What are green buildings?

Bob Faulhaber
October 14, 2008 — 1,324 views  

Many people relate the term "green buildings" to radical environmentalism and disproportionately high construction costs. And it's a common misconception that green buildings cost a significant amount more than conventional structures and include extreme environmental measures.

On the contrary, when considering life cycle cost rather than just first cost, green buildings can actually be less expensive than conventional facilities. And if you were to examine a sustainably designed (or "green") building, you would be more likely to find energy-efficient light fixtures and an abundance of windows than green roofs and solar panels.

Several Benefits
Green buildings are designed to be more than just environmentally friendly; they also benefit from a healthier indoor environment, increased energy efficiency, less exposure to liability, positive public relations and substantial life cycle cost savings. Studies have shown that green buildings typically cost only 2%-5% more than conventional construction, with rapid paybacks through operational cost savings.

A study conducted by the state of California revealed that an upfront investment of 2% in green building design results in average life cycle savings of 20% of the total construction cost. In addition to the tangible cost savings that result from increased water, energy and materials efficiency, green buildings can also increase productivity by 2%-15%, improve learning in schools, speed healing in medical facilities and improve sales for retail establishments.

It has become apparent that green buildings are superior to conventional structures in terms of operational costs and building performance. Plus, they present a golden opportunity to change for the better the way we interact with the built environment.

The impact that buildings have on our personal health and the health of our environment is significant and far-reaching. Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors, and, according to the EPA, nearly 1/3 of all buildings suffer from "sick-building" syndrome. Studies by the EPA indicate that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times - and occasionally 100 times - higher than outdoor levels. This poor indoor environment can lead to lowered productivity, increased absenteeism, increased exposure to liability, and countless other problems.

In terms of their impact on resources, buildings in the United States consume 39% of our energy, 70% of our electricity, and 12% of all potable water use. Meanwhile, construction waste comprises 40% of our total solid waste. These are environmental and health issues that should not be ignored. The design and construction industries need to examine their current standard practices and find ways to address these issues in a meaningful way.

Setting Standards
The United States Green Building Council is among the many agencies and organizations dedicated to addressing these issues by promoting sustainable design and green buildings. Founded in 1993, the USGBC is leading the national consensus for producing a new generation of buildings that deliver high performance with minimal damage to the environment. One of the primary functions of the USGBC is the development of the innovative LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System.

The LEED Green Building Rating System is a voluntary standards and certification program that defines high-performance green buildings. Municipalities such as Nashville, TN, Chicago, Ill., Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, as well as corporations including Ford and Toyota, are adopting the LEED rating system for construction. Many others are expected to follow suit.

Over 3.6 billion square feet of commercial building space is involved with the LEED green building certification system.  It is estimated that by 2010 the value of green building will increase to $60 billion, yet this is still only about 10% of new construction starts.  A shift in paradigm is needed to push green building design and sustainability into the forefront of the construction industry. Architects, engineers, contractors, building owners, property managers and government officials need to be educated about the advantages of green building so that they can make informed decisions about construction projects that they are involved in.

Sustainable design isn't just green design; it's good design, and any building program or facility upgrade can benefit from the many advantages that building green can bring.

Bob Faulhaber, an LEED accredited professional, is a civil engineer with AEI in Cookeville. He can be reached at (931) 528-6516 or [email protected]

Bob Faulhaber

Architects Engineers and Planners

Bob is one of three principals with AEI, Architects Engineers and Planners. He serves as vice-president responsible for firm management, planning and business development. A registered professional engineer, Bob serves as principal in charge of AEI's civil engineering projects including commercial site development, infrastructure improvements and residential subdivision design. As a civil engineer Bob incorporates Low Impact Development (LID) design strategies into all of his site and subdivision designs and focuses on working with the natural features of a site rather than against it.