The United Nations Brundtland Commission Report (1987) defined sustainable development and urged the world to take note: “Sustainable development is that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” A growing global population is straining the finite resources available on the planet. Sustainability seeks to balance the economic, social, and environmental impacts, recognizing that population growth will continue. Sustainable development brings this evaluation to the design and construction industries, which have significant potential to reduce the negative impact of human activities on the environment.
According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), buildings in the United States consume nearly 10% of the world’s energy, and over 30% of the total energy and more than 60% of the electricity in the United States. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that 51% of electricity comes primarily from the burning of coal, a fossil fuel that produces significant greenhouse gases during combustion.
With energy costs increasing, and concerns about environmental impact growing, the U.S. government is adopting green building programs. In addition, an increasing number of states are offering tax benefits for green public buildings, and large corporations are moving toward sustainable design for their facilities to reduce operations and maintenance costs.
The U.S. Office of the Federal Environmental Executive (OFEE) defines green buildings as those that:
- demonstrate the efficient use of energy, water, and materials
- limit impact on the outdoor environment
- provide a healthier indoor environment
Studies show that green buildings offer improved air quality and more access to daylight in addition to energy and cost savings. The USGBC estimates that green buildings cost 8% to 9% less to operate, and have a 7.5% greater building value.
The USGBC cites an initial cost premium of anywhere from 0% to 2% for green buildings in the United States. As project teams become more experienced with building green, these costs should decrease. Generally, a 2% increase in construction costs will deliver a savings of 10 times the initial investment in operating costs for utilities (energy, water, and waste) in the first 20 years of the building’s life
The financial payback of green building practice is measured in operating and maintenance savings over time offsetting initial costs of sustainable features. The payback varies from project to project, depending on the implemented sustainable features and other factors such as availability of materials and expertise of the design team. However, experienced design professionals maintain that green buildings do not have to cost more than non-green buildings.
Most project teams perform a comprehensive life-cycle cost assessment (LCC) prior to defining their sustainable goals for the project. The LCC predicts how long it will take to recoup additional first cost.
More and more local, regional, and national government agencies require sustainable building practices or LEED certification. The Wall Street Journal reported that Michigan, Washington, and Arizona adopted guidelines to produce buildings that are more energy efficient and environmentally sensitive. The General Services Administration (GSA), U.S. Army, Department of State, Department of Energy (DOE), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are adopting LEED or similar green-building standards. Twenty-five states including California, New York, Washington, and Oregon have adopted LEED, as have over 100 U.S. cities including Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco.