Green building codes, which seek to make new and existing buildings more environmentally friendly, are gaining popularity in countries around the world. This year, there will be updates to many prominent standards and maybe even some entirely new ones.
But as environmental issues become more pressing, are green building codes really green enough? Or do we need to take things a step further?
Types of green building standards
There are many different green building standards that developers can utilize. Some of these codes are fairly general, while others focus on specific goals. Some of the most common standards include:
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is one of the most popular standards worldwide. The U.S. Green Building Council manages LEED, which applies to various types of both new and existing buildings. It deals with performance in energy efficiency, water use, air quality, materials and more.
- ASHRAE 189.1
The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ ANSI/ASHRAE/USGBC/IES Standard. It applies to new construction and additions of commercial, industrial, mixed-use and multifamily residential facilities of more than three stories. It covers energy and water efficiency, materials, air quality and more.
- Green Star
Green Star is the certification system of the Green Building Council of Australia. It applies to new and existing buildings as well as communities. It deals with aspects such as energy and water efficiency, air quality, land use, materials of the design, interior and performance of buildings.
- Living Building Challenge
The International Living Future Institute manages the Living Building Challenge that aims to help create buildings that are self-sufficient regenerative spaces. Its facets include net positive energy, water and waste.
The National Australian Built Environment Rating System applies to commercial and residential buildings and measures energy and water use, waste management, air quality and more.
The net positive ideal
These codes address many of the environmental impacts of modern buildings, but some go further than others. The Living Building Challenge, for example, includes net positive energy management rather than just a measurement of energy efficiency. Living buildings typically meet these requirements through the use of solar panels or other renewables.
Because of the environmental damage that our energy habits have already caused, we may need buildings that help the environment in this way, rather than just minimize harm. The Green Building Council of Australia has joined the World Green Building Council in setting targets for net zero-emissions buildings. Under the targets, all new construction would have net zero emissions by 2030 and existing building would reach that goal by 2050.
Creating buildings that do this is, of course, challenging. Not all green codes are up to this level as of yet, but the groups that manage them are continuously updating them. Hopefully, more systems will eventually take the net positive approach, but it may take time to get there. In the meantime, having less stringent codes is better than having no codes at all.
Challenges to green building codes
Another challenge is the fact that all aspects of a building and its operation are connected. You can’t entirely separate energy use from aesthetics, occupant satisfaction or material use. There are several potential approaches to tackling this challenge.
Some have suggested more comprehensive standards. This could help building managers cover all their bases, but it also could cause the many aspects of these codes to become “watered down.” Spreading out resources means that each area gets less focus.
Another approach could be creating separate standards that each addresses a different issue. This would allow for more of a focus on each aspect but could stretch the resources of building managers. They would have to deal with multiple agencies and fill out more paperwork. Requirements could even contradict, which would add to building owners’ frustration.
The ideal solution likely lies somewhere in between these two extremes. The leading standards could expand their scope to cover more areas as resources allow. At the very least, they should consider the other factors that might impact the buildings aspects they deal with. If building owners want to go beyond these more generalized standards, they could seek out niche standards that regulate specific building aspects.
Another way to improve the effectiveness of green building codes is to change zoning rules to make them more accommodating to green buildings. People who live in dense urban environments typically use less energy than those living in spread-out suburban areas because they have smaller residences and drive less. One study found that doubling population-weighted density reduces residential energy use by 35 percent. Zoning rules, however, often favor detached single-family homes.
Green building standards are green, but they could always be greener. Making buildings more eco-friendly is critical since buildings are responsible for 23 percent of Australia’s carbon emissions. So far, it’s a gradual process, but making our buildings more environmentally friendly and eventually net zero and even net positive should be a prominent environmental goal.
This is a guest post written by Emily Folk.