Buildings have a significant impact on the environment. Buildings greatly affect our water supplies, natural resources, air quality, and overall eco-systems. According to the AGC (Associated General Contractors of America), in the United States, buildings consume 12 percent of water use, 39 percent of CO2 emissions, 65 percent of waste output, 71 percent of electricity, and 39 percent of overall energy. And worldwide, buildings account for 17 percent of fresh water withdrawals, 25 percent of wood harvest, 33 percent of CO2 emissions, and 40 percent of materials and energy use. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) reports that annually buildings generate 25 to 40 percent of the solid waste stream, which totals close to 140 million tons. Those figures are just some impacts that buildings have on the environment; countless other reports could be included in this synopsis.
So, it is obvious that buildings have a tremendous impact on the environment. But how can we address the issue? Through sustainable design, construction, and management of buildings.
Vast efforts have been made to implement green building methods throughout the United States and across the world. For decades, engineers, builders, architects, administrators, and other players have practiced and advocated for eco-friendly sustainable buildings, but in the past few years, and even more so today, green building has become more accessible and more trusted. Sustainable construction is becoming the standard for any type of structure and the benefits of building green are becoming evident to people all across the spectrum. It is important to remember that reducing our carbon footprint for future generations is the underlying objective of sustainability, but in the meantime, making eco-friendly decisions can have a profound impact on your life and your business.
The environmental, economic, health, and community benefits of green building are astounding. Records from the USGBC (United States Green Building Council) show that green buildings can save 30 percent on energy, 35 percent on carbon, 30 – 50 percent on water use, and 50 – 97 percent on water cost. Green buildings also report 16 percent gains on worker productivity. A healthy environment has a trickle down effect, and not only yields a better work environment but also contributes to good health which in turn puts less of a strain on healthcare demands. In addition, roughly 25 percent of the increase in carbon dioxide is attributed to buildings; energy efficiency can reduce that percentage by 50 percent. Other major aspects of green building such as recycling and waste managemnet, use of local materials, etc. have played a collaborative role in shaping the standard for green building.
In 1993, the USGBC was formed, and since its origin, it has developed the standard for green building via the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) system. Today, LEED is comprised of multiple rating systems, including: LEED for New Construction version 2.2, LEED for Existing Buildings, and LEED for Commercial Interiors. While each varies, they all have the same intent, but to maintain consistency I will be navigating through LEED NC version 2.2.
In order to factor in the various aspects of green building, LEED is split into major categories. They include sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. Each category is broken down into credits that are worth points, and points vary depending on the significance of the credit. Together there are 69 total points and depending on the number of points awarded, a building fits into a category. A certified building earns 26 – 32 points, a silver rated building earns 33 – 38 points, a gold building earns 39 – 51 points, and a platinum building earns 52 – 69 points. Achieving points is much easier if a building is attempting LEED certification early in the design phases but regardless of what rating the building receives or if it is certified at all, the design and construction of the building can work toward implementing eco-friendly LEED standards.
Collectively the LEED system offers great progress in reducing the environmental impact of buildings and as resources become more available and as green building/renovation demand increases, and as people become more educated, our environment will become more sustainable.
A series of blog entries will follow this report, each outlining the categories of LEED, the intent of those categories and their environmental, economic, and health implications. Please note, the concepts being covered can be applied to any building from a small home to a large commercial building.