Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why Green Building Needs to be About Energy Efficiency and Not "Green" Gadgets

In my previous post, I made the remark that many "green-building" projects and practitioners focus entirely too much on so-called green products, green gadgets and even on-site energy generation (e.g. PV or other).

An excellent case for why green building needs to focus primary on energy efficiency is presented in John Straube of Building Science Corporation's article entitled: Why Energy Matters.

In this article, they show how 85% to 95% of a building's "environmental harm" over a 50-year period comes from the energy used by the building during its operation. The environmental impact / embodied energy of the building materials is only a very small portion of the total environmental footprint of the building.

Check it out, an enlightening read for anyone interested in Green Building and Sustainability.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Elements of Sustainable Building Design

The term "sustainability" is bantered around a lot these days. Although in some instances it is used as green-washing, overall it is good that the mainstream is at least cognizant of the concept / term. But, in the context of our built environment (our communities, buildings and homes), what is sustainability? How can we move our built environment to truly sustainable buildings?

Conventional Meaning of Sustainable Building
In the context of buildings, most of the time Sustainable Building focuses on efficient use of resources (energy, building materials, water, reduced waste, etc.) and to a lesser extent, the health of the building users/occupants 1. Unfortunately, Sustainable Building has been misappropriated by the building industry to promote new building products and gadgets as "green" building. This largely overlooking or misses other, more important elements of sustainability, such as energy efficiency 2. In other words, sustainability, has been stolen by the building products industry to sell us new and more products! In my view, buying more and consuming "stuff", even if it's "green" is the antithesis of sustainability.

Old Way of Seeing's Vision of Sustainable Building
When I approach sustainable building design, I approach the building from a more balanced perspective. I take the "three-pillars" approach to sustainability. That is the building must be:
  1. Environmentally Sustainable
  2. Financial Sustainable
  3. Socially Sustainable
I think of this as the three-legged stool - remove one leg, and the stool tips over.

How do you apply the Three-Pillars of Sustainability Apply to Buildings?
We all understand the "environment" or green portion of the sustainable building, be it either "efficient use of resources" or more importantly, simple energy efficiency 3. But what do I mean by the other two pillars when it comes to sustainable buildings?
  1. Economic sustainability of building - buildings that are affordable to build/buy and affordable to operate (which links to energy efficiency), affordable to maintain (which links to durability) and last a long time (e.g. 100 to 150 years), so you don't burden yourself or future generations with the cost of replacing the building regularly (again, this links to durability).
  2. Social sustainability - this is the most difficult element for most people to link to sustainable building. Socially sustainable buildings are building that contribute to what I call:
  • External social sustainability - buildings that contribute to the community, the street-scape: buildings that make the town a nicer place to live and are a tribute to the people who are on the street - contribute to the shared realm of the street; and
  • Internal social sustainability - buildings that keep the occupants healthy and happy. The latter means good buildings that people what to be in, buildings people love, and building that not only sustain the occupants' physical health, but also enhance their mental, emotional and social health.
How can building design achieve these things? Some of them, especially social sustainability, seems a bit vague, right? Yet, there are concrete design elements, approach and considerations that can all directly and tangibly address all three elements of sustainable building design. How? Well, that is a topic for future posts.


1 Green Building from Wikipedia
2 Prioritizing Green—It's the Energy Stupid
3 Joseph Lstiburek at Building Science Corporation referes to the 80/2o Rule, or his new "Golden Mean" which he defines in his article on the Westford House:
This conservation thing should not be news. This was all figured out long before by some pretty smart folks, some of who are still alive, who are still smart, but mostly bemused at what passes for green today. Let me first define what green should be focused on if I was in charge: 80 percent energy, 20 percent everything else like water and materials. The new “golden mean”—80:20—perfect harmony and proportion for buildings and the built environment.

“The new “Golden Mean”—a ratio of 80 percent energy concerns and 20 percent everything else.”3

If you want to design a green building program or a green building this is what your priorities should be. The single most important aspect of green should be energy. OK, I feel better now that I’ve once again pointed out the obvious. Let’s move on and get re-acquainted with those smart old folks I mentioned.