Spotlight on Sustainability: What is the Future of Green Building?
In terms of cutting carbon emissions to counter climate change, improving construction processes and energy efficiency in our built environment is crucial. We tend to blame climate change on transportation, capitalism, and how much meat we eat. However, the buildings we live, learn, and work are another major factor. In fact, the construction industry is responsible for 39 percent of all global carbon emissions today.
As well as producing over a third of total global carbon emissions, buildings also account for around 40 percent of global energy use. Other sectors, such as power generation and transport, have a clear roadmap to decarbonization. However, in the construction industry, the route to reducing emissions footprints and energy consumption is not as straightforward.
Green building is increasingly entering the public zeitgeist. Buildings are becoming a way for both businesses and private citizens to reduce their environmental footprints while simultaneously lowering energy bills. Growing demand for greener, more efficient buildings is likely to incentivize investment in companies offering innovative, specialized solutions.
Green Building’s Definition
The US Environmental Protection Agency defines green building as a focus on resource efficiency and environmentally-friendly processes through the lifecycle of a building, including aspects such as that building’s renovation, construction, maintenance, operation, and demolition. The World Green Building Council classifies green buildings a structure that “in its design, construction or operation, reduces or eliminates negative impacts, and can create positive impacts, on our climate and natural environment; preserve precious natural resources and improve our quality of life.”
To make meaningful changes to the energy intensity of buildings developers need to look closely at each component of energy usage, optimizing its efficiency. Increasing green building opportunities depends on technological advancements reducing energy consumption and finding greener, more sustainable solutions.
Green Building and Energy Efficiency
The most energy-intensive activity of any building is heating, both of space and of water. In domestic buildings throughout Europe, most energy used for these functions is derived from fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency, with gas boilers remaining the norm in countries like the UK. Switching to more sustainable, efficient electrical heating systems that produce electricity from renewable sources would represent a substantial improvement in terms of reducing the energy footprint of structures.
Meanwhile in the United States, the Biden administration is prioritizing building decarbonization, setting the goal of tripling efficiency. He hopes to realize somewhere in the region of $200 billion in energy savings in the process. Actions taken include investment in worker training, implementation of a grid-interactive efficient buildings roadmap, and new building performance standards for the federal government.
Green Building Today
The American Institute of Architects Top Ten Awards is an annual ceremony honoring the best new green buildings. The event recognizes achievements in advancing climate action through innovative building design, with submissions evaluated on ecological, economic, and social criteria. Among last year’s winners was MIT.nano, one of the largest commitments to research in this history of MIT.
Supporting the activities of over 2,000 MIT faculty researchers, MIT.nano aims to equip communities with instruments and processes harnessing the power of nanotechnology to overcome humanity’s biggest challenges, developing leading-edge technology for tomorrow’s green buildings. Indeed, with its soaring glass facades and connected clean room spaces, the MIT.nano facility itself has achieved LEED Platinum certification.
Green Building and Emissions Targets
Imagine a city where residents enjoyed a high level of wellbeing without being reliant on the planet’s resources. In 2019, the Coalition for Urban Transitions suggested that it should be possible to reduce emissions by a staggering 90 percent by 2050 through the creation of smart cities, using established practices and technologies, in particular for buildings and infrastructure. In order to achieve the Paris Climate Accords target by 2050, buildings emissions must be between 80 percent and 90 percent lower than they are currently.
In line with global net-zero targets, architects and engineers need to consider both operational and embodied carbon. The first step of any development is to consider whether a newbuild is really justified, or whether a refurbishment might be more appropriate. Diego Padilla-Phillips is net-zero lead for building structures at the UK-based engineering consultancy, WSP. As he puts it, “the most sustainable building is the one that already been built."
Green Buildings in the Future
Smart and sustainable buildings pave the way to environments that not only support our lives, but actually augment and enhance them. Smart buildings will serve as a form of social infrastructure. They will connect and interact with building inhabitants to improve their circumstances by delivering services, features, and information right to where they are.
Through smart buildings, people no longer occupy a space, but engage with it. Each interaction between smart buildings and their occupants offers the chance to improve that interaction next time. By implementing green smart building and smart grid technology, developers can create better functioning buildings that are more comfortable, providing a safe place to live and work. These buildings will also be more energy efficient, reducing the building’s carbon footprint throughout its entire lifecycle and making the construction industry more sustainable.