.

Gowri, Krishnan, Ph.D., “Green Building Rating Systems: An Overview,”, November 2004.

Kamin, Blair, “Chicago, My Kind of Green,” GreenSource:, October 2007.

Local Law 86 of 2005:

Murray, Lynn. “Green Roofs Form Centerpiece to High-Profile Seattle Projects,”

NIOSH, “Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Fire Fighters Due to …”

Proefrock, Philip, Photovoltaics and Firefighters; Green Building Elements

Stauder, John, “Fire Protection Engineering for Atria in ‘Green Building’ Designs,” NFPA Journal,, January 1, 2008.

U.S. Green Building Council, “Green Building Rating System”:, November 2002.


Brownfield: Abandoned or underused industrial or commercial facility/site.

Building flush-out: The practice of allowing building materials and finish coatings to cure and release volatile organic compounds (VOC) prior to building occupation.

Building systems commissioning: The process of ensuring installed energy systems function as specified; performed by a third-party Commissioning Authority.

Certified (sustainable harvest) wood: Wood harvested in an environmentally friendly manner to encourage responsible forest management practices.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC): Ozone-depleting chemicals used in heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration (HVAC&R) systems.

Cradle-to-cradle: A material or product that is recycled into a new product at the end of its defined life.

Energy Star: A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-administered program that evaluates products based on energy efficiency.

Engineered (prefabricated) lumber: Composite wood products made from lumber, fiber, veneer, and glue.

Fly ash and slag concrete: Lightweight concrete using recycled aggregates for the cement mix. Fly ash is a by-product of coal during the generating of electricity; slag is produced during the reduction of iron ore to iron in a blast furnace.

Graywater reuse. Domestic wastewater used once in a kitchen/laundry/bathroom sink, shower, tub, or washer. It is refiltered and reused for tasks that don’t require potable water.

Heat island effect. Elevated temperatures over a metropolitan area caused by structural and pavement heat releases and vehicle emissions.

Light pollution. Obtrusive light produced by humans that can have adverse health effects and disrupt ecosystems.

Low-emissivity (low-E) windows. Windows that inhibit the transmission of radiant heat while allowing natural sunlight to pass through, thus reducing the amount of energy lost through windows.

Sick building syndrome. Occupants’ acute, diagnosable illness whose cause and symptoms can be directly attributed to pollutants within the building.

RONALD R. SPADAFORA is a 30-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and serves as deputy assistant chief. He is an adjunct professor of fire science in the Department of Fire Protection Management at John Jay College (CUNY) and a senior instructor for Fire Technology Incorporated. He is an editor and frequent contributor to FDNY’s WNYF magazine.

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