In a sustainable world, the built environment would be in balance with the natural environment. Unfortunately, we are far from there. From single-family homes to soaring skyscrapers, buildings account for a significant share of global resource use. Constructing and operating these structures consumes 25 to 40 percent of the energy produced worldwide and contributes 30 to 40 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Construction also generates 30 to 40 percent of all solid waste.
From an economic perspective, buildings represent a massive share of public and private property. As the recent financial turmoil has made all too clear, the stability of financial markets is closely linked with the long-term value of real estate. Employment rates depend on the construction sector, which generates 5 to 10 percent of all jobs. Both buildings and the real estate market provide important service-sector jobs in management and maintenance.
By 2030, an estimated 1.4 billion more people will live in cities than in 2010, most of them in developing countries. These urban dwellers will need homes, services, and places to work—i.e., buildings. The coming years will likely witness more construction than ever before. Because the contributions of buildings are long term, renovating older buildings will also be critical to addressing overall impacts.
Taking a sustainability perspective
The urgency of mitigating climate change has led the international community to explore a variety of measures to address both energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from the building sector. Yet the complete sustainability picture is much bigger than simply energy or environmental impacts. Economic sustainability must consider the initial investment in land, design, and construction; the cost of maintaining and operating the building; as well as its value as collateral. Social sustainability must include issues such as making appropriate housing available for all, the fair trade of construction materials, zero tolerance on corruption, and the protection of cultural heritage. Sustainable construction also means decent jobs—for example, in maintenance and renovation of buildings and infrastructure.
A building does not become sustainable simply by tallying “green” construction materials and design elements. The lengthy building supply chain, which involves numerous actors, is dysfunctional; it has been designed to transfer risk from one party to another, and each party is accountable for its own piece. But from the point of view of sustainability, only the performance of the whole building during its lifetime matters. This is why sustainability-oriented building policies are moving away from prescribing narrow solutions, such as mandating a certain thickness for thermal insulation, and instead requiring a minimum energy performance of the structure.
Today, many believe that certificates or hi-tech solutions can solve the challenge of sustainable construction. But that’s not going to work. Innovation must occur at the low-tech end because inventions in recycling materials and building processes will have a much bigger impact on sustainable construction. In fact, sustainable construction does not have to be high-tech. Passive design principles mean low-energy, zero-emission designs, which dramatically reduce building energy use. Buildings can take advantage of cooling breezes and natural cross-ventilation, storing solar heat or shading, depending on the season, maximizing day-lighting and similar basic principles.
But for effective solutions, the rate of change in legal and regulatory environments must accelerate. To achieve more efficient and sustainable construction processes, legislation and regulation should be based on best practice rather than compromise. When a particular solution is proven to be commercially viable, it should become the benchmark. Yet without strong oversight of implementation, no policy will be effective. That is why zero tolerance on corruption is fundamental in construction.
Mainstreaming sustainable—not just green—construction
Sustainable buildings continue to be regarded as a marginal share of new construction—the icing on the cake. At the same time, lack of consumer demand fails to stimulate competition on the market, supported by a lack of incentives along the supply chain. The progress is far too slow. Incremental changes of business-as-usual practices don’t take us anywhere.
Premier Building Systems' Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) on a houseboat in Seattle, WA (Photo via Flickr, by PremierSIPs)
Because money is not going to stop talking, its language will have to become sustainability. All companies, investments, and financing must support sustainability, not just a small minority. Sustainability criteria must be used every time a product or service is purchased—and not just for paper and bananas! Zero emissions means 100% percent renewable energy, not just a solar panel here and there.
Let’s be honest: sustainability is not primarily a technological or a rating issue. No single construction material, method, or certificate will solve the problem. Politicians cannot solve this problem alone, nor can researchers, financiers, or investors. Sustainability is not simply a question of human behavior, people learning to switch off lights and save water. Producers can’t blame consumers for not demanding more. Instead, all of us will have to do our part to ensure a sustainable future.
We must push our governments to challenge industry and educate consumers, not ask them to be more lenient. Both small steps and quantum leaps are required on the road to the future that we want. And given their important role in all of our lives, the sustainability of buildings is crucial.
(Written by Kaarin Taipale; Edited by Antonia Sohns)