The term "green building" refers to any building that adopts a design and build strategy that minimizes its impact on the environment. By making the right choice of materials and by adapting green technologies, such buildings can be energy efficient with low carbon emissions. Today, it is possible to develop buildings with neutral emissions and extremely high levels of energy efficiency.
There is a wide selection of guidelines and certifications for green buildings and building materials. The best known for buildings is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED is an initiative of USGBC (United States Green Building Council) that certifies buildings according to a point system. The more green solutions are introduced to a building, the more points it gains. Other certification systems applied around the world include ASHRAE, Energy Star, Built Green, Passive House, Net Zero, and the Living Building Challenge. Among the best known for building materials are the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Cradle to Cradle.
Buildings are even evolving beyond minimizing their impact on the environment to contributing to the restoration of natural environments. It is within this context that the concept of “regenerative design” has emerged, mostly in North America. The Living Building Challenge certification program, for example, provides a range of examples and experts on regenerative design that integrates the needs of society with natural systems. Architects and designers accordingly address buildings as part of a whole natural system and try to restore natural sub-systems linked to the building such as existing streams and plants. Moreover, as buildings adopt renewable energy systems or produce more food than their inhabitants need, they can become a source of income through exchanging the excess energy, water, or food they produce with members of their communities. This transforms buildings from resource absorbers to resource producers and to positive contributors to the natural environment. The regenerative design process, however, remains in its earliest stages. USGBC is raising its LEED certification standards to incorporate regenerative design, but it is still an emerging approach and its examples remain very few.
In spite of nascent attempts such that of the Living Building Challenge, existing building certification systems still emphasize lowering carbon emissions from buildings and connect sustainability to neutral-emission buildings. Sustainability, however, is much more than developing a zero-carbon building. Analyzing buildings according to a triple bottom line analysis that consists of the environment, economy, and society shows how the term sustainable is barely met in green buildings and provides a much more comprehensive understanding of the concept of sustainability.
Environment: The effect of buildings on the environment is huge. According to USGBC, buildings contribute around 38% (20% residential and 18% commercial) of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Also, the construction and operation of buildings take up about 50% of our consumption of natural resources, and buildings generate 25% of landfill waste.
Building materials are extracted from the environment at a large scale, and, in some cases, without any impact assessment. In Jordan, almost all buildings are built using the same construction model, which primarily incorporates cement and steel reinforcing as well as stone cladding. The stone is extracted from quarries without carrying out any environmental impact assessments for the mined sites. We also should not forget that the production of cement contributes 5% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions and that the production of steel requires a lot of energy.
Green certification programs have well covered the environmental impact of buildings through addressing the design, construction, and operational processes, and have encouraged considerable transformations in building construction methods. However, we should always keep in mind that buildings have a huge impact on the environment and use up a lot of resources.
Economy: Introducing concrete and steel in building construction initially had a dramatic impact in terms of lowering construction costs and allowing developers to build more at a much lower price. Among other things, this made home ownership more affordable. This situation, however, has changed today. Home ownership is becoming increasingly expensive. This is related to the extensive reliance on fossil fuels for manufacturing and transporting construction materials and to the continuously-rising costs of such fuels.
Also, buildings that seek green certifications are more expensive to construct due to the introduction of new and sometimes exclusive technologies. The premium that one has to pay for constructing a green building varies between 10 to 25%, but it does result in much more affordable operating costs in the long run.
Some governments support building owners with rebates and tax deduction programs to increase the implementation of green technologies. Even such subsidized buildings, however, remain expensive to build. One approach to this challenge is to make buildings a source of income generation through producing energy (as with installing electricity generating photovoltaic panels on it) rather than only consuming it.
Society: Buildings are part of their communities. Surviving heritage buildings generally respected the social structure and local culture to which they belonged more than modern buildings do. This is evident, among other things, in their use of traditional building technologies and local materials, as well as in the spatial characteristics of their components. Moreover, buildings should aim at enhancing healthy relationships between neighbors and between community members in general. The social impact of buildings in their communities, however, still has not been adequately explored.
Advanced green technologies can effectively minimize the impact of buildings on the environment, but the economic and social dimensions of buildings still are do not receive the attention they deserve. Sustainable buildings are ones that address all three concerns. We now have the technical capacity to ensure that buildings meet the highest environmental efficiency standards possible. However, we still need to develop solutions for buildings that effectively address the social and economic needs of their residents.
Nourhan Al Kurdi
June 18, 2013
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