The Future of Sustainability in the Built Environment

Green building has flourished despite the down economy of the past few years. With one-third of all new non-residential construction built using green design and construction methods and a three-fold increase in non-residential construction starts for green projects over the next five years (see Green Outlook 2011: Green Trends Driving Growth, McGraw Hill Construction), the movement towards greater sustainability in the built environment is making tremendous strides.

With U.S. buildings responsible for over 40% of national energy consumption and CO2 emissions, green building may not be the answer to halting climate change, but it is indeed a step in the right direction.

The November 17, 2011 AIA Santa Clara Valley Chapter panel discussion, The Future of Sustainability, focused on what’s next in the industry. The discussion began by recognizing accomplishments to date and identifying opportunities to improve sustainability further in the AEC and real estate sectors.

The USGBC’s internationally recognized LEED green building certification system has brought the sustainable design and construction movement from obscurity to the forefront, garnering mass attention from building owners, tenants and government agencies around the globe. Ten years ago, there were only a handful of projects certified under the LEED system. Today there are over 10,000 commercial projects certified, representing over 1.6 billion square feet.

While LEED may be the most recognized third-party green building rating system, it certainly is not the only program out there. Other systems utilized in the U.S. today for the certification of commercial properties include Green Globes, ENERGY STAR, and the Living Building Challenge.

Green buildings have long been touted for their lower operating costs through more efficient use of resources, higher property values, greater return on investment, and tax advantages. Employers benefit with lower worker absenteeism, improved productivity, and happier employees. Alex Spilger, Director of Sustainability at BCCI, also pointed out that having LEED-status has helped companies retain and recruit employees, especially Millennials who place high value on sustainability issues. Beyond making good business sense, the environmental and social benefits of green spaces include conservation of natural resources, protection of ecosystems, reduced waste, increased connection to community, and improved health and occupant comfort.

Governments have taken up the call to mandate sustainable development through building code regulations such as CALGreen, the first statewide building code establishing minimum green building standards, and local green building ordinances with even greater requirements for large renovations and new construction projects. In the San Francisco Bay Area over half of all local governments have green building ordinances in place.

The private sector is also driving demand for green buildings and green spaces. There is intense competition to be the “greenest;” the most sustainable organization or the highest rated sustainable building. While the costs to go green are still a concern to Owners, all panelists agreed that they are significantly less then what one may think. It is difficult to put a flat premium on the cost to achieve any particular level of certification because existing building conditions and Owner specific goals are so unique, often times the added cost to build sustainably is one to five percent. The wide array of sustainable manufactured, re-claimed and locally sourced construction materials, as well as, energy efficient equipment, water conserving fixtures and systems, and the like make building green much more cost effective today than previously, and life cycle costs show that the savings realized as a result of investing in green far outweigh the initial investment.

According to Dan Geiger, Executive Director of USGBC – Northern California Chapter, the two biggest trends moving forward are LEED automation – simplifying the certification process – and performance metrics – proving that certified green buildings are in fact green and functioning as designed.

The launch of the USGBC’s new App Lab which integrates data with LEED Online will undoubtedly accelerate the certification process for project teams with new tools to address team communication, task management, data interchange, file uploads, scorecards, and credit strategies.

Today half of all LEED projects are registered for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (EBOM) certification. As a result, the immense amount of water usage and energy consumption data now tracked and available can provide building owners and operators with valuable benchmarking information to measure their properties against other similar buildings. They now have the tools and resources available to forecast and track how quickly investments made in energy upgrades and retrofits can be recouped.

Although buildings may be designed with sustainability in mind, it is the occupants in the building that impact energy and water use. As stated by panelist Pablo LaRoche, Architect and Professor of Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, “Buildings don’t use resources; people do.” One of the main challenges to sustainability is re-framing occupant mindsets regarding resources with greater consideration as to where they come from, how they are delivered, and how much one really needs.

The trajectory for sustainable design and construction over the next 20 years will be to eventually achieve more net-zero buildings that generate as much energy as they consume and later living, regenerative buildings that go beyond using and creating their own resources and actually improve upon the natural environment.

BCCI offers a range of Green Building, sustainability consulting, and LEED management services. Click here to view our green project portfolio.

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