The Future is Here: Environmental Benefits of Green Buildings

Published on:
by Jithin Joshey Kulatharayil
Graphic of house outline in meadow with green, energy efficient lightbulb within

Have you ever wondered what would happen to us or our future generations when climate change intensifies? According to UN estimates, the global human population reached 8.0 billion in mid-November 2022, up from an estimated 2.5 billion in 1950. This massive growth comes with many disadvantages if it is not properly reckoned with.

People are moving to the big cities in China, India, and Nigeria in search of better lives and jobs. It is predicted that these three could add 416, 255, and 189 million urban dwellers, respectively, by 2050. Consider how many buildings would need to be built to accommodate them, as well as the environmental consequences of their construction.

Green building is perhaps one of the best options, or probably the last resort, to sustainably receive and accommodate this massive population in megacities in the long run. 

What Is A Green Building?

In simple terms, it means constructing buildings with less impact on our environment and planet. It also increases our health, and well-being, and helps us become energy and water efficient. In the worst cases of environmental and urban pollution, green buildings can even help restore natural systems by protecting habitats, cleaning water, or harvesting renewable energy. 

Following are some of the key features of green buildings:

Energy Efficiency

Green buildings become more energy efficient if they comprise passive design, green roofs and cool roofs, energy-efficient lighting, efficient HVAC systems, elevator systems, among other design elements.

Passive design is the concept of designing a building to take advantage of the local climatic conditions. It involves certain strategies, like daylighting and natural ventilation, to reduce the use of energy. When we open windows in our building or let sunlight inside, we can reduce the need for electrical lighting. Natural ventilation leverages outdoor air and winds to bring fresh air into the building, thereby regulating indoor air quality. The use of these strategies is dependent on the climate conditions of a place.

The roofs of a building play a critical role in reducing energy consumption. Among them are cool and green roofs. Cool roofs use a white coating or paint to increase the reflectivity of a building, while green roofs use vegetation cover to increase the cooling and air purification inside the buildings.

The benefits of incorporating energy-efficient LED bulbs, which can significantly reduce energy usage and provide higher lumen output compared to fluorescent and incandescent bulbs. The use of additional strategies such as motion sensors, dimmers, and timers can also help reduce energy and maintenance costs, particularly in office and hallway lighting, by adjusting lighting levels based on the time of day and natural light presence. By implementing these strategies, energy consumption can be effectively reduced, especially when used in combination.

The right HVAC system based on the building use type, and running it on a suitable schedule to avoid excess energy use is quite significant. Proper planning is necessary to select the most suitable HVAC system for different space types. For example the HVAC system used in a house is for 24 hours but an office building requires it only during the working hours. Elevators are also highlighted as large energy consumers, and it is crucial to install energy-efficient lifts and elevators to reduce energy consumption.

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Water Efficiency

We are all aware of the scarcity of water in different regions, particularly in Africa and Asia. Despite this, we still have a tendency to waste water. Water waste occurs both inside and outside. We use a lot of water for bathing, cooking, cleaning, etc., but hardly bother about sustainability in terms of water efficiency. Even though we pay for water utilities, since this is such a ubiquitous substance, we tend to externalise it as ‘free’. 

Green building technology promotes water efficiency with toilets and urinals that use very little water and have the technology to discern the difference between liquid and solid flushes. We also have options like waterless urinals or composting toilets to include while sustainably building our space.

Putting in a rainwater management system can save water, especially if the building is in an area that gets a lot of rain. Another option that can be considered is greywater recycling. It is a sustainable water resource that involves collecting, treating, and storing water from sources like kitchens and showers for non-potable reuse in flush fixtures, reducing water demand in buildings.

However, none of these solutions help to achieve efficiency without a reliable water monitoring system. Leak detection systems, like sub-meters, can be put in place to find leaks, keep track of how much water is used, and thereby make the system more efficient.

Waste Management

Waste reduction and management are important ways to keep materials out of landfills and in use. Strategies such as reducing the amount of materials used, reusing them, and recycling them are crucial at all stages of a building project, from design and pre-construction to construction, use and operation, and the end of life.

The design phase is critical in reducing waste production throughout the building's life cycle. If the construction phase is managed well, it could significantly reduce waste, and the in-use/operations phase is important for monitoring waste production and reducing it.

To encourage people in a building to produce less trash, it's recommended to use things such as clear signage, easily accessible recycling bins, and opportunities to compost.

Green Building Rating Systems

Green Building Rating Systems (GBRS) are voluntary, market-driven standards typically provided by third parties. They figure out how sustainable a building is by using a multi-criteria assessment method that encourages practices that are good for the environment, society, and the economy in the design, construction, and operation of buildings or neighbourhoods. 

GBRSs are meant to guide and evaluate projects throughout their entire lifecycle, limiting the negative effects on the environment, the health and well-being of building occupants, and the costs of running the project.

There are currently hundreds of GBRSs available around the world. Their approaches, application processes, and evaluation metrics are all different. The most commonly used GBRSs globally include BREEAM, CASBEE, Green Star, and LEED. The Whole Building Design Guide has published an excellent, in-depth overview of such systems for the US marketplace, with a guide to international systems as well. 

Even though there are some small differences, they all use the same general structure for evaluating projects. Project performance is measured by a set of relevant indicators that are grouped by topics like water management, energy use, materials, and site qualities. 

Each requirement that is being evaluated attains a score or a judgement, which determines the level of sustainability that has been reached. Also, GBRSs are regularly updated to make them more useful, which makes them more complete and accurate while still being easy to use.

Green Buildings Are The Future 

The bottom line here is that 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions are a direct result of the real estate sector. The built environment is where we, as a species, live, work and play. By exploring the opportunities to use new design approaches that take advantage of building orientation and location, or by utilising new technologies in new builds, or as retrofits to current building stock, we stand to considerably reduce the adverse impact our buildings have on the climate. 

Secondly, the options briefly described here are all relevant for commercial workspace as well as residential circumstances. They all have initial costs, yet these can all be factored into a specific ‘payback period’, after which the decreased resource use becomes bottom line profitable. If it makes common sense to, for example, install solar photovoltaic panels or a heat pump in a residential building to save on utility costs, then it makes utter pragmatic business sense to invest in the same, and more, for the places we work. 

In short, when we no longer need to use the term ‘green building’, we may be in a place where our built environment is implicitly designed to respect efficiency, and even better resource effectiveness. This is the only path to cleaner, healthier, considerate buildings.

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