There is no doubt that buildings impact the environment from the construction phase, through occupancy, when and if they are renovated or repurposed, and even when they are demolished. Throughout their lifecycle, buildings use raw materials, water, and energy – resources that need to be conserved. Buildings generate all kinds of waste, and frequently discharge harmful emissions.
On the positive side, global green building trends indicate a dramatic increase in eco-friendly building activity worldwide, not only for environmental and health reasons but also because of the strong business benefits. There are now green social factors that influence employees and customers and businesses need to value green credibility.
All building design and construction is affected, including both residential and commercial buildings. While research shows that new commercial construction is the biggest driver of green building, there has been a significant increase in retrofits of existing buildings as well as new low- and high-rise residential buildings.
GREEN BUILDING TRENDS
Undoubtedly, climate change is driving the trends related to green building, and in the past two decades, there has been a remarkable push towards sustainable building design. But, while a number of green building rating systems appear to have helped it gain rapid momentum, there does, ironically, seem to be a trend away from formal certification.
A Dodge Data & Analytics SmartMarket Report on World Green Building Trends 2018 identifies triggers and barriers to increased green building activity and analyzes the business benefits of eco-friendly buildings. Even though the report highlights the fact that there are different influences in different countries, largely based on local needs, the information supplied is invaluable to anyone wanting to build green or improve building performance anywhere in the world.
The Internet is still regarded as the most valuable source of information on green building. Of course, you’re not going to find a New York or Chicago engineering firm, or any engineering company offering MEP engineering services relying on the Internet for solutions and strategies, but it’s a great source for general information for non-professionals.
WHY GO GREEN?
The top triggers for building green are environmental regulations and client demands, particularly in the US where the desire for healthier buildings is also paramount. While they are not regulations, rating systems and certifications (see below) have also played an important role. So too do Green Building Councils that are increasingly regarded as an invaluable source of information.
Those who are already committed to building green cite several social reasons for ensuring their buildings are eco-friendly including:
- Promotion of health and well-being of occupants
- Positive effect on sustainable business practices
- Resultant increase in worker and employee productivity
- Creation of a sense of community
- Increased sustainability of the domestic/local economy
BENEFITS OF GREEN BUILDINGS
Benefits of green or eco-friendly buildings are varied, but two benefits that are widely recognized are improved health and lower operating costs, which is linked to improved energy performance.
There are many health benefits of green buildings, including air quality and availability of light, all of which relate not only to well-being but also to less tangible productivity.
Many of these were highlighted in a World Green Building Council report, Doing Right by Planet and People: The Business Case for Health and Wellbeing in Green Building released early 2018. This showed how a net-zero office resulted in 94.5% employee satisfaction in an Australian office environment where 72% of staff were also reportedly in better health as a result. In El Salvador, where many employees had respiratory problems and were often sick, health issues improved exponentially, by up to 68%, and 64% had fewer allergy issues. The American Society of Interior Designers moved to a new green HQ and employee productivity increased while absenteeism decreased. The Society stated it would probably be able to pay for its investment in just five years!
It’s simple really: keep your staff happy and healthy and they’ll likely want to be a permanent part of the team and grow your business.
BUSINESS BENEFITS OF ECO-FRIENDLY BUILDINGS
We all know how costly buildings are to maintain and operate, but not everyone recognizes how taking the green, eco-friendly route enables us to cut costs.
In reality, one of the strongest business benefits of making a new or older building eco-friendly is reflected in the resultant savings in operating costs combined with an increase in asset value, even though there are admittedly still strong concerns in the US and Ireland (strangely enough) about higher first costs.
Because a well-designed and maintained eco-friendly building uses less energy, water, and other vital resources, its resale value will be higher, and lease-up rates will be faster. Buildings that are recognized as green or eco-friendly also add credibility to businesses that operate from them. In spite of the trend identified by Dodge Data & Analytics, one sure-fire way to gain recognition is to have your green building rated or certified.
CERTIFICATION OF GREEN BUILDINGS
There is a proliferation of certification programs, codes, standards, and ratings available today. These include the ENERGY STAR Rating System, the Building Research Establishment’s environmental assessment method (BREEAM), and the widely used U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), created in 2000.
It’s not just the certification that matters, but there is also significant value in the fact that these programs and standards have guidelines that help everyone in the construction and related industries achieve sustainable results.
As a global commitment to green building increases, one would expect the number of green certifications to grow too. But instead, the 2018 World Green Building Trends report predicts that the gap between green projects and certified green projects (especially buildings) will continue to grow until at least 2021, even though many more buildings will be certified by this time.
This might indicate a strategic use of certification to accomplish specific green goals. But our belief is that as long as there is a strong commitment, and goals are achieved, we are moving forward and an increasing number of our buildings will be eco-friendly.
HOW TO GO GREEN
If you are planning to renovate or repurpose your building, it stands to reason that the new design should incorporate eco-friendly features, particularly those that relate to heating, cooling, and ventilation (HVAC), lighting, and insulation. But even if you aren’t renovating as such, there’s a strong case for retrofitting to make buildings more sustainable. In fact, in some cities, including New York, it’s now mandatory, at least to a degree or for certain sized buildings.
The problem is that while designing new buildings to be energy-efficient, even net-zero energy-efficient (by banishing greenhouse gases forever), retrofitting existing buildings is that much more complicated, and it can be costly, especially for small business owners.
Some time ago, the U.S. Government’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy introduced a series of guides to help energy managers and building owners get to grips with the challenges involved when tackling a retrofit project. Their main aim was to ensure that retro-commissioning and the measures taken would be relevant to specific building types: both office and retail buildings, grocery stores, K-12 schools, and healthcare facilities. All five guides are available for free download from the energy.gov website.
Since the degree of retrofitting will inevitably vary from building to building, the guides present different options:
- Existing building commissioning (EBX) that aims for minimal capital outlay and minimal risk.
- Standard retrofits that are low risk but aim to be cost-effective rather than focusing on a minimum spend.
- Deep retrofits that upgrade the building envelope and include retrofitting of mechanical systems and lighting. While these cost more, they result in much higher energy savings.
So, clearly, the results of the retrofit will depend on the option chosen, but for office buildings, as much as 25% of energy can be cut when opting for the EBX approach and more than 45% if the deeper retrofit option is taken. The impact, across the board, will be evident in improved comfort of building occupants, a reduction of operating costs, and other benefits.
In all instances, the process includes:
- Brainstorming with interested parties (building owner, engineers and so on) to identify measures that could be taken.
- Prioritization that includes:
- Assessing the unique needs and opportunities of the building
- Assessing the technical feasibility of a retrofit
- Analyzing cost-effectiveness and potential energy savings
- Finalization that results in selecting measures to be implemented and verifying energy savings and their cost-effectiveness
Of course, the measures required for any retrofit will be dependent on the climate in any particular region. Budget will be another vital factor.
At one end of the spectrum, you can buy eco-friendly products and replace energy-gobbling appliances with those that are energy efficient. At the other, you can consult with an engineering firm and ensure that your retrofit maximizes energy performance.
Whichever route you choose to take, implementing a comprehensive operations and maintenance (O&M) program will help to keep a building functioning with energy systems at their peak.
About the Author
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of New York Engineers, Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of 30+ mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led over 1,000 projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia.