What are some of the trends in the construction industry that seek to improve the environmental impacts of buildings?
—Bianca Hoffman, Bridgeport, CT
Builders, architects, environmental organizations and forward-thinking governments around the world are working on a host of innovative ideas aimed at greening the built environment—from giant factories and public spaces to housing developments and single-family homes.
On Earth Day last April, syndicated columnist Joan Lowy took the opportunity to describe what she thought were the most important environmental trends. Number two on her list (just behind cleaner cars) was green building. Lowy pointed out that over 200 new commercial and public structures built in the U.S. in the last five years have met or exceeded rigorous standards for energy efficiency, use of recycled materials, water conservation and other practices set by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), an association of building industry leaders that works to promote environmentally responsible building.
“That”s 217 million square feet, or five percent of the construction of commercial buildings over the past five years,” she wrote, also noting that almost 10 percent of new homes in some of the top housing markets now meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Energy Star standards for energy efficiency. (To earn an Energy Star, a house must be 30 percent more energy-efficient than required by regulation.)
Some specific green building features include: water-saving “low-flow” plumbing systems; “living” filter systems that use plants and bacteria to break down waste; solar energy; recycled and non-toxic materials (from paints to siding to insulation); efficient integration of structures into natural landscapes; and innovative uses of plants, including for roofing, to reduce water runoff, air pollution—and energy bills.
Green builders look to stack up to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system, a science-based approach developed by USGBC that emphasizes sustainable site development, water and energy efficiency, wise materials selection and indoor environmental quality. In San Jose, California, any new construction over 10,000 square feet must be LEED certified. Mike Foster, Green Coordinator for San Jose, reports that many of the city”s public projects now incorporate green features such as carpeting with recycled content or paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
A number of other cities, including San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Scottsdale, Arizona, are also leading the way in requiring that new public buildings be green. In San Francisco, the greening of such landmarks as the Academy of Sciences Building and the Golden Gate Music Concourse have helped show what can be done. And Boulder, Colorado has enacted a Green Points Building Program, which requires builders to include certain sustainable elements based on the structure”s size.
“I think what has happened is that we’ve changed people”s attitudes,” says Taryn Holowka, a spokesperson for the USGBC. “They realize that a green building doesn’t have to look like a space ship, it doesn’t have to cost more, and in the long run it actually saves money.”