Laying the foundations for a more sustainable built environment

Kicking off edie's 'green buildings month' of editorial content, World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) chief executive Terri Wills argues it is time to change our perspectives on the buildings we use every day, and start seeing them as an integral part of the solution to global warming.

In the words of G20 world leaders – including US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – climate change is “one of the greatest challenges of our time”.

When looking at ways to address the issue, thoughts typically turn to the likes of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy; switching internal combustion engines with electric motors, and transforming congested city streets into green, open spaces.

What people don’t often consider is the role buildings can play in combatting climate change. However, as buildings account for more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and a quarter of all our water usage, perhaps it’s time they did. A greater focus on making the homes, factories, offices, schools and hospitals we use greener and more energy efficient could go a long way towards reducing their impact upon the planet.

Changing perspectives

At last year’s COP21 conference in Paris, Buildings Day saw politicians and business leaders from around the world come together to explore and celebrate the role green building can play in fighting climate change.

The day helped to change their perspectives about the purpose and role of building. Previously, it was a means to house their populations, to stimulate growth, to build new infrastructure for health, education and industry. But following Buildings Day, there was a new view that buildings can still achieve all of these goals, whilst bringing about major change to the global climate.

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Moving this agenda forwards, this year’s World Green Building Week (26 September – 2 October) – the WorldGBC’s flagship awareness-raising event – challenged people to change their perspectives on the role of buildings in creating a more sustainable world.

Brought to life by our global network of more than 70 national Green Building Councils and their 27,000 member companies operating in the building industry, the week highlighted how green buildings are the most effective means to achieving a range of environmental, social and economic goals – from addressing climate change to creating sustainable homes, businesses and communities.

Real-world benefits

We know that sustainability within buildings must focus on reducing emissions to meet the ambition of the Paris Agreement. We also know that there is an increasingly strong business case for it. However, we additionally recognise that there are numerous other aspects to sustainability, with multiple and differing priorities depending on the local context.

This is why the network of Green Building Councils around the world are supported in pursuing what they believe to be the most important aspects of sustainability locally – ones that will not only lead to buildings that leave a lighter footprint, but also enable people to thrive and enjoy a higher quality of life.

To create genuine change in how people think about green buildings, it is crucial to create a deeper, more direct connection between them and the places they inhabit and use. Fortunately, there are many interesting and often untold facts and figures that can help develop this link.

For example, how the average green building uses 25% less energy and 11% less water than a traditional structure. And it is now possible to construct carbon neutral homes that produce no emissions at all. Moreover, workers in green offices report 27% higher job satisfaction than those in standard buildings, leading to higher employee retention and productivity.

Communicating these quantifiable and tangible benefits in a way that is tailored to local priorities can help highlight the importance of factoring sustainability into building design in a truly meaningful way.

Redefining sustainability

At the same time, it is also important to recognise that the definition of sustainability within the construction industry has advanced considerably over the past few years. Today, it is no longer simply about low-carbon construction and responsible sourcing, and has come to include a variety of wider factor such as place-making, wellbeing and infrastructure.

With the focus of sustainability evolving beyond product and materials to encompass people and communities, the industry needs to address this new language. A renewed focus must be placed on integration, collaboration and transparency of sustainability drivers across the entire specification and supply chain.

It is clear that there is much more than simply carbon emissions to be taken into account if we are to create a more sustainable built environment. It is time for us all to change our perspective on buildings, and the role they can play in meeting shared goals.

Terri Wills is the chief executive of the World Green Building Council

edie’s green buildings month

The month of October sees edie shift the editorial spotlight from energy efficiency to green buildings. From new-builds to retrofits; construction design to building controls, this month of exclusive content will highlight the array of options available to improve the performance of buildings.

Stay tuned for green building-focused news stories, in-depth features and a special Sustainable Business Covered podcast episode which will investigate the latest techniques, the best management systems and the different steps UK businesses can take to increase the efficiency of their building stock and drive environmental performance.

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