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Green Buildings: Conserving the Human Habitat
(Released October 2006)

  by Ethan Goffman  


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With mounting environmental and security concerns over energy use, conservation is more important than ever. The stereotype that automobiles are the main energy users is wrong; buildings are the largest consumers of energy worldwide. In the United States, buildings account for 37% of all energy use and 68% of all electricity use1 and "the building trades do about six times more damage than automobiles in terms of energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions."2 The concept of green buildings constitutes a way to dramatically conserve energy and to contribute to a healthy internal and external environment in numerous ways.

New York scene
Beginning in 2000 New York instituted mandatory green standards for Battery Park City, which subsequently won Gold status for its Solaire apartment building

Green buildings are structures that operate in harmony with the surrounding natural environment, that harm the environment as little as possible. The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) explains green building design and construction as intended "to significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of buildings on the environment and on the building occupants."3

The term "green building," then, implies many elements. Situating buildings to take advantage of sunlight and other natural conditions is a technique thousands of years old, although it was largely forgotten in the energy-rich mindset of the twentieth century. Positioning of buildings to take advantage of the surrounding environment and adding such features as solar panels can greatly decrease the use of fossil fuels. Of course more efficient energy use is critical, as is the safeguarding of water. Recycled and naturally occurring materials help conserve nature while creating a healthy internal environment. Using locally available products also saves money and helps the environment, avoiding the effects of a long supply chain.

This plethora of features could easily lead to questionable claims of "greenness" based on a few minor characteristics in order to boost a building's image. To avoid confusion, the United States Green Building Council has developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards to certify a building as green.

The Glidehouse is a spare single-story residence with sliding glass doors along one length of the façade. This modernist prefab home can be customized to reflect the needs of the client.
Photo by JMC Photography, courtesy National Building Museum

Besides helping the external environment, green buildings can improve human health. In work settings, green buildings spur extra productivity, a cost benefit not always taken into account. One source explains that "buildings with good overall environmental quality can reduce the rate of respiratory disease, allergy, asthma, sick building symptoms, and enhance worker performance. The potential financial benefits of improving indoor environments exceed costs by a factor of 8 and 14."4 Natural sunlight has proven benefits, while clean, healthy air decreases sick days and raises productivity.

Green buildings, then, have numerous advantages, both tangible and intangible. As California's Sustainable Building Task Force explains, "the benefits of building green include cost savings from reduced energy, water, and waste; lower operations and maintenance costs; and enhanced occupant productivity and health."5 The USGBC quantifies the savings: "Of the total expenditures an owner will make over the span of a building's service lifetime, design and construction expenditures, the so-called 'first costs' of a facility, account for just 5-10 percent. In contrast, operations and maintenance costs account for 60-80 percent of the total life-cycle costs."6 Although some extra initial investment is needed, according to a major California study, "if developers invest an extra two percent of a building's construction cost in the implementation of green building principles, the money will be paid back tenfold over the life of the structure."7 And costs should decline as experience and green suppliers accumulate; "as demand continues to grow, competition will heat up among designers, contractors, and manufacturers. This should drive down costs for green design."8

Arnold Schwarzeneger
California Governor Arnold Schwarzeneger has signed major bills on green buildings, climate change and other environmental issues
The greening of buildings, which makes both environmental and economic sense, constitutes the predominant trend in contemporary architecture. Still, despite increasing publicity and availability, government subsidies continue to favor intensive energy use, since, as of 2000, "the subsidy pattern is heavily tilted toward energy supply with $1 billion going to end-use efficiency and $35.1 billion for energy supply."9 The market, then, is not truly free to move toward energy efficient buildings with maximum speed. However state level efforts, such as the Green Buildings Initiative signed in 2004 by California's Arnold Schwarzeneger, are helping to level the playing field.

Go To What's Old is New: An Extremely Brief History of Green Buildings

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