Dear “Earth Talk”: What are some of the
trends in the construction industry that seek to improve the environmental
impact of buildings?
— Bianca Hoffman, Bridgeport, Conn.
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.
Syndicated columnist Joan Lowy recently took the opportunity to describe what she thought were the most important environmental trends. No. 2 on her list (just behind cleaner cars) was green building. Lowy noted that more than 200 new commercial and public structures built in the United States 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, an association of building-industry leaders that works to promote environmentally responsible building.
“That’s 217 million square feet, or 5 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 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 are water-saving “low-flow” plumbing systems, “living” filter systems that use plants and bacteria to break down waste, solar energy, recycled and nontoxic 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, Calif., any new construction greater than 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 and paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds.
Several other cities, including San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Scottsdale, Ariz., 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, Colo., has enacted a Green Points Building Program, which requires builders to include certain sustainable elements on the basis of the structure’s size.
“I think what has happened is that we’ve changed people’s attitudes,” says Taryn Holowka, a spokesperson for USGBC. “They realize that a green building doesn’t have to look like a spaceship, it doesn’t have to cost more, and, in the long run, it actually saves money.”