Although green building programs are promoted in order to lessen the impact of development on the environment and reduce the demand on valuable resources there are other residual, but no less compelling, benefits to using green construction practices.
Economic Benefits – Although green building techniques can elevate initial up-front costs to a development, studies have shown cost savings over a project’s lifecycle due to efficiencies primarily found in maintenance and utility costs. Another positive economic impact results from policies that look to purchasing materials from the region helping to support local economies, keeping equity in the community. Lastly, green building technologies are part of a rapidly growing industry, which if supported can contribute to healthy job growth. There are several local companies on the leading edge of the green technology industry.
Employee Productivity – Indoor air pollution concentrations can be between 2 to 5 times worse than air outside, with some measurements reaching 100 times greater. Improvements in indoor environmental quality have shown increases in worker productivity and in some cases reduce absenteeism and the number of sick days taken by employees. One study estimated a national savings of $23 to $56 billion from productivity gains due to indoor environmental quality improvements.
Environmental Benefits – As discussed earlier green buildings work to reduce the overall impact development has on our environment. Greener buildings can reduce air pollutants emitted from energy producing facilities using fossil fuels to generate electricity as well as from appliances used on-site. They can facilitate improved hydrological cycles helping to maintain a clean and abundant access to water resources. Green practices reduce the amount of waste we need to store, including the management of hazardous materials used daily in the building process, and reduces the amount of resources needed to support development.
The topic of green building extends into a broad array of concerns related to our built environment and the affects it has on our natural environment. Green building design and construction is the accumulation of several building techniques that work to reduce the ecological footprint, or the amount of land and its resources needed to produce the energy, provide water, and materials used to construct and operate the buildings we inhabit. Furthermore, green building methods are increasingly associated with smart growth principles that include the siting of buildings, density of development, transportation choice, and land conservation. In short, Green building is the process of design, construction and operation of a building and its site that minimizes impact on our environment and improves indoor environmental quality.
The evidence of human impacts on the environment has become acute. Science supports the argument that greenhouse gasses, of which humans are mass producers, are found to at least exacerbate global warming. Water resources are shrinking while water is being diverted to surface systems rather than replenishing aquifers. Our water resources continue to be polluted; now primarily by the affects of non-point source pollution rather than centralized polluters such as coal burning plants (although they remain a major contributor to air and water pollution), a far more complicated solution is needed to effectively deal with the aggregated pollution caused by many distributed polluters. Clearly, business as usual provides an uncertain future at best; worst case is environmental and subsequently economic collapse. Our building and development regime is a major contributor to our environmental problems, accounting for the following impacts :
These statistics illustrate significant room for improvement in our current development regime. Green building seeks to design, construct, and operate buildings in order to reduce their impact on the environment to sustain our natural systems and provide a healthier environment.
When looking at the statistics of environmental impacts of our buildings energy consumption quickly stands out, particularly with regard to consumption of electricity. The need for electricity has become pervasive in our homes, we need it to heat and cool our homes, run appliances such as washers, dryers, and refrigerators, illuminate the interior and exterior of the house, power electric devices such TVs, and computers. Green building can approach the problem of energy production in two ways, first through alternative energy sources and second, through conservation.
Alternative sources of energy can be broken down into two separate categories of distributed and centralized generation. Distributed generally refers to energy sources that are produced on-site serving a single building with centralized generation referring to mass produced energy such as hydroelectric dams, and nuclear power plants. Scales of production run the entire spectrum in between, and one source of energy may be harnessed on either end of the spectrum. Some examples of alternative sources of energy include:
Energy production using alternative fuels and methods has become a hot topic and often overshadows simple improvements in order to conserve energy, but conservation through improvements in efficiency and behavioral change can reduce our energy needs substantially. Conservation can be addressed in several ways, many of which have been practiced in the recent and far past:
Recognizing that water is largely what makes our planet inhabitable, water conservation and regeneration is extremely important, and although buildings use a small percentage of fresh water resources buildings and supporting infrastructure has a deep impact on the quality and availability of our water resources. There are two goals when implementing green building techniques to address water resources; the first is to reduce water use through conservation and collection thereby reducing the need to draw from surface water sources or aquifers. The second is to manage storm water run-off in order to reduce non-point source pollution and regenerate groundwater supply.
In an urban setting the primary culprit in the depletion and pollution of water resources is pervasive development of impervious surface in our built environment. These surfaces, including asphalt and concrete in parking lots, roads, and building roofs, prevent water flow from percolating into the ground water system. Instead it is diverted directly to surface water such as rivers and lakes, carrying pollutants including oil, gas, and heavy metals from cars that collect on these surfaces with it. Impervious surfaces also heat water run-off impacting the environment as it reaches surface water altering the delicate balance of the ecosystem in rivers and lakes. Lastly, and not necessarily related to water resources but affected by green building techniques is the heat island effect caused by vast areas of impervious surfaces.
Low Impact Development (LID) is a site planning approach that looks at a buildings context and uses best management practices (BMP) to mimic the water processing capabilities of a non-developed natural location. LID basically works to capture rainwater, recycling for use on-site or slowly regenerating it into the groundwater system, filtering pollutants through the use of natural vegetation. The following are some of the BMP used to achieve improved rain water management, it is important to note that each site is unique and no single solution or combination of solutions will be successful for all sites.
LID also looks to site planning strategies that preserve existing high quality and/or sensitive natural elements such as wetlands, riparian buffers, mature trees, steep slopes, floodplains, woodlands, and highly permeable soils. The challenge is to balance development needs, preservation of natural elements, and use of BMP appropriately to the site and its context.
An exorbitant amount of waste is generated during the site preparation and construction phase of development as well as the ongoing day-to-day operations of the building’s tenants. The core goal in waste management of Green building is to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. Waste reduction includes procurement decisions and processes that reduce waste in transporting materials over long distances, manufacturing, and use of alternative materials in order to reduce demand for virgin materials. Waste reduction is achieved by:
Green building also means that materials are chosen to reduce harmful harvesting practices that exacerbate the depletion of finite resources or damage sensitive ecosystems. For instance certified timber can be procured from timber companies using sustainable harvesting practices, reducing the demand to harvest highly valuable woodlands such as the Brazilian rainforests or old growth forests in the West.
The intent is to provide a more comfortable and healthful environment for a building’s occupants. This is largely achieved by providing adequate access to fresh air through proper ventilation, access to natural lighting, and reduction of air contaminates particularly Volatile Organic Compounds.