Wednesday, January 09, 2013

2013 Trends in Sustainable Construction

A noteworthy event is occurring in 2013, the 15th anniversary of the U.S. Green Building Council  (USGBC) building rating system known as LEED, which first appeared and was offered for beta testing in 1998.   Clearly much has changed in the building industry as a consequence of the uptake of green building rating systems in the U.S. and it is interesting to consider what has changed, what has not changed, and what will have to change.  This week I will discuss the first point, what has changed and over the next few weeks I will cover the other two important issues.

So, What has changed?

The advent of LEED and other building rating systems such as Green Globes in the U.S. created a shock wave that is most definitely affecting owners, designers, builders, the materials industry, other supporting industries (e.g. building design software), academia, and the government.  Mc-Graw Hill Construction forecasted that, as of 2015, the majority of all new non-residential buildings in the U.S. will be certified green buildings. The value of green construction as measured in LEED registrations will likely have grown from $3 billion in 2005 and $58 billion in 2011 to $122 billion in 2015.  A vast array of new products from paints and concrete additives, to carpeting and high tech windows has emerged to assist in earning some of the LEED points so badly needed for certification.  Regarding change, being a professor affords me the opportunity to occasionally bore my students with stories of the challenges facing Rinker Hall, the first LEED Gold certified building in Florida, which was designed and built in the period 2000 - 2002. As the then Director of the Rinker School of Building Construction I attempted to sell the University of Florida administration on using Rinker Hall as a test bed for green certification.  I had a vested interest in my sales pitch because I had committed my academic life to sustainability in the built environment and had a small role in some of the early efforts to develop what eventually emerged as LEED. The convergence of LEED's emergence as a useful product in 2000 and the go ahead to design and build Rinker Hall was the golden opportunity and my sales pitch was successful.  I immediately threw myself into the nuts and bolts of the project, particularly in developing its green features in collaboration with our architect, Randy Croxton.

Rinker Hall at the University of Florida

As part of the certification process we needed to determine the recycled content of the aluminum materials being used in Rinker Hall.  One day I asked the subcontractor installing the aluminum storefront on the north side of the building how much recycled aluminum was in the frame supporting the glass in the storefront.  His shocked response was, "Oh my, no sir, we don't give you used aluminum, we give you new aluminum!"  Through diligent research we eventually figured it out, but it illustrates what has changed.  Today the recycled content of products, location of materials extraction and product fabrication, the volatile organic chemical content of finishes,  and a myriad of other information are a mouse click away. In 2000 there were just a handful of LEED Accredited Professionals (LEED-APs) designated by the USGBC as having specialized knowledge of the certification process. Under 100 buildings had been registered for LEED certification and perhaps 30 had achieved certification.  According to the USGBC, as of December 2012 there are over 162,000 LEED APs and over 125,000 registered or certified buildings and homes. In 2000 there were very few architecture or engineering firms with even the slightest hint of experience with green buildings.  Today it would be rare to find a design or construction firm without extensive knowledge of the nuts and bolts of green building certification.

The economics of green building are also helping maintain the momentum of this shift, in spite of the 2008-2010 economic downturn.  There is some evidence that  certified green office buildings command on the order of 7% higher rent, 3% higher occupancy rates, and 11-15% higher resale value compared to conventional buildings (HSB Architects and Engineers). In late 2012, the FTSE Group, NAREIT, and the USGBC announced a jointly developed green property index for both institutional and retail investors to assist in assessing the risks and rewards of investing in green properties (Forbes, 12 Nov 2012).  Both LEED certified and Energy Star projects are included in this index with 5 billion square feet under roof from notable REITs such as Douglas Emmett (DEI), Government Properties Income Trust (GOV), and Piedmont Office Realty Trust (PDM).  New standards and codes such as ASHRAE Standard 189-2010 (Standard for the Design of High- Performance, Green Buildings) and the International Green Construction code (IgCC) have been developed that in essence codify LEED.  These standards and codes, if adopted, would mandate green buildings as standard practice, making environmentally responsible construction truly mainstream.  It is clear that green buildings mark a sea change in U.S. construction history and have deeply affected every stakeholder involved in their development.  However, as with most successful movements, the road is not smooth but marked by bumps and dark clouds overhead.  The challenge now is to learn from past missteps and reshape and reinvent a movement that is sorely in need of new thinking and direction. Stay tuned!

NEXT TIME: What has not changed?