From “Light Green” to Sustainable Buildings

Author: Kaarin Taipale

Kaarin Taipale is a visiting researcher at the Center for Knowledge and Innovation Research at the Aalto University School of Economics in Finland. 

Highlights
  • With an additional 1.4 billion people expected to live in cities by 2030, it is increasingly important to implement and enforce policies that work to reduce the long-term environmental and economic impacts buildings have on their surroundings.
  • Different policies can control (via restrictive regulations), motivate (via incentives), or call for attention (via awareness-raising); successful policy packages may draw from all three strategies.
  • The most successful policymakers will consider the entire life-cycle of a building, establish core criteria, call for efficient infrastructure, and encourage renewable energy usage. 
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As more people move to urban areas in search of economic opportunities, the number of buildings that are needed to house them continues to rise. It is estimated that by 2030, an additional 1.4 billion people will live in cities; 1.3 billion of these will dwell in cities in developing countries. These statistics warn not just of increasingly dense skylines around the world, but of the new environmental and natural resource challenges we will face in our world’s cities and beyond. Fortunately, a variety of policy tools hold promise for advancing our ability to erect sustainable buildings. 

The buildings in which we live and work are major consumers of energy, and are responsible for some 30 to 40 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, a similar share of total solid waste, and 12 percent of all fresh water used. With the rate of urbanization reaching record levels, we can expect more construction than ever before. 

These days, there is a rush to market everything as “green." But although a solar panel on the roof may look good in a photo, it does little to indicate the sustainability of the entire structure.

The implementation and enforcement of effective public policies can be the cheapest and most efficient method to radically reduce buildings’ environmental footprints and long-term negative social and financial effects. Different policies can control (via restrictive regulations), motivate (via incentives), or call for attention (via awareness-raising); successful policy packages may draw from all three strategies. In the rush to market everything as “green,” builders often superficially label their buildings as such. But although a solar panel on the roof may look good in a photo, it does little to indicate the sustainability of the entire structure.

Even these modestly “light-green buildings” account for only a tiny fraction of total construction worldwide. The best way to move construction beyond greenwashing is through strict enforcement of ambitious building regulations and fulfillment of measurable targets.

As I explicate more thoroughly in State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, I have outlined four potential dimensions of a successful policy:

Process. It is important to take into account the entire life-cycle of a building, from design and construction to its use and demolition. Some posit that designating a sustainability coordinator for the planning and construction period should be a requirement for any building permit. An additional tool is a mandatory “maintenance diary” to document the various ways the building is serviced and renovated.

Performance. What matters most is how well the entire building performs, not how its individual parts might adhere to requirements. Setting minimum energy performance standards, for example, makes more sense than specifying the thickness of a thermal insulation. A growing set of core criteria has evolved by which to measure building performance in terms of resource use. These consider greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water use, and waste production, among others. Policies can require that certain minimum performance standards and benchmarks be met.

Sustainable Infrastructure. Buildings need efficient infrastructures that save resources and provide everyone equal access to basic services such as fresh water and sanitation, energy, communication, and public transport. The quality of these infrastructures determines the level of urban sustainability. National water legislation, for example, can help secure access to safe drinking water for urban residents for a fair price.

Resource Use. Sustainability of resource use considers financial, human, and natural resources. Shifting toward a greater reliance on renewable energy is the most efficient method to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and mitigate climate change. Such a shift also helps reduce local air pollution and health hazards. We need higher energy performance requirements for new construction and refurbishment, however, because it does not make much sense to waste renewable energy in buildings that are not energy efficient to begin with.

No single policy is going to change light-green buildings into sustainable ones. Mainstreaming sustainability starts with setting targets and doing preliminary designs, and it needs to be followed through using maintenance and performance monitoring.

Kaarin Taipale | January 22, 2012