Green Building takes off
Today, five percent of new commercial construction meets standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program (LEED), a voluntary, consensus-based standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. Ten percent of new homes satisfy the US federal government’s Energy Star guidelines, meaning they’re nearly one-third more energy-efficient than regulations require, reports E-Magazine in its latest cover story.
Still, considering that U.S. buildings generate about a third of the country’s greenhouse gases, at the rate green building is penetrating the market today it will be many years before serious emissions reductions are achieved.
A recent edition of Building Design and Construction (BD+C) contains an examination of progress in green building in the United States, and details the financial implications of sustainable building in a comprehensive report, Green Buildings and the Bottom Line.
The report shows that green building has matured from its early days as an environmental ‘crusade’ into a well established construction sector with a strong business backing. The shift from an environmentally principled approach to a view of green building as a lucrative financial opportunity is the focus of the paper.
A number of cities around the United States, including San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Scottsdale, Arizona, are leading the way with laws that require new public buildings be green. So far, 54 U.S. cities and 23 federal agencies have adopted LEED standards for buildings, says Bill Browning, senior fellow for Rocky Mountain Institute and co-author of Green Development: Integrating Ecology and Real Estate.
In Canada, all new government office buildings must meet the Canada Green Building Council’s LEED Gold level. Office Buildings with new long-term leases also have to meet the LEED-Canada Gold level. The Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) is the exclusive licensee and certifier of LEED projects in Canada.
Cities including Vancouver, Calgary, and Ottawa, have also adopted LEED guidelines for municipal developments. All new civic buildings greater than 500 square metres in Vancouver are required to meet LEED Gold standards, and measures to reduce energy consumption by at least 30% are mandatory.
An example of cutting edge green building development in Canada is Victoria’s Dockside Green, which will transform harbour front industrial lands into a mixed use community with extensive use of green energy, water recycling, and provisions for a variety of transportation options.
The CaGBC also recently certified its first residential high-rise condominium, The Radiance @ MintoGardens, in Toronto. The project has received a rating of LEED Silver for its variety of sustainable building features. Minto Urban Communities Inc. was nominated for a GLOBE Award in 2006 for its work in promoting green building in Canada.
However, obstacles to further green building developments remain. Part of the problem is resistance to change and refusal by some professionals to learn new methods. Until economies of scale are realized, some of the technology will continue to cost more.
Some question whether the term “green building” is too easily co-opted for marketing purposes. Some builders, they charge, do little more than erect townhouses that increase urban density rather than build energy-efficient products that are truly lighter on the land. Critics wonder whether efficiency standards, when applied, can be objectively proven to deliver desired results - such as lower electric bills. Historic preservationists bristle at a perceived bias toward new edifices thrown up at the expense of older buildings that could instead by sustainably retrofitted while maintaining the character of a community.
Buildings are definitely energy hogs. While the SUV is the environmental bad-boy symbol, buildings consume far more energy than cars and trucks. It’s estimated that commercial and residential buildings in North America consume 65 percent of all electricity, as well as 12 percent of drinkable water and 40 percent of all raw materials.
“The new green building movement arises from the realization that we can’t go on living as we have in the past: that treating the environment in general and energy in particular as afterthoughts no longer makes sense,” said author Bill McKibben at last October’s opening of the 46-story glass-and-steel Hearst Tower in New York City. The building required 20 percent less steel than a conventional skyscraper and is made of 90 percent recycled material. Sensors switch off lights when no one is in a room.
“They’re sensible, cost-effective, obvious measures,” McKibben said. “Someday they’ll be code. But for now they’re noble, pioneering examples.”