Aug. 13, 2008, 12:35 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The sprawling Beijing Olympic Village won its own gold medal on Wednesday for going green.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson presented Chinese officials with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold award during a short ceremony, saying the 160-acre Olympic Village could serve as a future prototype for energy efficiency and environmentally friendly design.

"China's leaders know the development of green buildings is a critical need and the Olympic Village can serve as a model for this development," Paulson said.

The award, based on standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council, is an international benchmark for high performance in "green" design and construction. The village's 42 six- and nine-story residential high-rises, which house more than 16,000 Olympic athletes, are 50 percent more energy efficient than most buildings in Beijing, using solar panels for energy and recycling wastewater for heating and cooling.

"With this award, the Olympic Village is being recognized for its contributions to making this year's Olympics the greenest ever," said Paulson.

Though much attention has focused on the country's efforts to curb its air pollution, China's huge push to achieve its goal of a "Green Olympics" has also meant a major investment in other environmental efforts, including the construction of "green" Olympic venues.

Many of the 31 athletic arenas, including the iconic National Stadium and the Water Cube, were built to incorporate environmentally friendly design.

"On day one, we were given instructions in terms of implementing a green agenda," said Michael Kwok, the Olympic project director for the British-based design and engineering firm Arup, which has been involved in building some of Beijing's signature new architecture.

"There was a general objective that this was the 'Green Olympics' so we had to consider energy conservation and water recycling. But in terms of details, it was up to designers to come up with solutions," Kwok said.

At the Water Cube, where Olympic swimming events are held, builders used material similar to plastic wrap to create 4,000 translucent bubbles as the outer shell, allowing sunlight to filter in. The "skin" lets the building use natural lighting, while a rainwater capture system on the roof saves water for irrigation and landscape purposes, said Kwok.

"The Water Cube is very much a green building because of the way the building's features work. It had inherent advantages of saving energy and also retaining and recycling rainwater," he said.

Solar panels in the 91,000-seat stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, generate enough energy to power the huge underground parking lot. The arena's open design, with its intricate external latticework, allows for natural ventilation instead of having a heating and cooling system, while the rainwater collection system uses 108 water tanks, said Kwok.

"China is going through a 'green' push and there's a lot of buildings that have these elements - water recycling, maximizing natural light, etc. Its all moving in that direction," Kwok said.

The Olympic Village, the largest non-competition venue at the Games, includes the showcase "near-zero energy" welcome center, which generates nearly as much energy as it consumes using a combination of solar cells and geothermal heat pumps. The village's developers, the Guo Ao Development Co., received technical assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Though several individual buildings in Beijing have gotten the LEED award, the Olympic Village is the first residential neighborhood to merit one. The developers plan to convert the development into luxury apartments in early 2009. The cachet and amenities of the Olympic residences have proven very popular with the public - 80 percent have already been sold.

China's motivations for looking at sustainable design and development go far beyond the Olympics, Kwok said.

"They know that the high rate of urbanization is going on in China so there is an urgent need to find a solution where they can sustain growth but at the same time, not create so much problems in terms of energy and pollution that they are facing," he said.