Wherever you turn in the built environment industry these days “green” and “sustainable” are on everyone’s lips. Given how mainstream these concepts have become, it’s difficult to believe that only 10 years ago sustainability was a fringe movement, more alive in theory than in practice. The first sustainability conferences attracted only a hundred or so architects, builders, designers and facility managers. Few practitioners had heard of the U.S. Green Building Council or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design®, much less knew what they were about. Today the USGBC has registered nearly 103,000 projects, has awarded some 197,000 credentials and is preparing to roll out its fourth version of LEED. According to the most recent Dodge Construction Green Outlook, the current level of green building could triple by 2014.
But the big news on sustainability is not the success of LEED, per se, but the widespread integration of sustainability into mainstream practice. Instead of asking, “What’s LEED?” practitioners are asking, “What’s next?” The focus is on improving performance, making sustainable environments more occupant-friendly and expanding the idea of what it means to be “green.”
Sustainability by the Numbers
One of the more elusive and controversial aspects of sustainable design has been the difficulty in demonstrating whether buildings and spaces actually live up to their promised performance. “The truth is that design professionals know surprisingly little about how much energy or water a building ‘should’ use,” observes Scott Simpson, writing for Design Intelligence. “For starters, there’s not even an agreed-upon standard methodology for collecting the basic data, much less comparing or analyzing it.”
With clients and government entities clamoring for more and better documentation, the push is on to develop meaningful, reliable metrics to assess both the short- and long-term performance of sustainable design. Many large cities — including New York; Seattle; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and Washington, D.C. — now require owners of buildings of more than 50,000 square feet to disclose operating data in publicly accessible databases. According to Sandy Mendler, in a piece for Contract magazine, “the bar is rising rapidly for both voluntary rating systems and new code requirements” for sustainability. Several states and many municipalities already have adopted the 2012 International Green Construction Code (IgCC), and voluntary rating systems, such as LEED, are becoming stricter.
Along with performance, practitioners would like to be able to measure the monetary value of green design — particularly return on investment. A couple of recent studies have sought to quantify the added value of building green. Researchers who queried real estate investors in the condominium market in Singapore found that premium buyers would be willing to pay from 3.78 percent to 7.98 percent of the purchase cost for a green certified unit, depending on the level of certification. Another study, conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discovered that owners of energy-efficient homes — defined as those with Energy Star ratings — are 32 percent less likely to default on their mortgages, and the more efficient the home is, the lower the default risk.
Eco-friendly and people-friendly
As more and more LEED-certified and other green buildings have become occupied, some have come under criticism for being too focused on meeting building performance targets at the expense of the people who inhabit them. Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, along with J.A. Dorsey, a colleague from Ithaca College, recently conducted an assessment of two LEED Platinum buildings and concluded that they provided a poor environment for the workers. They found significant associations between occupants’ fatigue and their ratings of air temperature, as well as between their ratings of eyestrain and perceived air freshness. In one building, more than 50 percent of respondents said that the air ventilation, temperature and noise — factors closely tied to the structure’s energy systems — did not benefit their comfort.
Noting that 92 percent of a building’s costs are related to workers, Hedge contends that too much emphasis is put on meeting energy goals. “You can meet those but, if people are uncomfortable, you are losing their support and their productivity,” he says. “The message is, you can be green, but you also have to be human.”
To that end, a study of LEED-certified hospital projects completed between 2010 and 2012 found that the cost difference between green and standard hospital construction today is minimal. However, the investigators noted that other factors, such as the potential health benefits of green interiors, should not be overlooked. “What happens when you build with only low-VOC materials and switch to a green housekeeping program?” speculates Breeze Glazer, research knowledge manager at Perkins+Will in New York and one of the co-authors of the report. Respondents to the study said that more research was needed on the impact of green design on staff retention, absenteeism and satisfaction, as well as on the welfare of patients and visitors.
Green beyond LEED
Without question, the USGBC and LEED rating system have been greatly instrumental in catapulting sustainable design to the forefront of the building industry. Energy and water conservation, waste management, recycling and reuse, sustainable sourcing, and minimizing the carbon footprint are critical to maintaining the health of the ecosphere. But how else might we “green” our environments to make them healthier, more efficient and more closely linked to the natural world?
“What we need is LEED certified interiors that talk about biophilia,” suggests Grace Ehlers in a recent Metropolis blog. “We yearn to connect with the outdoors, whether we verbalize this need or not. And yet we rarely get the opportunity to make this essential connection to nature.”
Ehlers discusses the benefits of biophilic design for workers, but it also is a central topic of research and experimentation in healthcare, education and senior living. Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive effects of incorporating nature, both visually and literally, into interior spaces. It’s time to go beyond daylighting and bring biophilia into the fold of sustainability. And perhaps biomimicry as well. After all, sustainable design is now mature enough to take on some added responsibility.