Green Buildings - Much More Than A Color

Eng. Maritza VARGAS
Independent Environmental and Sustainability Consultant

Green Buildings - Much More Than A Color

Three decades ago, anyone who heard about green buildings wouldn’t think further than a new exterior painting or maybe an architectural fashion trend. Now a day, the concept of “Green or Sustainable buildings” is a main subject of discussion, debate and development. We find the term in the daily news all over the world; whether you are in China, Australia, Middle East, Europe, or America; in any international or national building & construction conference, you will hear the echo of new technologies to boost green buildings.

So, where is this green wave coming from? “Green building” is the popular name to define “Sustainable Buildings”, as the practice of design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and decommission of building structures in an environmentally responsible and resource-efficient way, minimizing environmental impacts and considering the comfort and health of its occupants at all times.

Origin of Green or Sustainable Buildings

The origin of Green, or more precisely Sustainable buildings, dates back to 1980s, when the United Nations appointed Norwegian Prime Minister Dr. Brundtland to chair the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The purpose of the commission was to address the growing concern about the consequences of human activities on the critical environment. The outcome, released on 1987 “Our common Future” (1), is better known as the “Brundtland Report” which sets the concept of Sustainable Development on the political agenda and public opinion, as: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The principle of Sustainable Development is widely recognized as a fundamental principle of international environmental law striving to solve complex conflicts between environmental, economic, and social interests.

The concept of sustainability has been used and redeveloped since 1987 in different spheres, as an attempt to reach the equilibrium between human built environment, economic, ecological and social aspects.

Why Sustainable Buildings?

Buildings are an intrinsic part of our lives. In 2008 half of the world population lived in urban areas, and it is expected that the rate will increase to 70% by 2050. (2)

UNEP Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative (UNEP SBCI) states: “Buildings use about 40% of global energy, 25% of global water, 40% of global resources and they emit approximately one third of global green house gas emissions (GHG).

Yet buildings also offer the greatest potential for achieving significant GHG emissions reduction, at least cost, in developed and developing countries. Furthermore, energy consumption in buildings can be reduced by 30% to 80% using proven and commercially available technologies” (3). This is one of the reasons energy efficiency in buildings is a main objective for energy policy at national, regional and international levels.

Other interesting key facts from UNEP SBCI are:

  • “Residential and commercial buildings consume approximately 60% of the world electricity.
  • Existing buildings’ energy and water use performance is usually below efficiency potential, representing substantial saving opportunities
  • The building sector is the largest contributor to global GHG emissions
  • In developing countries, new green construction yields enormous opportunities.
  • Investment in building energy efficiency is accompanied by significant direct and indirect savings, which help offset incremental costs, providing a short return on investment period.
  • Building sustainability will result in healthier and more productive environments”

The motivation to engage on sustainable buildings has different reasons; for example, governments can seize the opportunity to reach their target for GHG emissions reduction and to lower its impact in global climate change. At the same time, by promoting sustainable public buildings, governments encourage their citizens to follow the same path: investing in more eco-efficient and environmentally friendly retrofitting in existing dwellings or showcasing state of the art new green designs. That way, general public and government stakeholders would be more open to the implementation of new sustainable policies and programs.

Corporations and private businesses may have a different view towards green buildings. They can see them as a potential solution to enhance their image as socially responsible businesses; furthermore, engaging best practices for reducing energy & water consumption, not only brings the benefit of operational cost reductions, but it’s also a way to minimize their environmental impact. Implementing sustainable practices of waste management, encouraging principles of industrial ecology, improving indoor comfort and integrating their building with its surrounding businesses gain customer satisfaction, employee retention, occupant health quality and added property value.

Can we measure how sustainable the building is?

Sustainability goes beyond energy consumption; however, energy efficiency is indispensable in order to achieve any level of sustainability. Therefore, to assess how sustainable a building is, in first instance we should evaluate its energy performance. Energy rating and labelling systems for buildings and appliances have been implemented in several countries for more than two decades.

Since the 1990s, there has been a rapid development of Energy rating schemes and labelling systems around the world, especially in the USA and Europe. In some places, the rating schemes have been developed by both private, independent energy councils, and at the same time by governmental institutions. Now a day, there is an ample range and mix of voluntary and mandatory schemes around the world. The terms and concepts utilised in the context of sustainable and energy-rating systems are not uniformly applied worldwide. The scope and precision of terms differ among systems working in the same place and also from one country to another. There is also a vast variation in the practice and application of energy labelling of buildings comparing the schemes most utilised globally. These large variations are found from the scope of the systems, how the programmes are designed, the way rating organisations operate, technical procedures such as quantifying the energy use, administrative and financial schemes to the typology of buildings (residential, public, private, commercial, etc.)

Looking at the European legislation, Directive 2010/31/ EU states the new implemented: “Methodology for calculating the Energy performance of buildings” and the “implementation of a system for the energy performance certification of buildings”. It shall include information on the energy performance and recommendation for cost improvements. The energy performance indicator of the certificate shall be included in the advertisement in commercial media when a building (or unit) is offered for sale or rent. Also, when a building is constructed, sold or rented out, the certificate is to be shown to the new tenant or prospective buyer”. (4)

Green Buildings - Much More Than A Color

Green building International Standards

The most used rating systems in the world BREEAM and LEED. They are well-established systems used globally. It’s a difficult task to compare between systems, since each one has divers strengths and weaknesses that apply to different cases.

BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) is the UK’s environmental assessment method introduced in 1990 for buildings. “The world ‘s leading design and assessment method for sustainable buildings”. (5)

“LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an international recognized green building program.” developed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) starting in 2000. (6)

Other well known national and international rating systems are: HERS (Home Energy Rating System), Energy STAR ( EPA and US Department of Energy), NABERS (National Australian Built Environment Rating System), Green Star, HQE (France), ESTIDAMA (UAE) , Passivehouse (Germany), MOHURD (China), CASBEE (Japan), among other. All these systems keep evolving to satisfy the new requirements of the market and to be compliant with new regulations and incoming energy and sustainability policies.

According to the Wuppertal Institute, for climate, environment, and energy: “In the short and medium term, energy efficiency is the biggest, fastest, and most cost effective option for mitigating climate change and protecting our resources. However, to date there has not been an integrated institutional and conceptional framework, nor a processes and coherent instruments specific for target groups, to collect the knowledge scattered around the world, assemble it according to scientific standards, and present it in a user-oriented, comprehensive, easy to use, and transparent way”. (7)

Green Buildings - Much More Than A Color

Does it pay to be green?

Any effort to protect our planet and to make it a more sustainable place to live is worthy, for us and for the future generations to come.

Improving the environmental performance of a business, or a building, lead to a better economic and financial performance. It brings immediate cost reductions and usually the payback is just a few months (for small retrofitting). In many developed countries, owners can qualify for tax rebates or special loans to improve the sustainability of the building.

The benefits of being more sustainable are endless: direct cost reduction for water, electricity, fuel, resources, materials and packaging. By improving the indoor air quality the risk of Sick Building Syndrome is reduced considerably, and as a consequence the employees work more satisfactory and there are less period of sick leave. Becoming “greener”, improving waste management, the business enhance its image as a socially and environmentally responsible business, which is a strong reason to retain workforce, to attract quality professionals, customers and clients looking for green supply chain. Sustainability is applied to the entire building’s life cycle. Another potential benefit is the increment of the property price for sale or rent in comparison to a similar building with low energy performance or diminished indoor air quality.

So why do green buildings fail? The construction industry is fragmented; architects, designers, builders, engineers and developers each make decisions that serve their own interest creating huge inefficiencies overall. Afterwards, facility managers and end users add more inefficiency to the equation. In order to be successful in sustainable building, a strong coordination between these different actors should exist; sustainability, energy and resource minimization, and air quality and comfort maximization must be common targets.

Human behavior is the key for the use, operation and maintenance of sustainable buildings. Architects, developers, builders, engineer and interior decorators can design and build the Greenest building in the world, however if the users don’t know and don’t understand the characteristic and performance of the building, its energy performance could be less than any other traditional building.

Thus, before greening the buildings, we must green the people.

  • Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future
  • http://www.un-documents.net/wced-ocf.htm
  • Population reference Bureau http://www.prb.org/Educators/TeachersGuides/HumanPopulation/Urbanization.aspx
  • http://www.unep.org/sbci/AboutSBCI/Background.asp
  • http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32010L0031:EN:NOT
  • http://www.breeam.org
  • http://new.usgbc.org/leed
  • http://wupperinst.org/en/projects/details/wi/p/s/pd/275/
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