February 29, 2020

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Going Full Circle: From Light Green to Sustainable Buildings

Social, economic and legal standards must advance to support green building practices.


By Kaarin Taipale

(In collaboration with the Worldwatch Institute)

In the world today, buildings account for a significant share of global resource use, consuming 25 to 40 percent of the energy produced worldwide, and contribute 30 to 40 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Construction of buildings generates 30 to 40 percent of all solid waste. These statistics reveal how far we are from a sustainable world, where the man-made environment would be in balance with the natural environment.

In economic terms, buildings comprise a large share of public and private property. Not only is the stability of financial markets closely linked with the long-term value of real estate, but employment rates also depend on the construction sector, which generates 5 to 10 percent of all jobs. Buildings and construction are clearly an integral component of the world economy.

By 2030, an estimated 1.4 billion additional people will live in cities than did in 2010, with most of the urban migration occurring in developing countries. Such a large influx of people will require long-term urban policies and huge volumes of new construction to ensure as much homes, services, and work places as necessary. Additionally, due to the longevity of buildings, it is critical that they are continuously maintained and renovated.

Building Sustainability: More Than Environmental Considerations 

Climate change has spurred the international community to explore means to reduce energy going greenconsumption and greenhouse gas emissions from the building sector. Yet, sustainability must go further than energy reductions or increased assessment of environmental impacts. 

Economic sustainability must consider the initial investment in land, design, and construction; the cost of maintaining and operating the building; as well as its value as collateral. Social sustainability must include issues such as making housing available for all, the fair trade of construction materials, decent jobs in construction and maintenance, zero tolerance on corruption, and the protection of cultural heritage.

A building cannot merely document its use of “green” construction materials and design elements in order to boast sustainability. The lifetime environmental, economic and social performance of the building matters, starting from the excavation of raw materials to construction, use, renovation and possible deconstruction of the building. Thus, building policies are shifting from prescribing solutions, such as mandating a certain thickness for thermal insulation, to establishing a minimum energy performance of the structure.

Low Tech Innovation As Important As Hi Tech

Yet, sustainability of construction won’t be achieved through the use of certificates or implementing hi-tech solutions alone.

Innovation must occur also at the low-tech end, through learning from traditional and local knowledge. Sustainable low-tech solutions will have a greater impact simply because they are more resilient and sustainable buildingwill be used in much bigger volumes than hi-tech solutions. In fact, sustainable construction does not have to be hi-tech at all. For example, so-called passive design principles can dramatically reduce building energy use.

Regulation, Laws Must Catch Up With Sustainable Building Practices

In order for sustainable solutions to be effective, the rate of change in the legal and regulatory environments must accelerate. When a best practice is proven to be commercially viable, it should become the benchmark.

However, without rigorous enforcement, no policy will be fully implemented and the construction sector may remain corrupt and unaccountable.

Sustainable buildings must become mainstream. Consumers must demand sustainable construction in order to foster competition in the market. All design, production and financing decisions must support sustainability, not just a small minority. Sustainability criteria must be used every time a product or service is purchased.

Sustainability cannot be achieved with a single construction material, method, or certificate. Policy makers must listen to researchers and convince investors and builders to push sustainable construction forward fast. We all must do our part by lobbying our governments to challenge industry and educate consumers.

Given the important role of buildings in all of our lives, their sustainability is crucial.

About the Author:

Kaarin Taipale is a Senior Researcher at Center for Knowledge and Innovation Research of the Helsinki School of Economics (CKIR) at the Aalto University School of Economics, in Helsinki, Finland. She is the former Chair of the UN-initiated Marrakech Task Force on Sustainable Buildings and Construction, which advocates the need for local and national policies and legislation to secure greater sustainability in the construction, use, and maintenance of the built environment.

Taipale worked as an architect in Zurich, New York, and Helsinki; later as the editor of the Finnish Architectural Review; and for 10 years as the chief executive of the Building Department of the City of Helsinki. She has also held the positions of visiting professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden (2005–06) and chairperson of the ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability in Toronto, Canada (2004).


More from The Worldwatch Institute:

A New Global Architecture for Sustainability Governance: The Ultimate Makeover

Driving a Global Shift to Sustainable Transportation

Making the Green Economy Go: Scaling Sustainable Energy For All

Desperately Seeking: A Sustainable, Climate-Friendly Food System

Management Education: Planting The Seeds Of Sustainable Education

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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