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Green and resilient structures

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Those tall, roofed structures called buildings are ravenous consumers of energy. According to one study, they expend up to 40% of world energy. It is therefore imperative to make them more energy-efficient.

Green building may be the key. It is defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as “the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.” It may also refer to the structure itself.

Earlier this year, a study published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology put a figure on the benefits of green buildings. And the amount is a jaw-dropping $13.3 billion.

Harvard University experts examined a subset of green-certified buildings over a 16-year period in six countries (US, China, India, Brazil, Germany and Turkey). The total energy savings from these structures came to $7.5 billion. What’s interesting is that since the subjects of the study were LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings, which make up one-third of the global green building stock, total benefits would even be greater worldwide.

The experts also calculated savings worth $4.4 billion in estimated public health benefits from reductions in air pollution resulting in deaths, lost days of school and more, as well as $1.4 billion in estimated climate benefits from reductions in carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

“The energy savings of green buildings come with a massive public health benefit through associated reductions in air pollutants emitted. We developed the Co-benefits of the Built Environment (CoBE) calculator in this study as a tool that people can use for understanding the health impacts of building portfolios, investments and building strategies. The decisions we make today with regard to buildings will determine our current and future health,” Joseph G. Allen, assistant professor of Exposure Assessment Science and director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a statement.

In the same statement, John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer at United Technologies, which provided support to the study, said, “Green buildings are designed to save energy and water while promoting healthy indoor environments. Now we know the reduced environmental impact of building green is amplified with quantifiable benefits to public health and climate resilience. With this new human context, we can accelerate the green building movement globally from this groundbreaking research.”

The World Green Building Council, a global network of Green Building Councils, has compiled several ways to make a building green. One is to take an intelligent approach to energy. “Minimizing energy use in all stages of a building’s life-cycle, making new and renovated buildings more comfortable and less expensive to run, and helping building users learn to be efficient too,” the council said. Another is to safeguard water resources by exploring ways to improve waste water efficiency and management and by considering the impact of buildings and their surroundings on stormwater and drainage infrastructure.

In order to minimize waste and maximize reuse, the council recommends using fewer and more durable materials and engaging building users in reuse and recycling. For the promotion of health and well-being, some of the council’s specific suggestions are “[b]ringing fresh air inside, delivering good indoor air quality through ventilation, and avoiding materials and chemicals that create harmful or toxic emissions” and “[i]ncorporating natural light and views to ensure building users’ comfort and enjoyment of their surroundings, and reducing lighting energy needs in the process.”

Making a building green is also a matter of creating resilient and flexible structures. This means designing flexible and dynamic spaces, anticipating changes in their use over time and avoiding the need to demolish, rebuild or significantly renovate buildings to prevent them from becoming obsolete. The council also points out the need to consider all stages of a building’s life cycle. And that involves seeking to lower environmental impacts and maximizing social and economic value over a building’s whole life cycle from design, construction, operation and maintenance until renovation and eventual demolition. It also entails “[e]nsuring that embodied resources, such as the energy or water used to produce and transport the materials in the building are minimized so that buildings are truly low impact.”