from the point of design right up to their construction, use and operation, function on a sustainable basis. This is also known as green construction or sustainable building. Typically, those buildings will be designed and built in a way that minimises the use of resources such as water and energy, seeks to recycle waste and pollution as well as use where possible natural and locally sources materials. The overall aim of green building is to minimise the environmental footprint of the building throughout its entire lifecycle. Green building requires the close cooperation of different sets of people, such as architects, builders, and environmental consultants, who ultimately all contribute to getting a building up¹.
Why are green buildings important?
It is widely understood that our built environment has a vast impact on the natural environment, human health, and the economy. A green building approach aims to maximize both the economic and environmental performance of buildings for own and nature’s benefit. In the US, it is estimated that buildings are responsible for:
- 39% of total energy use,
- 12% of the total water consumption,
- 68% of total electricity consumption, and
- 38% of the carbon dioxide emissions².
A similar picture emerges in Europe, where the EU has calculated that looking at the whole life cycle of a building, from extraction to the manufacturing of the construction products, the construction, use and maintenance of the building itself, buildings account for about:
- 50% of extracted materials
- 50% of energy consumption
- 35% of water consumption
- 35% of waste generated³
While green buildings may have higher start up or building costs, the savings in terms of energy or water bills etc, often make them attractive options for developers.
In the US, studies have shown that over 20 years, a green building’s return on investment exceeds the cost of “greening” by a factor of 4-6 times ¹, while broader benefits, such as reductions in greenhouse gases and other pollutants have large positive impacts on surrounding communities and on the planet as a whole.
This is why several schemes operate globally that provide certification for green buildings as well as financial support for prospective home-owners or those who wish to renovate their property. These include very well-known initiatives such as the US LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) scheme or budding programmes such as the Wold Bank’s EDGE (Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies) which is aimed at developing countries¹.
Environmental impacts of green buildings
But, ideally, green buildings are much more than just cost saving. Apart from being as resource efficient as possible, green buildings need to be designed in a way that creates the minimum amount of disruption to the surrounding environment. This involves the maintenance of natural landscapes as much as possible, incorporation of local vegetation and green spaces as well as the use of locally (and sustainably) sourced building materials, as much as possible.
Green buildings can therefore have a net benefit in terms of our pocket (in the medium to long term) as well as the environment. But by living in a greener building we are also enhancing our health and wellbeing. For example, indoor air pollution is a big concern: we spend most of our life indoors, and a lot of research indicates that pollutants can be up to ten times higher indoors than outdoors¹. Green buildings aim to tackle this issue and improve air quality, offering us a healthier environment to live in.
Some more good news in terms of the benefits and importance of green buildings comes following a report conducted by researchers at Harvard’s School of Public Health and New York’s Upstate Medical University. Having reviewed over 100 workers in 10 buildings in five US cities, they concluded that working in a green building, as certified by LEED, results in higher cognitive function scores, fewer sick building symptoms, and higher sleep quality scores. The research team is now working on developing a multidisciplinary approach coined “Buildingomics” to consider “the totality of factors in a building’s environment” ⁴.