A recent study by the Pew Center for Global Climate Change estimates that the built environment is responsible for up to 40 percent of the United States' greenhouse gas emissions, which are a key contributor to global warming. While greenhouse gas emissions come from a variety of other sources, the fact that buildings are responsible for such a substantial amount indicates that if we want a healthier, more sustainable future, the way we plan and build buildings has to change.
The primary source of building-related emissions is from the energy needed to build and operate them. While the most obvious energy usage comes from lighting, heating, and cooling the buildings during use, the extraction, manufacture, and transport of the materials required for construction also play a significant role. The construction of a building can contribute as much as 10 to 15 times the carbon emitted by the annual operation of that same building to the environment. In addition, construction waste, which is a significant percentage of waste in landfills, the amount of paving, and the associated loss of green spaces and natural habitat are also contributors to the negative impact buildings have on the environment.
The transportation and urban infrastructure needed to maintain and operate facilities also contributes to. The land area devoted to roads and parking in the United States is substantial, leading to a loss of habitat, heat trapping, and increased polluted run-off. Poorly planned urban growth has led to increased flooding as storm water run-off is increased and natural dissipation is decreased. And in urban areas with little green space but extensive paving, heat trapping can actually increase area temperature by several degrees.
In order to combat climate change, the United States must focus on cutting greenhouse gas emissions significantly and, to this end, a number of green strategies have been developed to assist companies and municipalities in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with buildings, as well as reducing the impact of buildings on the overall environment. These include national systems such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and Green Globes, where buildings achieve levels (either through a voluntary rating system, such as with Green Globes, or a certification process, such as for LEED) by meeting certain design criteria, such as specified levels of water and energy efficiency, incorporation of renewable or recycled materials, etc.
Within these broader systems there are a number of more focused rating criteria established for particular building types (for example, LEED for Healthcare, LEED for Retail, LEED for Schools, and LEED for Homes), for improving existing building stock (such as LEED for Existing Buildings, which focuses on building operations, improvements, and maintenance; and LEED for Commercial Interiors, which focuses on tenant improvements), and for urban planning (such as LEED for Neighborhood Development).
While the complexity of these green strategies can vary widely, even small changes to the ways buildings are constructed and operated have been shown to have a noticeable effect, and more and more facilities planners and owners are proving that implementing green strategies can be both cost and environmentally effective.
Cost of Green
In 2007, Davis Langdon published The Cost of Green Revisited, which was an update to our earlier paper - The Cost of Green: A Comprehensive Cost Database and Methodology - in which we examined the cost impact of incorporating sustainable design into building projects using the LEED rating system as the standard. In the first report, we compared the costs for over 100 laboratories, academic classroom buildings, and libraries - some that had actively attempted to achieve green and some that had not. After examining costs at a LEED point-by-point level, we concluded that there was no statistically significant difference in cost between buildings incorporating green features and those not. We also found that many project teams can build, and have already built, LEED-rated buildings within their existing budgets. This conclusion was reaffirmed in the updated report, which examined an additional 221 projects (this time expanding the pool of building types to include community centers and ambulatory care facilities along with academic buildings, laboratories, and libraries). The updated study shows essentially the same results as those found in the original 2004 study: there is no significant difference in average costs for green buildings as compared to non-green buildings.
Many project teams are building green buildings with little or no added cost and with budgets well within the cost range of non-green buildings with similar programs. We have also found that, in many areas of the country, the contracting community has embraced sustainable design, and no longer sees sustainable design requirements as additional burdens to be priced in their bids.
It is important to note, however, that in most of the buildings studied, the project teams tended to focus primarily on the lower or no-cost strategies - meaning the most expensive strategies were avoided. In addition, few buildings tended to strive for more than those levels of energy efficiency required by federal, state, or local ordinances. Despite the fact that construction costs overall have risen significantly over recent years, however, building owners are still actively finding ways to go green with little or minimal added cost.
Other studies have come to similar conclusions, that incorporating sustainable design features into projects adds little to no cost, and that many building owners build within budgets that do not include additional funds for sustainable features.
Impact to Businesses
initial cost of a building is always important to any business wishing
to expand their building space. As our report shows, green strategies
can be incorporated into the building design, resulting in a cleaner,
greener, healthier building at little or no initial cost. These
buildings have many financial benefits that accrue over the life of the
building, including reduced energy and operating costs, improved
employee well-being, and reduced insurance costs. The long-term
financial benefits combined with the low first cost can make green
buildings contributors to the businesses' bottom line.
buildings can improve the financial status of some businesses in other
ways as well. A recent study by CoStar found that LEED-rated buildings
have a higher occupancy rate than non-LEED buildings, suggesting that
more tenants prefer to rent space in green buildings than in non-green
buildings. Interestingly, this study also reported that green buildings
are able to garner higher rents than non-green buildings, suggesting
that more tenants are willing to pay a premium for a cleaner, healthier
space. Other studies suggest additional benefits, including improved
happiness and well-being for the employee, and less sick time used.
Greening Beyond Individual Buildings
the realities of climate change have become more widely known and the
impact of global warming on the health and well-being of people more of
a concern, more and more cities and communities have been looking
toward greener strategies to help minimize environmental impact and
improve the quality of life for their citizens. The number of cities,
counties, and regions instituting green strategies and requirements for
buildings and infrastructure can only be expected to increase in the
These green strategies can have a huge impact on the
economic competitiveness of cities and regions. Green buildings tend to
be more energy and water efficient, and thus are more desirable by
businesses and the public. Non-building green strategies, such as
incorporating green spaces or improving or expanding public transit
options, can help reduce traffic in congested areas, as well as improve
air quality when fewer cars are on the road.
In addition, just
as more businesses are showing a preference for green offices, more
people are showing a preference for living in cleaner, greener cities
and communities. As the cost of fuel continues to rise, public desire
for more efficient buildings, better public transportation options, and
better protection of green spaces, water, and other natural resources
can be expected to also increase.
Greening Existing Buildings
more and more new buildings are being built to meet environmentally
friendly standards, new buildings still account for only a fraction of
the total volume of the built environment within the United States.
Incorporating green strategies into existing building space is,
therefore, perhaps even more important than greening the new ones.
are a number of LEED rating systems directed toward reusing existing
buildings, including two previously mentioned, LEED for Existing
Buildings and LEED for Commercial Interiors. But even buildings where
owners are not prepared to attempt a LEED rating can still be made more
environmentally friendly with minimal additional cost.
to green existing building stock can be as simple as swapping to more
efficient lights and encouraging a reduction in waste as a company
mandate or goal. They can also include more extensive strategies, such
as retrofitting for more efficient heating and cooling systems. These
can be very effective if done in conjunction with planned replacement
There are a number of additional strategies that
companies can employ to become more green, which require no
modifications to the buildings at all. These include providing
incentives or assistance to employees to carpool or use public
transportation; allowing flexible schedules and/or telecommuting;
instituting recycling programs within their facilities along with an
associated focus on reducing waste; requiring the use of nontoxic
cleaning supplies; and transitioning landscaping to more
drought-tolerant, native species.
cost is always a consideration, the evidence is mounting that going
green does not have to impact the financial bottom line. Thoughtful
planning and design can make the transition to greener facilities
easier, with a minimum of cost impact. In addition, even simple changes
can lead to savings in energy used, carbon emitted, and money spent.
the threat of global warming continues to grow, sustainable facilities
and site planning are becoming more imperative. Embracing green design
not only reduces the impact of buildings on the natural environment,
but can also greatly benefit businesses in financial and nonfinancial