Buildings are big energy consumers. They are responsible for around 40% of the total energy consumption in the EU as well as 36% of CO2 emissions. It is crucial, therefore, that plans for an environmentally sustainable future involve a rethink in building design as well as a coordinated effort to renovate existing structures. Green buildings deliver distinct benefits not just in terms of the environment but also economic and social benefits to building owners and users.
Main characteristics of green buildings
There are a number of features that can make a building “green”. These include:
- measures to improve energy efficiency (e.g. solar panels, improving insulation, etc.);
- pollution and waste reduction measures, such as systems for recycling and reusing materials;
- improving indoor air quality;
- use of non-toxic, ethical and sustainable materials in building creation;
In terms of making buildings more water efficient, it includes:
- installing rainwater harvesting systems for water reuse;
- recycling greywater (water dispensed from showers, bathtubs, washing machines and dishwashers);
- low-flow plumbing systems in toilets, sinks and showers;
- using technology to reduce water pressure, detect leaks or control water use
The move towards green buildings – uneven progress
There has been a move towards improving the energy performance of buildings in recent years as we look into ways of averting an environmental crisis. The EU, for instance, now has a green building policy requiring all new buildings to be nearly energy neutral by 2020. However, plans to make already existing buildings more energy efficient often lag behind. Improving existing building stock could reduce energy consumption by around 5-6% in the EU, but current directives only go as far as decarbonising building stocks by 2050.
Benefits of green buildings
Green buildings can greatly reduce our impact on the nature and the environment. They help to conserve natural resources, reduce water waste, improve air and water quality, and minimise damage to biodiversity and ecosystems.
- In an assessment of the benefits of Green Star rated buildings in Australia, it was found that sustainable buildings produced 62% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and used 51% less potable water.
- Buildings in the US with an LEED (Leadership in Environmental Efficiency and Design) certification consume 25% less energy and 11% less water that non-green buildings.
- According to a 2016 global report, the building industry can make energy savings of more than 50% if it is fully sustainable by 2050.
Green buildings can not only help businesses to save on costs, they can also help to generate money. Operating and construction costs are lowered, employee productivity is increased and jobs are created as new markets open up for green products and services.
- The European Commission has estimated that between €280 and €410 billion could be saved on annual global energy spending through adopting energy efficiency measures.
- According to Canada’s Green Building Council, the green building industry was worth nearly $23.5 billion to the economy and created over 300,000 jobs in 2014.
- A 2016 global green building report found that owners of green buildings experienced a 14% saving in operational costs and a 7% increase in property value.
Crucially, green buildings can have distinct social benefits too. These include improvements to health and well-being as well as a greater social awareness of the importance of environmentally sustainable practices such as recycling and reuse. One workplace study on the effects of green buildings by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2016 found that employees working in green buildings:
- reported 30% fewer symptoms of “sick building syndrome” (headaches and respiratory problems linked to factors including poor ventilation).
- Scored between 26% and 101% higher in cognitive function tests.
With the transition to green buildings offering such clear advantages while at the same time having very few drawbacks, it’s something that all companies and building owners should consider sooner rather than waiting for regulations to come into place later down the line. It’s a win-win situation that’s good for business as well as the environment.