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Director’s Corner: The Built Environment: a Huuuge Sustainability Opportunity

By March 2, 2017July 2nd, 20202 Comments

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”  – Winston Churchill

People in the United States only spend about 10% of our time outside of buildings.  To me that is a rather shocking statistic.  We may not give that much thought, but as Churchill observed buildings have an enormous impact on us.  Not just while we are inside them either.  It’s the whole picture. The way they are designed, built, maintained, perhaps renovated, and eventually removed, influences – for better or worse – human health, society, and the environment.

Designing and constructing green buildings and operating and maintaining them according to sustainability standards is a high leverage strategy that generates enormous returns on these investments.  And society is becoming more proficient every day in creating these kinds of structures.  Globally, our knowledge of how to build more sustainable buildings is growing constantly, and an increasing number of building projects reflect our burgeoning commitment and understanding.

Photo of the Miller Gorrie Center

The Miller Gorrie Center at Auburn University was the first LEED Gold building in Alabama.

There are some basic green design strategies:

  • Build small if at all, and no bigger than necessary
  • Optimize site selection to preserve green space and minimize transportation impacts
  • Orient the building to take maximum advantage of sunlight and micro-climate
  • Use energy as efficiently as possible
  • Maximize the use of renewable energy
  • Use water as efficiently as possible
  • Minimize waste water and run-off, and manage stormwater in ways that mimic nature
  • Minimize negative and maximize positive impact of materials by using green products
  • Design for a healthy indoor environment

One of the biggest opportunities in buildings is energy use.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings in the U.S. consume about 40% of all the energy produced, significantly more than transportation and industrial sectors.  That results in a substantial contribution to air pollution and climate change.

It is now possible to reduce a building’s net energy use to zero.  According to Norbert Lechner, Professor Emeritus of architecture at Auburn University, buildings can get to net zero energy by a mix of 80% efficiency measures and 20% renewable energy.  Some buildings are even designed to go beyond net zero, to net energy-positive: they generate more electricity than they can use and contribute excess energy to the electrical grid!  Wow.  Net zero and net positive buildings are not yet standard practice, but things are moving in that direction.

Here at Auburn, the past several years have seen an increasing emphasis on green building design, construction, and operation.  Additional green building requirements are incorporated into a soon-to-be published revision of the university’s Design & Construction Standards, and thanks to a change in policy from the Governor’s office, Auburn is now able to commit, and has committed, to certifying new buildings to achieve U.S. Green Building Council LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Silver certification or better in new building projects. LEED is USGBC’s “certification program for buildings and communities that guides their design, construction, operations and maintenance toward sustainability.”

Building certification is very important because it verifies the outcome we are striving for has been achieved.  It matters in terms of human wellbeing and performance.  A study published last fall by researchers at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health and the SUNY-Upstate Medical School in Syracuse “found [26.4% – ed.] higher cognitive function scores, fewer health symptoms and better perception of the indoor environment in high-performing, green-certified buildings compared to similarly high-performing buildings that were not green-certified.”

In 2015, the International WELL Building Institute created a new certification system, the WELL Building Standard, which focuses specifically on the health and wellbeing of building occupants. From the IWBI website: “The way that buildings are designed, constructed and maintained impacts the way we sleep, what we eat, and how we feel. The WELL Building Standard uses innovative, research-backed strategies to advance health, happiness, mindfulness and productivity in our buildings and communities.”

It is exciting to think about what we are now capable of and what is just around the corner.  USGBC’s organizational vision is bold and speaks to what is possible: “Buildings and communities will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation.” As we continue to improve our ability and broaden the scale of creating buildings and communities around the world that make life better for all, we are making significant strides toward a just and flourishing future.

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