Commercial Buildings Factsheet

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Commercial buildings include, but are not limited to, stores, offices, schools, churches, gymnasiums, libraries, museums, hospitals, clinics, warehouses, and jails. The design, construction, operation, and demolition of commercial buildings impact natural resources, environmental quality, worker productivity, and community well-being.

Patterns of Use

  • In the U.S., 5.6 million commercial buildings covered 87 billion square feet of floor space in 2012—an increase of 46% in number of buildings and 71% in floor space since 1979.1,2
  • By 2050, commercial building floor space is expected to reach 126.1 billion square feet, a 36% increase beyond 2018.3
  • Education, mercantile, office, and warehouse/storage buildings comprise 60% of total commercial floor space and 50% of buildings.1

Resource Consumption

Energy Use

  • Commercial buildings consumed 18% of all energy in the U.S. in 2018.4
  • In 2018, the commercial sector consumed 18.61 quadrillion Btu of primary energy, a 76% increase from 1980.4,5
  • Lighting and indoor climate control consumed 51% of commercial sector primary energy in 2010.5
  • Operating phase energy represents 80-90% of a building’s life cycle energy consumption.6 In under 2.5 years of operation, a UM campus building with an estimated lifespan of 75 years consumed more energy than material production and construction combined.7


U.S. Commercial Sector Primary Energy End Use, 2010


Total Energy Consumption, U.S. Commercial Buildings, 2012

Material Use

  • Typical buildings contain concrete, metals, drywall, and asphalt.8 Cement is a combination of ground minerals, which are mixed with sand, water, gravel, and other materials to create concrete.9 Structural steel made up 46% of the structural building material market share, followed by concrete in 2017.10
  • In 2011, the construction of new low-rise non-residential buildings in the U.S. consumed about 627 million board feet of lumber, accounting for approximately 1% of all lumber consumed in the U.S.11

Water Consumption

  • In 2005, the commercial sector used an estimated 10.2 billion gallons of water per day, an increase of 23% from 1990 levels.5
  • Domestic/restroom water is the largest end use in commercial buildings except in restaurants where 52% of the water is used for dishwashing or kitchen use.12

Life Cycle Impacts

Construction and Demolition Waste

  • The EPA estimates that 230-530 million metric tons of construction and demolition waste are generated every year in the US.13 This amounts to at least 4.2 lbs per capita daily compared to the U.S. average of 4.4 lbs per capita per day of municipal solid waste.13,14,15
  • Approximately 40% of non-residential building waste was recovered for processing and recycling in 2007.16 Most frequently recovered and recycled were concrete, asphalt, metals, and wood.17

Indoor Air Quality

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are found in concentrations 2 to 5 times greater indoors than nature. Exposure to high concentrations of VOCs can result in eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, and nausea; and extreme effects, such as cancer or nervous system damage. VOCs are emitted in buildings through adhesives, paints, solvents, aerosol sprays, and disinfectants.18

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

  • The combustion of fossil fuels to provide energy to commercial buildings emitted 876 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2018, approximately 17% of all U.S. CO2 emissions that year.
  • As operational emissions drop with the adoption of renewable energy, embodied emissions, those which are attributed to the building materials and energy for construction, will likely dominate new building emissions by 2050.19

Solutions and Sustainable Alternatives


  • Before 2000, little attention was paid to energy use and environmental impact of buildings, during design and construction. In 2013, an estimated 72% of buildings were more than 20 years old.20 For typical commercial buildings, current energy efficiency measures can reduce energy consumption by 20-30% with no significant design alterations.21
  • NREL found that 62% of office buildings, or 47% of commercial floor space, can reach net-zero energy use by implementing current energy efficiency technologies and self-generation (solar PV). By redesigning all buildings to comply with current standards, implementing current energy efficiency measures, and outfitting buildings with solar panels, average energy use intensity can be reduced from 1020 to 139 MJ/m2-yr, an 86% reduction in energy use intensity.22
  • Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager tracks energy and water consumption.23 The tool includes over 300,000 commercial buildings, and could serve as a national database to benchmark building performance and provide transparency to building managers and tenants.24
  • Erosion and pollution from stormwater runoff can be mitigated by using porous materials for paved surfaces and native vegetation instead of high maintenance grass lawns. A typical city block generates more than 5 times more runoff than a woodland area of equal size.25

Design Guidelines and Rating Systems

  • The U.S. Green Buildings Council developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. LEED is an evaluation metric for overall building performance, assigning points for design attributes that reduce environmental burdens and energy use.26
  • Passive House Institute US provides a climate specific building standards to minimize energy use and emissions. There are 5 principles of passive building, mainly focused on insulation and airtightness.27,28
  • The U.S. EPA Energy Star buildings program recognizes and assists organizations that have committed to energy efficiency improvement.29
  • The Living Building Challenge, a building initiative by the International Living Future Institute, comprises seven performance areas, or ‘petals’: place, water, health and happiness, energy, materials, equity, and beauty.30


LEED Registered Green Building Projects, New Construction


Case Studies

  • The Samuel Trask Dana Building, a 100-year-old structure located on University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, was renovated in 2004 to improve energy and environmental performance. Design features include photovoltaic electricity generation, natural lighting, radiant cooling, composting restrooms, and selective materials use and reuse. The renovation attained a LEED Gold rating.32
  • The Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL), recognized by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in their 2016 Commitment to the Environment Top Ten Projects,33 was the first building to meet these four green certifications: Living Building Challenge v1.3, LEED Platinum, SITES certification for landscapes, and WELL Building Platinum.34
  • Comparing the materials used in CSL to those of a conventional building reveals a 10% higher global warming potential and near equal embodied energy, due mainly to solar panels and inverters, concrete, steel, and gravel. Energy savings can come from flyash and blast furnace slag replacement in the concrete and the use of recycled steel.35
  • The AIA awarded the Edith Green - Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Oregon the 2016 Top Ten Plus winner.  This 512,474 square foot building achieved a 55% reduction in energy consumption, a 65% reduction in water consumption, and improved occupant satisfaction.36
  • The Energy Star buildings program sponsors a “Battle of the Buildings” each year. The 2015 team winner, Energy Service Company (ESCO) Project at Texas A&M University, reduced average energy usage by 35.5% in six buildings, which saved $548,900 and avoided 1,726 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The top building winner was Woodville Chapel, which reduced energy usage by 89%.37

The Edith Green - Wendell Wyatt Federal Building AIA Top Ten Plus Green Project, 201636

The Edith Green - Wendell Wyatt Federal Building AIA Top Ten Plus Green Project, 2016

  1. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) (2016) “2012 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey.”
  2. U.S. EIA (1981) “1979 Nonresidential Buildings Energy Consumption Survey.”
  3. U.S. EIA (2019) Annual Energy Outlook 2019.
  4. U.S. EIA (2019) Monthly Energy Review April 2019.
  5. U.S. DOE, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (2012) 2011 Buildings Energy Data Book.
  6. Ramesh, T., et al. (2010) “Life cycle energy analysis of buildings: An overview.” Energy and Buildings, 42(2010): 1592-1600.
  7. Sheuer, C., et al. (2003) “Life cycle energy and environmental performance of a new university building: modeling challenges and design implications.” Energy and Buildings, 35: 1049-1064.
  8. Cochran, K., et al. (2007) “Estimation of regional building-related C&D debris generation and composition: Case study for Florida, US.” Waste Management, 27 (2007): 921–931
  9. US DOE EERE (2003) “Energy and Emission Reduction Opportunities for the Cement Industry”
  10. American Institute of Steel Construction (2018) “Structural Steel: An Industry Overview”
  11. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (2013) Wood and Other Materials Used to Construct  Nonresidential Buildings in the United States, 2011.
  12. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2017) “WaterSense: Commerical-Types of Facilities.”
  13. U.S. EPA (2018) Sustainable Materials Management Options for Construction and Demolition Debris
  14. US Census Bureau (2019) Population Estimates
  15. U.S. EPA (2018) Advancing Sustainable Materials Management 2015 Factsheet.
  16. U.S. EPA (2009) OSWER Innovation Project Success Story: Deconstruction.
  17. U.S. EPA (1998) Characterization of Building-Related Construction and Demolition Debris in the United States.
  18. U.S. EPA (2007) “Indoor Air Quality - VOCs Impact on Indoor Air Quality”
  19. Simonen, K., et al. (2017). “Benchmarking the Embodied Carbon of Buildings.” Technology|Architecture Design, 1(2), 208–218.
  20. The American Institute of Architects and Rocky Mountain Institute (2013). “Deep Energy Retrofits: An Emerging Opportunity.”
  21. Kneifel, J. (2010) “Life-cycle carbon and cost analysis of energy efficiency measure in new commercial buildings.” Energy and Buildings, 42(2010): 333-340.
  22. Griffith, B., et al. (2007) Assessment of the technical potential for achieving net zero-energy buildings in the commercial sector. National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  23. Energy Star (2016) “Portfolio Manager.”
  24. Cox, M., et al. (2013) “Energy benchmarking of commercial buildings: a low-cost pathway toward urban sustainability.” Environmental Research Letters, 8(2013): 1-12.
  25. U.S. EPA (2003) Protecting Water Quality from Urban Runoff.
  26. U.S. Green Buildings Council (USGBC) (2013) “About LEED.”
  27. Passive House Institute US (2019) “About PHIUS”
  28. Passive House Institute US (2019) “Passive House Principles”
  29. Energy Star (2013) “Buildings & Plants.”
  30. International Living Future Institute (2016) Living Building Challenge 3.0.
  31. USGBC (2016) “Project Directory.”
  32. School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan (2003) The Greening of Dana.
  33. American Institute of Architects (2017) COTE Top Ten Awards.
  34. Phipps (2016) Center for Sustainable Landscapes.
  35. Thiel, C., et al. (2013) A Materials Life Cycle Assessment of a Net-Zero Energy Building. Energies 2013, 6, 1125-1141.
  36. American Institute of Architects (2016) The Edith Green - Wendell Wyatt Federal Building.
  37. U.S. EPA (2016) Battle of the Buildings: EPA’s National Building Competition, 2015 Wrap Up Report.
Cite as: 
Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. 2019. "Commercial Buildings Factsheet." Pub. No. CSS05-05.