Why green building has spread

The built environment is a major part of humanity’s ecological footprint. The design of buildings, the materials they use, their interaction with their environments, and how they shape human behaviour have substantial impacts on urban ecology. The growth of the human population (7-11 billion by 2050) and the reduction of household size (fewer people per house) combine to suggest that people will need to build a huge number of new buildings (perhaps the same number as those already built) to house humanity in the coming decades. In this context the spread of green building has the potential to have a major impact on humanity’s ecological footprint.

The Harvard Business Review (June 2006) article Building the Green Way explains why green building practices have entered the mainstream. This article is interesting both for its location, and that it speculates on why green building has entered the mainstream. Hopefully, other green design and consumption approaches can learn from the normalizing of green building.

In June 2005, mayors from 50 large cities around the world met at the United Nations World Environment Day conference in San Francisco and signed the Urban Environmental Accords, which set out 21 sustainable-living actions for each city to complete by 2012. As part of the accords, the mayors pledged to mandate green rating standards for all new municipal buildings in their respective cities.

Before 2000, companies generally regarded green buildings as interesting experiments but unfeasible projects in the real business world. Since then, several factors have caused a major shift in thinking.

First, the creation of reliable building-rating and performance measurement systems for new construction and renovations has helped change corporate perceptions about green.

In 1990, the UK government pioneered the green standards movement when, at the request of the British real estate industry, it launched BREEAM – the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method. BREEAM evaluates the environmental performance of a broad spectrum of new and existing UK buildings.

In 2000, the U.S. Green Building Council—a coalition of more than 6,000 real estate professionals, government and other nonprofit organizations, and schools—started its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating program. The program awards points in the following categories: sustainable site (14 possible points), water efficiency (five possible points), energy and atmosphere (17 possible points), materials and resources (13 possible points), indoor environmental quality (15 possible points), and innovation and design process (five possible points). Companies can earn points for everything from brownfield redevelopment to public transportation access. LEED has four award levels: Certified (26–32 points), Silver (33–38 points), Gold (39–51 points), and Platinum (52–69 points). A LEED-Gold building has 50% less negative impact on the environment than a standard building. A LEED-Platinum building has at least 70% less negative impact. Dozens of U.S. cities and several states now require that new and renovated public buildings satisfy LEED criteria.

More and more countries are creating their own green standards. The Green Building Council of Australia, founded in 2002, synthesized BREEAM, LEED, and other environmental criteria into the Green Star rating system, which is specific to the Australian environment, building practices, and real estate markets. India’s Green Building Council is developing a rating system that it hopes to launch by the end of the year.

… Certainly, companies can create green buildings without using these rating programs, and many that do follow program guidelines choose not to spend the time and money applying for certification. Nevertheless, certification assures prospective buyers and tenants that a building is truly sustainable.

Second, hundreds of U.S. and international studies have proven the financial advantages of going green. Well-designed green buildings, for example, have lower utility costs. In its first year of operation, Genzyme Center—Genzyme Corporation’s 12-story LEED-Platinum headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts—used 42% less energy and 34% less water than standard buildings of comparable size. Green buildings can also boost employee productivity by approximately 15%, in part because they use alternative building materials that don’t emit toxins, like formaldehyde, that are commonly found in standard building materials and workplaces. At Genzyme Center, 58% of the 920 employees report that they’re more productive there than they were in Genzyme’s former headquarters building. Employee sick time in the new headquarters is 5% lower than for all of Genzyme’s other Massachusetts facilities combined. Moreover, green design criteria—including abundant daylighting, individual climate controls, and outdoor views—raise morale and employee satisfaction, which also improves productivity.

Finally, green building materials, mechanical systems, and furnishings have become more widely available, and their prices have dropped considerably—in some cases below the cost of their standard counterparts. According to Turner Construction chairman Thomas C. Leppert, four industry studies of more than 150 sustainable buildings across the United States show that, on average, it costs only 0.8% more to achieve basic LEED certification than to construct a standard building. The PNC Firstside Center was already under construction as a standard building when the owner, PNC Financial Services Group, decided to go green instead. Even so, the project was completed two months early, came in $4 million under the original (and only) construction budget, and earned LEED’s Silver rating. Now, PNC has constructed several of more than 200 planned green bank branches. The average construction time was 45 days faster than for PNC’s traditional branches, and the costs were the same or lower. In the northeastern United States, for example, PNC’s green branches each came in $100,000 below the cost of a competitor’s new standard branches.

One thought on “Why green building has spread”

  1. Too many area in the US allow overbuilding, and with no regard for the environemental impact, energy consumption, etc. It’s good to see that the builders themselves are moving toward green building techniques.

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