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‘Green buildings’: From LEED to ‘net-zero’

‘Green buildings’: From LEED to ‘net-zero’
Shanghai Tower (left) and SWFC in Shanghai.

By Catherine Dominguez

“Green buildings” are structures that comply with sustainable practices throughout their life cycle – from construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and demolition. Though perhaps born in the energy crisis of the 1970’s, the green construction idea has found new urgency recently in relation to climate issues. Gaining more popularity, it is a now a key element in social measures that aim to lessen carbon footprints.

Green buildings use less water, generate energy savings, conserve natural resources, produce less waste and offer healthier spaces for its tenants, far from a conventional building’s features. Generally, they are designed to ease the sore impacts of the infrastructure both on human health and the environment.

How green is your green building?

More and more stakeholders are getting attracted to the concepts and practices of green buildings, and this has led to the creation of standards, codes and rating schemes by several organizations across different countries. These aid government regulators, developers and consumers in constructing green buildings with assurance.

Green building rating tools such as the United States’ Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design; the United Kingdom’s Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method; Japan’s Comprehensive Assessment System for Built Environment Efficiency; and Malaysia’s Green Building Index, among others, help users find out how green a building is.

They recognize and credit buildings that observe green design in categories like location and site maintenance, water conservation, energy efficiency, building materials sustainability and even occupants’ comfort and health. The number of credits given generally indicates to what level a building achieves its set goals.

The LEED standard of the United States Green Building Council is touted as the most prominent of the green building rating schemes and even as having spearheaded the “modern green building movement,” according to the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, a green industry advocate. It has four levels certification according to number of sustainability points – Certified (40-49 points), Silver (50-59 points), Gold (60-79 points) and Platinum (80 points and above). The Philip Merrill Environmental Center is Uncle Sam’s most “eco-friendly” building, being the first to be certified Platinum in 2001. Canada, Brazil, Mexico and India have also adopted the LEED system.

Meanwhile, green building codes and standards such as the International Code Council’s International Green Construction Code are sets of regulations established by standards development organizations that create minimum requirements for components of green buildings materials for heating and cooling.

The race to green the buildings

In the race to develop “greener” buildings, countries are taking their concrete steps to be successful.

In the United States, President Barrack Obama took the move to the national level by issuing a memorandum in 2011 that urged all commercial buildings to be at least 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020. The president pledged to invest $4 billion to pave the way for energy upgrades in both federal and private buildings through the Better Buildings Challenge.

Among those that took the challenge was the iconic 81-year-old Empire State. Its ongoing retrofit is said to be the largest of its kind to date in the country, expected to significantly cut emissions by 105,000 metric tons over the next 15 years and reduce energy use by over $4.4 million every year. Overhaul plans for the 102 storey-skyscraper include upgrades of its 6,500 windows, new heating and cooling systems that automatically adapt to the temperature, insulation of the building space, improvement of its existing control system and installation of Internet-based system for occupants’ energy monitoring.

In Asia, countries are also working hard to keep up. China, which rivals the United States in the amount of emissions it sends to the atmosphere, is overhauling the architecture of its buildings. The 128-storey Shanghai Tower, when completed in 2014, will not only stand to be the tallest building but significantly will benchmark the green revolution in the country. It features wind turbines, a complex rainwater collection system, two envelope layers that wrap nine interior sky gardens and an ingenious design that will ease lateral loads from wind and reduces the necessary structural steel by over 20 percent.

India, on the other hand, has been vocal about its intentions to become one of the global leaders in green buildings by 2015. It has been making intensive efforts in greening the buildings across the country – ranging from home projects, factory buildings and LEED-certified buildings in India. To date, the Indian Green Building Scorecard shows that there are about 267 certified sustainable buildings existing, including some hotels, shopping centers, office spaces and state infrastructure such as the Indira Gandhi International Airport Terminal 3.

The world’s least-emitting building has just recently been unveiled in Japan. The 22-storey Shimizu Headquarters by the country’s largest contractor, Shimizu Corporation, only releases 38 kilograms per square meter of carbon annually, or 62 percent less than usual emissions of any typical building in national capital Tokyo.

Well-off nations have the most advantage according to a recent study. Think tank Lux Research points out that United States, Singapore, South Korea, Germany and Australia, among others, are the global trailblazers in green building technologies. Having sufficient finance mechanism, they can easily adopt costly and emerging technologies like green roofs, insulated windows and building-integrated photovoltaics. While energy security and environmental sustainability are the bases for green building policy formulation, cost and affordability are the decision-makers in the extent and pace of adoption.

Net-Zero Buildings: The next big thing in green construction

No doubt, green buildings are booming, as venture capitalists generously invested over $4 billion on them since 2000, another report by Lux Research showed.

The study also found out that the first wave of green building start-ups has reached its maturity, and now these investors want something new and better technologies that will further improve green buildings.

“Early VC investors are looking for exits for the first wave of successful green buildings start-ups and the seeds of the next crop are being sown in on-site generation and sustainable materials,” said Ryan Castilloux, Lux Research analyst.

The next wave of green buildings is on its way, with “net-zero buildings.” As the name connotes, they are ones that, because they produce their own power, have “zero” amount of energy consumption and zero carbon emissions per year.

Apparently, it is not only the investors that are demanding for new trends in green buildings, but even consumers themselves.

In Singapore, energy efficiency is no longer enough to please green building users who want more sustainability for their spaces. Also, more businesses are starting to recognize the need to become environmentally responsible, said Singapore Green Building Council president Tai Lee Siang in a statement.

Currently, Singapore is running a flagship project which tests the adoption of zero energy buildings in the whole of the country.

Typical buildings use 40 percent of the overall fossil fuel energy in the U.S. and the European Union, both of which are among the major contributors of harmful gases. The net-zero energy consumption principle is viewed as a way to shrink carbon emissions and reduce dependence on fossil fuels, more intense than green buildings.

Zero energy buildings, though, remain uncommon even in developed countries, but it is good to know that they are now starting to gain momentum.

The development of the “new” green buildings was made possible not only because of the evolution in modern energy and construction technologies and processes, but also of academic research that gives more and more information that helps perk up the existing green building technologies.

At this time, many developers are aspiring to put up net-zero buildings that will help to drastically thwart carbon emissions from buildings and promote their eco-friendly lifestyle.

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