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Ten Top Reasons Why We Need Green Buildings

Buildings have a huge role to play in addressing environmental concerns. They contribute around 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the same proportion of waste; and since South Africa is in the top 20 list of worst offenders, the building industry in this country has a lot to be accountable for. [Update on 10 Nov 2008: The GBCSA informs me that the correct figures for buildings are 23% of greenhouse gas emissions, 40% of electricity use, 40% of waste production and 15% of water use.] The conference held in Cape Town by the Green Building Council of South Africa earlier this week also demonstrated that changing the environmental impact of buildings is relatively easy compared with some other sectors. Many of the appropriate technologies are proven and available.

Green buildings can influence impacts - positively or negatively - in a number of sectors, not only in the operation of the building itself. The technologies for reducing dependence on water, energy and other resources are ready and waiting; but it's not only about what goes on inside the building. By locating offices where more people can walk to do their errands, transport impacts are reduced. By collecting and using rainwater and greywater, downstream problems are reduced and upstream water is available for others. By designing for healthy indoor air quality, loads on the health care system are reduced.

The point is, there's lots that can be done and lots that already is being done - in isolated islands of change. The challenge lies in turning those islands into vast oceans, but the tide is turning. The business case for building green has already been made, and in countries where green building rating systems have been around for a few years, developers now understand the financial benefits.

Here are ten things (in no particular order) that green buildings are already doing in different parts of the world, as reported by the various speakers at this week's GBCSA conference.

1. Green buildings can command rents as much as 10% above the norm.
Niche markets are already turning mainstream, demanding low-impact buildings. In Australia, only a few short years after introduction of the Green Star rating system for buildings, virtually every new office built achieves a Green Star rating. The definition of 'Class A' office space has been redefined, entirely on the strength of a voluntary transformation of the building industry in response to tenant demand.

2. Green buildings improve productivity.
Studies in the US have shown this to be true in a number of different ways. Not only do office workers enjoy their working environment more - taking fewer sick days and reporting fewer minor ailments - but green factories show fewer injuries, green retailers sell more products, and green hospitals discharge patients sooner.

3. Green buildings show respect for the people who use them.
Probably nowhere is this more important than in schools. If the education system provides children with healthier, more pleasant schools, pupils will understand that they are valued and will be more open to treating their environment with respect. Whether it's because of this, or just because they feel better in a healthy environment, studies have shown that children can achieve better results at green schools.

4. Green buildings raise the quality and standard of buildings generally.
In many countries, the typical office building is not built in compliance with standard building codes. A green building rating forces a developer to show that the new building not only meets, but exceeds municipal codes. And as green buildings become more common, this places pressure on others to compete at this higher level.

5. Green buildings inspire innovation.
Rating systems generally don't prescribe what technology should be incorporated in a building, they set performance standards with regard to reduced environmental impact, and leave it up to the developer to decide how to meet these standards.

The best first step is to design buildings so that they meet requirements - especially for air quality and energy consumption - through passive systems that don't require mechanical equipment. Only then should equipment be used to achieve what the passive design cannot, by using efficient systems. And significant efficiency demands consideration of the building as a whole, and the impact of the various design decisions on each other. A building is very unlikely to achieve the highest green rating if design is not approached holistically; and when the professional team starts to think this way, innovations often emerge.

Interestingly, while big buildings can benefit from economies of scale with green systems, small buildings are sometimes the more innovative, as they are sometimes able to do things like recycling all of their construction waste. Innovation takes the industry forward, raising the bar for the next wave of developers.

6. Green buildings encourage learning about what works and what doesn't.
The evolution of the building industry has been slow in the past, but the green revolution is accelerating change in design approach, building methods, the choice of materials, and the manufacture of building materials.

Mistakes will be made, but presenters at the conference hammered home the point: the industry must publish performance results so that we move in the right direction. The same is true of the industries that supply the building industry. Just as a bottle of milk might be certified 'organic', so too the materials that go into a building need to be rated for their performance on measures such as water and energy consumption, and carbon emissions.

Rating systems by their nature steadily push the industry to its limits (Green Star deliberately targets the top 25% of new buildings). And an important part of a green building is the incorporation of systems that monitor performance, so that the information is there as a tool for building managers to ensure optimum performance. This same information can show us what strategies will achieve positive results. It's a brave owner of a green building who admits having made mistakes, but such honesty is made easier by the knowledge that earlier buildings inevitably will not perform as well as later buildings.

7. Green buildings can help electricity utilities by reducing peak demand.
Energy-efficient buildings don't only reduce emissions overall (in both their operation and initial construction), they also help smooth the peaks in demand. And in a growing number of cases in Australia and the US, they are net exporters of electricity using co-generation and tri-generation. We will know that the building industry is really making a significant impact when the need for a new coal-fired power station is removed.

8. Green buildings raise awareness of what constitutes a high quality environment.
By setting out very specific performance targets, green building rating systems make it clear how the indoor environment can be improved over standard-issue buildings. People who choose to buy or rent buildings often can't articulate what it is that they value in a building, or what qualities they look for. Indeed, in the early stages of the transformation of the industry, this is a challenge for creating acceptance that green buildings are worth paying extra for. But the rating systems provide that articulation, and it's just a matter of raising awareness.

9. Green buildings can trade energy.
The idea has been suggested - even here in South Africa - that as buildings begin to develop new ways of saving and generating energy, there may be scope for an energy market, similar to a carbon market but on a more local scale. Some buildings will never be able to be self-reliant in energy terms, while others may generate a surplus. Trading is the logical response in an environment where energy savings are an imperative, as they are in South Africa right now. If a particular building owner is unable to meet an externally-set target of 10% reduction in electricity consumption, he or she could trade electricity 'credits'.

10. Green buildings present exciting new challenges for environmental stewardship.
Is it enough to be 'efficient', or even 'sustainable'? If you really think about it, that sounds like a low target to be setting ourselves. People who are working towards the next generation of rating tools are thinking about how to take buildings to a new level. Terms like 'restorative' and 'living buildings' are starting to emerge, suggesting that buildings could do better than just zero environmental damage. They could begin to compensate for damage caused in other sectors, by being 'carbon negative' or making a positive contribution to the environment, rather than being merely benign.

So that's my list. You may have noticed the absence of the most obvious benefit of a green building: its reduced environmental impact. But since that is, in essence, what a green building is all about, it goes without saying.

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