What determines whether a building is truly sustainable? Is a structure green because it is designed to a certain LEED certification level? Or because it reuses an existing structure? Is it defined by a maximum energy use intensity (EUI) or by performance data that is a minimum percentage below local energy codes? Is it defined by water use? How about post-occupancy performance data?

Any practitioner worth his or her salt knows that all of the above characteristics and more factor into a structure’s environmental impact and that there is no one factor that serves as the sole guideline in determining whether a structure is sustainable. Which is exactly what makes judging a competition such as our annual Evergreen Awards so challenging.

For the fourth summer in a row, we tasked an independent panel of respected industry leaders from across the country to review a range of competition entries, which for 2011 totaled more than 120 entries across five categories. In their submissions, entrants in our building categories—commercial categories for new construction and existing buildings, a residential category, and a category for unbuilt or “on the boards” projects—were asked to address key project goals, energy, water and material use, site selection, air quality and daylighting, grants and incentives received, post-occupancy performance, and overall design innovation. As in past years, our fifth category, Perspective, collected nominations of green-building practitioners who should be recognized for their work in the industry.

Each year, before our jury dives into their entry packets, I remind them that there is no one characteristic that should serve as a benchmark in weeding out winners. We are not looking for LEED Platinum–certified projects only, or for a specific EUI. Instead, we ask them to weigh overall performance data (which, to our dismay, continues to be more models and simulations than actual post-occupancy figures), design excellence, overall innovation, and how a project responds to its specific constraints such as budgets, site conditions, and urban or rural context. The parameters are purposefully kept somewhat broad so as to prompt dialogue between our jurors.

In moderating the conversation to finalize winners, I am always interested to see what green-building characteristics come up for discussion. At the forefront this year:

Efficiency, but not just in terms of energy and water use. In addition to examining performance data and projections, our jurors were also interested in efficiency of resources. How prudently did the designers use materials and their budget?

Scale. In reviewing this year’s entries, the jurors questioned whether green design seems to favor small construction, as the majority of submissions were under two to three stories in height. Designing smaller buildings will inherently reduce their environmental impact to a degree, but the impact of large facilities needs to be addressed as well.

Innovation and feasibility … or perhaps I should say innovation versus feasibility. It’s one thing to design with an unlimited budget and another to design in the economic climate of the past few years. Consider the North House project. Initially reviewed in our Greenhouse category, but then pulled out for special consideration, the project’s forward-thinking design and technology wowed our jury. But the practicality of some of the materials and the price tag raised concerns about replicability and feasibility in the real world. (Price, it should be noted, was an overall point of contention in the 2009 Solar Decathlon, a competition in which this project was entered. In response, for the 2011 Solar Decathlon taking place from Sept. 23 through Oct. 2 in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Energy factored affordability into judging considerations.)

The North House Project, our jury thought, deserved recognition for showing what can be possible, likening the project to a concept car that is displayed at an auto show. It may not be mass-market-ready by show’s end, but it inspires and drives attendees to look for better, more progressive solutions in the marketplace. And so, for the first time in the competition’s history, we are bestowing a non-category-specific special jury recognition.

In another category-related note, you will notice that the jury chose not to name a winning project in the Existing Buildings category. The consensus was that the industry should be pushing itself to better integrate sustainable features into the existing building stock, with sensitivity to the historic context of the original space. The jury was encouraged by the submissions, but decided that there was no overriding winner.

Across all categories, and with all variables put aside, our winners do meet a rather straightforward formula: Superior performance + overall innovation + outstanding architectural expression = award-worthy projects. Our Perspective winner, Bill Browning of Terrapin Bright Green, has fostered these concepts in his work in the industry for the past 20 years, both at the helm of his own firms and as part of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

With this formula in mind, I invite you to judge our winners for yourself. Our online coverage starts here.

Think you have a project that can take top honors next year? Get more entry information at eco-structure.com/evergreen.