Buildings and their operations consume tremendous resources and emit many varieties of pollution. To reduce carbon emissions, it’s critical to address the long-term environmental sustainability of the construction industry, and the manner in which buildings are occupied.

More than half of all resources consumed globally are used in construction and almost half of all energy generated across the world is used to cool, light, and ventilate our buildings. Green buildings—those which reduce environmental impact—answer the need for sustainable solutions in the coming century. This approach is adaptable to every market, climate, and budget; even the smallest changes can yield quantifiable results. But builders don’t need to reach for reclaimed timber or grab at green roofs. Changing a set of light bulbs or adding smart meters can put buildings on a path toward compliance – and profit.

Fixes that pay for themselves

Savings from going green can repay costs in the first decade of operation. Buildings offer the single largest global opportunity to make deep emission cuts at low, no, and even negative cost. Green building also reduces energy costs in heating, lighting, and cooling. Energy savings for green buildings average 30 percent over conventional buildings, and green buildings also use less water and offer lower maintenance costs.

Growing tenant demand due to these lower operating costs, higher worker productivity, and reputational issues will eventually force the real estate sector to require, rather than request, efficient building techniques. The emerging markets represent the greatest opportunity for reductions, underscoring the need for an international effort to rapidly enhance sustainable building practices in such countries and to capitalize on emission reduction potential.

In the EU, stricter government regulation is likely to drive the de facto standard for new and renovated buildings in the next decade. The transformation of the building sector will soon follow. In fact, building codes and regulations have already tightened. In Europe, national governments and the EU have mandated higher efficiency standards for new construction and renovations within the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive of 2002. The follow-up directive of 2010 is likely to make “near-zero” energy buildings mandatory by 2021. The emerging markets will follow close behind.

Market-specific standards

A bike rack might make sense in San Francisco or Oslo, but in Cairo riding one’s bike to work indicates a death wish. So green building standards vary depending on the climate, culture, economy, and other demands of the market. Climate-specific solutions might include fixes for tropical climates, where temperatures vary only within a small range; arid climates, with hot summers and cool winters; temperate climates, where the need for winter home heating is greater than the need for summer cooling; and cold climates, which require insulation over the entire building, including the foundation.

Under a PPP contract, the government can require that private operators meet certain green building standards. But because needs change based on location, these standards may depend on the country sponsoring the building.

Indeed, the number of certification systems around the world has surged. But most of the green building certification systems have inherent problems. Some cover wide requirements for green buildings and therefore lack focus on key issues like climate change and resource efficiency. Others do not suggest efficient technology options and related cost savings. At times, these standards rely on complex simulation models to predict energy use. Finally, the assessment process is lengthy and expensive, especially for clients in developing countries.

The real estate industry needs a universal definition of what constitutes a green building, as well as consistent data sources and metrics on green buildings. These deficits make an assessment of the profitability of green building investments difficult and therefore hold back stronger investor interest.

Under a PPP contract, if the government requires that private operators meet certain green building standards, it may be wise to advise them to pay more attention to the key criteria with these systems to insure that they get genuine green buildings rather than “greenwash.” Simple energy efficiency measures and practices can save more than one-third of any typical building’s consumption.

So why aren’t we already doing this? The common culprits are:

  • Misalignment of incentives between the providers of buildings and occupiers of buildings.
  • Difficulty accessing financing for energy efficiencient upgrades due to low awareness of energy efficiency in the banking sectors and very few ESCOs with financial products.
  • Disincentives from government policies, such as minimal energy codes and artificially low energy pricing, negatively impacting energy-efficiency investment.
  • Weak leadership from the government and professional institutions, miscommunicating the economic benefits of sustainable design and construction.
  • Difficulty in capitalizing additional cost of green building investments. For example, home buyers aren’t necessarily willing to pay more for green buildings.
  • Lack of clear benchmarks for energy use, technology choices and demonstration projects.
  • Lack in supply chain of energy-efficient technologies and low-carbon building materials.

Each country must also consider where green buildings make the most sense. Buildings that are in use around the clock, like schools, can see immediate results, as can owner-occupied buildings like hospitals, hotels, and schools. Brand-sensitive clients, like supermarkets and housing developers, also benefit soon after implementation.

In parts of the world with high energy tariffs, like the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Philippines, green buildings are a no-brainer because they pay their own way. Similarly, in countries where CO2 from electricity generation is high – South Africa, Indonesia, India, China, and states in the Middle East and North Africa region – it’s easy to track fast results. Overall, countries with the highest energy costs are likely to have the biggest demand for energy efficiency in buildings.

9 steps to sustainability

For a ready-made path to compliance, follow this guide:

  1. Review the site constraints and opportunities. It’s important to understand building energy codes and conduct spatial site analysis and climatic analysis.
  2. Design a building core and façade to reduce energy demand, utilizing thermal mass as a tool to form part of a building energy strategy.
  3. Create a low energy heating and cooling strategy, utilizing variable speed drives for fans and pumps. Consider alternative cooling systems such as earth tubes, seawater cooling, ground source heat pumps, desiccant and evaporative cooling.
  4. Design efficient heating and hot water, and consider cost-effective alternatives like passive heat recovery from the air conditioning chiller, solar thermal systems, and grey water heat recovery systems.
  5. Select efficient lighting and appliances, and maximize natural lighting where associated solar heat gain is modest.
  6. Consider a renewable & low carbon energy supply. Renewable energy technologies including solar panels, photovoltaic, wind turbines, and biomass heaters offer an alternative to fossil fuels.
  7. Re-conceive water use, especially recycling grey water for flushing toilets.
  8. Monitor materials and waste. It is especially important to monitor and report hazardous and non-hazardous waste from site activities, and recover demolition materials that are recyclable.
  9. Ensure biodiversity and efficient land use. Use only local flora and fauna, and confirm that the selected site is defined as land of inherently low ecological value.