Green Buildings - An Overview

Prefabricated green building manufactured from steel components

If you're reading this, it means you have an interest in sustainable living. And you should! Every year, our society becomes more aware of their actions, and how they impact the future. The construction of green buildings is an essential step towards ensuring our planet will remain healthy and strong for centuries to come

But what exactly is a green building? Is a roof garden enough to classify a building as green, or do you need expensive equipment and a modern design? There are three key components to classifying a green building. A green building, by definition, must:

  • Increase the efficiency to which it uses water, energy and other materials
  • Reduce building impacts of human health while increasing employee productivity
  • Protect the environment through better siting, design, construction, operation, maintenance and removal  throughout the complete life cycle

As you can see, it's all about sustainability, and making sure that no plant, animal or resource is harmed in the building's entire existence. For some, this may be obvious, and sustainable living is their only way of life. For others, it may be hard to see the benefits of a green building, and what it has to offer. If you find yourself wondering what a green building has to offer you, consider the following. A properly established green building can:

  • Reduce operating costs by increasing productivity and using less energy and water
  • Improve occupant health due to improved indoor air quality
  • Reduce harmful impacts on the environment, such as site erosion and climate change

In today's world, building green is the smartest option available, and will hopefully one day soon be the only construction method available. But what about in a day gone by? When did we first start focusing on building green, and what prompted this shift in society? Keep reading for more information on green buildings.

The History of Green Buildings

It's hard to pinpoint an exact historical time line for green buildings. As early as the mid 19th century, certain buildings were being constructed that by today's standards could be considered green, but weren't necessarily built for that purpose. London's Crystal Palace, for example, erected in 1851, used prefabricated parts from iron and glass, had no interior walls and could be taken down an re-erected elsewhere. However, while these construction methods decreased the structure's impact on the environment, the construction methods were chosen more for its speed and cost-effectiveness rather than through a conscious green shift.

It wasn't until the early 20th century that architects started looking at ways on designing buildings that were more economical and ran more efficiently. Within the first few decades, several skyscrapers were designed to control interior temperature while lessening their impact on the environment. The New York Times building, for example, boasted deep-set windows, while Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago utilized retractable awnings. For the next several decades, new and improved cooling methods gave way to methods of construction that are still in use today. Inventions like air conditioning, reflective glass and structural steel modernized cities, and changed the face of modern architecture. However, the massive HVAC systems that heated and cooled the buildings were reliant on the abundance of fossil fuels, and their low costs at the time. This, of course, could not last.

By the early 1970s, the glass box style high rise had become a staple in any given American city. It was around this time that groups of architects, environmentalists and ecologists coagulated together to share ideas on how to promote sustainable architecture. Inspired by higher fuel costs and the growing environmental movement, these groups of forward thinkers lay the seeds of our modern day green building movement. The celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970, along with the OPEC oil crisis of 1973, gave the movement the jump start it needed to get off the ground. Buildings such as the Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters in England, and the Gregory Bateson Building in California were built around this time. They used new design methods such as a day-lighted atrium, under-floor rock-store cooling systems, and solar cells to promote a green way of living, and were amongst the first buildings to be consciously constructed as green.

Throughout the '70s and '80s, and into the early '90s, much time and research were spent on energy efficiency, which resulted in products like more effective solar panels, prefabricated wall systems, modular construction units, and direct usage of light through windows in order to decrease daytime energy consumption.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected President, the green community suggested the process of greening the White House as a way to showcase new innovations and ideas to the public. Some of these ideas were as simple as initiating a comprehensive recycle system, and installing more efficient light bulbs. Other more complex ideas included reducing unnecessary water and pesticide usage, and remodelling rooms to decrease energy loss through windows and walls. The “Greening of the White House” program was designed to improve energy efficiency and environmental performance of the White House, while improving indoor air quality and building comfort. The first two years of the project saw $150,000 a year in savings. Since 1996, annual savings have been estimated at $300,000, and the total eliminated carbon emissions sits at 845 metric tons a year.

Thanks to programs such as this, as the 20th century drew to a close, more and more people became aware of the green revolution that was taking place. It began to seem that being green wasn't just a trend, it was soon to become a way of life.

Green Buildings Today

Today, a new standard exists for the construction process. Both commercial and residential builders are looking at ways to reduce costs, while promoting better energy efficiency. It shouldn't be a surprise that building green is one of the fastest growing building and design concepts around. With this new shift in construction, a national standard needs to exist.

Founded in 1993, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) promotes sustainability in how buildings are developed. Their mission statement is “to make green buildings available to everyone within a generation,” and rightfully so, as they are the foremost leader and educator in the world of green building. But they are perhaps best known for their development of the LEED program

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and was founded by the USGBC in 1998. Since its creation, LEED has grown to encompass more than 14,000 building projects in over 30 countries, covering 1.062 billion square feet in the process. Perhaps a quote from their website can best describe what LEED has to offer:

LEED is an internationally recognized green building certification system, providing third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance across all the metrics that matter most: energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.

But LEED's importance to green building is even more basic than this. Upon its conception, LEED not only raised consumer awareness of green building benefits, but set the standards to which we define “green building.” Through this, LEED has established the Green Building Rating System, which rates a building based on its level of green. Through this rating system, which has a potential 110 points, a building can be rated as Certified (40+ points), Silver (50+), Gold (60+) and Platinum (80+). This is based on the following components:

  1. Sustainable Sites – 21 points
  2. Water Efficiency – 11 points
  3. Energy & Atmosphere – 37 points
  4. Materials & Resources – 14 points
  5. Indoor Environmental Quality – 17 points

Six more bonus points can be awarded for Innovation in Design, which rewards those who have utilized new and innovative technologies and strategies, and four more bonus points can be awarded for Regional Priority, whereby LEED identifies local environmental concerns, and assesses whether or not your building has addressed that concern.

So what are some of the greenest construction methods available today? Of course, anything involving solar panels or the use of natural light will score very well with LEED. Modular construction, as well, is known for being a green alternative. The process works like this: the building is assembled in components, off-site, in a controlled factory environment. When all the parts are ready, they are shipped to the site and quickly assembled within a very short time frame. This process eliminates any site erosion that comes with on-site construction, as well it cuts back on the dust and pollutants released into the air.

This process is known as prefabricated construction, where a building is constructed and assembled off-site, then delivered to the site for final assembly. Why does this score well on the green scale? Not only for the reasons listed above, but also because it cuts waste output. Because these buildings are pre-engineered, and most units come in standardized sizes, there is a limited amount of materials that aren't put to good use. Knowing exactly how much product will be needed for every building project increases the efficiency to which it uses building materials, which is the first definition to a green building.

Perhaps the method grabbing the most attention these days is steel construction, which also utilizes prefabricated design methods. Framing your house with steel not only saves you money and gets you a quality structure, but it's green as well. Steel construction has many green benefits that you may have overlooked. For starters, an essential ingredient to making new steel is scrap steel, meaning every steel structure comes from recycled material. In fact, steel is North America's number one most recycled product, and while the average wood-framed home consumes 50 to 60 trees, a steel framed house uses the equivalent of six scrapped cars. All of this scores very well with LEED.

There's more, too. Steel buildings utilize prefabricated design, so much like modular construction, they are built in a factory, and quickly assembled on-site after. This again scores well with keeping a site sustainable. Steel buildings are thermal and energy efficient, and are built to last. They won't warp or rot like a wood-framed home might, and won't rust or decay if properly galvanized. A steel building is about as sustainable as you can get.

Take John B. Carnett of Greenwich, New York, for example. When space was running out for him and his family, Carnett decided to build a house on a large acreage, for as little as he could, and as green as he could. His desire to build this way lead him to pre-fabricated steel panels. Through a Las Vegas company called Karma Energy Efficient Building Systems, Carnett ordered panels made out of light-gauge metal studs, and a unique kind of expanded polystyrene called Neopor. A special kind of insulation, Neopor is non-toxic, 100% recyclable, and can easily blend in with graphite or other material to lock out heat, moisture and mold.

Using steel framing made all of this possible, and not only did Carnett's building cost 5% less than a wood framed building would have, and not only is his building 60% more energy-efficient, but it only took eight days to fully erect on site. A more standard home could have taken months to build, meaning more time and more money.

In today's world, why wouldn't you build green? Our modern day green buildings are utilizing new and innovative designs, and can save you money as well, both in the short term and the long term. The green buildings of today are stepping forward and showcasing their many benefits and advantages, proving that green building isn't just another trend, it's here to stay.

Green Buildings of Tomorrow

Of course, it's easy to forget just how important it is to build green. Building green not only benefits the individual, but the collective as well. It is the next step in ensuring out planet sticks around for a while longer, and in ensuring the health and well-being of humans everywhere. But how can we convince people to build green, other than just touting its many benefits?

This is where higher authority must step in. Governments around the world are initiating programs to encourage green building, and to create incentives for those who are still skeptical. Take the Obama administration for example. One of the key platforms in his campaign was for a greener United States. Turning towards green building creates jobs, helps the slumping economy, and is what's best for future generations. Obama knew this, and hasn't let go of this idea since taking power. In creating substantial tax breaks and government initiatives within the new stimulus package, the US government hopes to encourage public consumers to build green for their next building project. Here are some examples of some of the tax breaks the Obama administration are offering:

Solar Power Systems – For any solar panel system that powers your house, you are eligible to receive up to 30% off on your purchase.

Water Heaters – Replace your water heater with an energy efficient one and get up to 30% back, up to $1500.

Windows and Skylights – Yes, even purchasing new windows or skylights will save you some cash this year. Of course, they have to be energy efficient (a U-Factor of .3 or less), but again you can receive up to $1500 back.

Roofing and Insulation – Once again get 30% back when you purchase any Energy Star qualified metal or asphalt roofing.

Wind Turbine – Sure, this may only be for the most extreme green builders, but if you're thinking about purchasing a wind turbine to power your house, this is the year to do it. Yes, 30% of the total cost could be back in your wallet.

These are just but a few of the initiatives the US government are offering, and other governments around the world are doing the same. Their hope is that these tax breaks will give the green building movement the momentum it needs to become the building standard.

Still, the future of green buildings remains uncertain. One can only assume that it remains the building path of the future, but it might not necessarily be that easy. It's only through organizations like the USGBC, or through government tax breaks, or constant public interest that we can stay on this green movement and ensure that we build for tomorrow, not today.

So before you venture out into your next building project, remember the following: Green buildings are a cheap alternative to traditional building methods; green buildings offer new and innovative design options, yet can still blend in with neighbouring units; green buildings will keep saving you money, through decreased utility bills; and put simply, green buildings are green.

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Author: Conrad Mackie