Around the world, (residential, public and commercial) buildings consume an estimated one-third of global energy, which is used to heat, cool, light and ventilate the structures we use every day. As more people move to cities and the developing world continues to modernize, energy consumption is only expected to increase. It is estimated that 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050.
Because of this reality, we need to find innovative methods to preserve limited resources such as water, energy, food and land. We need to re-think how energy is supplied and used within cities and buildings so that we can become less dependent on coal-fired power plants, which we know significantly increases Green House Gas (GHG) emissions and contributes to the effects of climate change. We have a narrow window of opportunity to ensure buildings are well-designed, with quality construction and optimization for energy efficiency.
What is meant by a “well-designed” building?
It doesn’t mean architecture that is simply pleasing to the eye or a design that functions well, though both of these things are important. A well-designed building that is focused on energy efficiency must take into account such factors as the surrounding climate, the orientation of the building, and the behaviours of its inhabitants.
Considerations such as energy-saving lighting, heating, cooling and ventilation are crucial during the building’s design phase.
Additionally, the life cycle approach that analyses the environmental impacts of building materials is critical to sustainable outcomes.
Life Cycle Assessment & Green Buildings - Image from the American Wood Council
Clearly, including green building strategies from the initial concept design stage is of greater benefit than doing so in hindsight.
Unfortunately many buildings were simply not built this way. But tearing down an inefficient building is more expensive, and exceedingly more wasteful, than retrofitting it to make it more energy efficient. In fact, many people have the misperception that it takes a considerable investment to improve the efficiency and sustainability of existing buildings.
This is simply not true. Replacing inefficient lighting with LED lights or replacing single-paned windows with more efficient double or triple-glazed window systems are just two examples of relatively simple upgrades that save significant utility costs.
In order to maximize global and local environmental benefits along with financials savings, we need to communicate the benefits to building owners, developers, architects and the general population—and encourage them to take greater responsibility and action. We’re seeing examples of this happening, including the certification and modelling of buildings, the introduction of policy requirements and energy standards for buildings, and the adoption of tax incentives for integrating renewable energy.
Building certification and modelling systems such as LEED and BREEAM are used and recognised mainly in the developed world, although there are examples of certified buildings in some developing countries, such as the World Bank Group’s office in Southern Sudan. These modelling systems are able to analyse the overall efficiency of a building’s performance, though it can be a lengthy and somewhat expensive process, and requires detailed and up-to-date data sets.
The International Finance Corporation is aiming to mainstream green building growth in rapidly urbanizing emerging markets by aligning the interests of developers, banks, homebuyers, and building owners. The new certification system and software, called EDGE (Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies) suggests resource-efficient systems and solutions for new residential and commercial buildings.
The objective is to take a metrics-based approach at the early design stage, to reduce energy, water, and materials consumption by a minimum standard of 20 percent. City Express was the first company worldwide to receive the EDGE certification for its hotel Villahermosa in Mexico. Projects have been certified in Brazil, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Image of energy savings made for Villahermosa Hotel using the EDGE software
The cost advantages that EDGE provides helps to alleviate poverty while protecting the environment through a universal green buildings standard.
The importance of a certification process that is simple, fast, and affordable is vital in the developing world to avoid what is called ‘energy lock-in,’ where poorly designed buildings end up wasteful and inefficient for the duration of their lifespans.
We’re also finding examples of communities gathering together to improve energy efficiency in their homes, workplaces and public buildings. In the recent Action4Climate documentary competition, filmmaker Matt Dunne started a peculiar activity to paint roofs in his neighbourhood white -- and The White Roof Project NYC was born. (Before you think that Matt is the unmasked Bansky, this was not an art or graffiti project!) His reasoning was simple—white reflects light. Many roofing materials are black or grey, which absorb more heat that lighter colours, and increase the internal temperature of the building.
Occupants respond by turning down their cooling system and using more energy.
Another example is Brixton Energy, a not-for-profit organisation (NGO) in Brixton, London, UK that has funded community-owned solar power. The project started with a shared vision of creating real social and environmental outcomes on a housing estate in London. Community-owned solar panels now generate enough energy to power the elevators and many of the community spaces—while creating additional income for the community.
The potential for energy savings in buildings is tremendous if green building methods are applied. With professionals and communities taking more ownership, hopefully policy makers and governments will take greater action to adopt more robust sustainable building codes and policies to achieve their low carbon goals. While environmental pressures are a strong driver, positive financial benefits can create a win-win for all.