In the United States, green-certified building development has become more and more common. But did you know that China is actually the world’s largest green building market? In fact, China eclipsed the United States with more than 1 billion square feet of certified green, sustainable building space.
What’s also interesting is that China did this in half the time it took the U.S. – 10 years compared to 20 in America.
This is good news, considering that China is not only the world’s largest construction market, it’s also the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. With a focus on meeting green building and other environmental standards, China has the potential to make steady progress toward meeting its Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Key to that is a big goal by the Chinese government to achieve 50% commercial green building certification by 2020. Big goals lead to big results. If met, China will represent half of the world’s green building floor space by 2020.
Building owners have been choosing wisely. In 2005, green buildings were just 2% of commercial construction in the U.S. Today, they are closer to 50%. We see a similar trend in China, with impressive adoption of the China 3-star rating system for green buildings.
More buildings will be needed to meet the massive influx of people moving into cities. In China alone, 300 million more people (equivalent to the entire U.S. population) will move to cities in the next 15 years. Since buildings consume 40% of the world’s energy, we also know that these buildings need to be green. Clearly, the future of buildings and the future of sustainability go hand in hand.
New China Focus
This week, I traveled to China to attend the 13th Annual International Conference on Green and Energy-Efficient Building. I learned about new focus areas from Dr. Qiu Baoxing, president of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies and former vice minister for the China Ministry of Housing and Urban and Rural Development.
Dr. Qiu has been one of China’s earliest and strongest visionaries for green building. He’s now calling for more vertical gardens to be designed into Chinese city buildings. Imagine building facades that incorporate plants and trees as tall as they rise. No matter if you live or work on floor 1 or floor 40, you would see nature outside in the form of natural vegetation. This type of design would be as much be eco-cool and eco-beautiful as it would be eco-functional. Vertical gardening would introduce nature into otherwise concrete urban centers. More vegetation would naturally absorb CO2 pollutants and convert them to oxygen and according to Dr. Qiu, help address the outdoor air pollution issues in China.
The “Human Spirit” in Green Buildings
Throughout the years, the China conference has been a valuable convening point for green buildings. This year, Dr. Qiu proclaimed that green buildings must embrace the “human spirit.” I couldn’t agree more, and was pleased to present to the nearly 1,000 people gathered that we have new scientific evidence from The COGfx Study* series that green buildings not only save energy and water, they also improve human performance – they improve the health and productivity of people working in those buildings. This research by Harvard is changing the global conversation in the buildings industry.
By focusing on the human performance benefits of green building, in addition to the valuable energy and water savings, we can greatly expand the value proposition of green buildings. This can help accelerate sustainable building development in China and everywhere else. [HuffPo]
Each year in Los Angeles, certified green buildings keep 319 million pounds of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere — the equivalent of not burning 155 million pounds of coal or having the entire city go vegan for two weeks.
These findings from UCLA researchers, published today in Nature Energy, are part of the first study to examine the effectiveness of green building certification programs on a large scale. Researchers analyzed 178,777 commercial buildings using data from the L.A. Energy Atlas, a UCLA project that combines utility data, census information and details about buildings — their age, size and whether they’re used for residential or commercial purposes.
“We found that with the labels there is a significant improvement in energy efficiency,” said Magali Delmas, an environmental economist and member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability who co-authored the study with institute postdoctoral researcher Omar Asensio.
The energy supplied in buildings accounts for 8.8 gigatons of carbon emissions globally and one-third of global carbon emissions, the study notes. Compared to other commercial buildings, those certified by LEED, Energy Star and the Better Buildings Challenge saw energy savings improvements ranging from 18 to 30 percent, depending on the specific program.
That’s good news for those seeking to reduce emissions and battle climate change, but, Delmas said, it comes with a major caveat: the programs had almost no impact on medium- and small-sized buildings, which account for roughly two-thirds of all commercial structures in Los Angeles.
The one-size-fits-all, engineering-heavy approach of major certification programs may not be a good fit for small building owners, said David Hodgins, executive director of the L.A. Better Buildings Challenge. A program with options that can be tailored to individual needs might work better.
Making small business owners aware of the program is another challenge. Hodgins thinks community groups, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and small business councils could play an important role in getting more to participate. “A lot of these smaller buildings are going to be family owned,” Hodgins said. “Part of the pitch should be that we’re going to make sure the building doesn’t become obsolete so it will benefit your children and grandchildren.”
Rives Taylor is a sustainable buildings expert with Gensler, an international architecture firm. He said that even among larger buildings, less than 10 percent commit to getting certified. But when they do, it makes a big difference in the results.
“There’s absolutely no question that a third-party tool makes it happen,” Taylor said. The external requirements and the reward of getting certified provide incentives for engineers and builders. Without them, important engineering details and building materials usually get sacrificed, he said.
Firms willing to invest in green buildings often see quick returns in the form of energy savings, recouping their initial investments within a couple of years, Taylor said. Building owners have also become more interested in how sustainable buildings affect employees’ health. Such benefits can be hard to translate into numbers, but they have long-term effects for quality of life.
“You would think it would have been a no brainer,” Taylor said. “But for the last 20 years, no one would believe that improving a building’s air quality, daylight or views would do much for well-being. Only in the last handful of years have we seen data that starts to sway those who spend money.”
That’s where research like this new study can make a difference. UCLA’s Delmas said having more concrete data — including information about energy use — is the first step to get more buildings to participate in green certification programs.
“We need more transparency,” Delmas said. “If you don’t know about your usage, how can you change it? If you don’t know that your building is using 10 times more energy than the one next to you, how can you make adjustments?”
The study notes that the United Nations Environment Program and energy experts argue that the buildings sector has the largest potential to deliver long-term, cost-effective reductions.
For that to happen, certification programs will need to expand — a possibility that suffered a big setback with President Donald Trump’s recent budget plan. Experts in green business and energy raised alarm that Energy Star was marked for elimination as part of the president’s proposal to slash Environmental Protection Agency funding by 24 percent. But the budget process is just getting started, and many lawmakers expect the elimination of the popular program to face resistance in Congress, even among Republicans. [UCLA]
New research from the Harvard School of Public Health finds that workers in high-performing, green-certified buildings think and sleep better than those in similar buildings that were not green-certified.
Led by Dr. Joe Allen, director of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program, researchers studied 109 workers in 10 buildings in various climate zones across the country for one week. All the buildings were high-performance in terms of having high ventilation rates and low total volatile organic compounds (VOCs), but six were specifically green-certified.
The researchers found that compared to workers in the non-certified buildings, workers in the green-certified buildings had 26 percent higher cognitive function scores, reported 30 percent fewer “sick building” health symptoms, and saw 6.4 percent higher “sleep quality scores” (as measured by wearable sleep monitors).
This research follows a bombshell 2015 study by the same group that found elevated indoor carbon dioxide (CO2) has a direct and negative impact on human cognition and decision-making — at CO2 levels that most Americans (and their children) are routinely exposed to today inside classrooms, offices, homes, planes, and cars.
That first study measured a typical participant’s cognitive scores dropping 21 percent with a 400 ppm increase in CO2:
In the new study, the biggest differences in cognitive function between workers and the two types of buildings were in crisis response (73 percent higher in green-certified buildings); “applied activity level — the ability to gear decision-making toward overall goals (44 percent); focused activity level — the capacity to pay attention to situations at hand (38 percent); and strategy (31 percent).”
In both studies, researchers made use of a sophisticated multi-variable assessment of human cognition used by a State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University team, led by Dr. Usha Satish.
In an interview with Climate Progress, Dr. Allen explained the reasons why he thinks workers in the certified green buildings outperformed those in the high-performance buildings that weren’t certified.
First, workers in the certified buildings spent more time working in the “ideal comfort zone” (the optimum range of temperatures and humidities, which provide 90 percent or higher occupant satisfaction). Second, those workers had more and better quality light, most likely driven by more use of daylighting. Future studies will examine these factors in greater detail.
You may be wondering how it is that people in green-certified buildings slept measurably better at night. The answer appears to be better quality (bluer) light and more light (a larger contrast between daytime exposure and night-time):
Passive House is an international standard for green building which reduces a buildings footprint on ecology. Passive House was created in Darmstadt Germany. And has a much larger concentration in Europe, but is swiftly increasing it’s penetration in the United States. Passive House reduces the buildings operational energy demand through passive measures and components. This includes insulation, heat recovery, solar heat gains, solar shading and internal heat gains.
Passive House provides up to 90% reduction in heating and cooling demand and up to a 7% reduction in overall primary energy demand compared to the typical building. This created a building space which is more comfortable, health and affordable.
There are a number of Passive Houses being created in New York City, many of which are located in Brooklyn. These accomplishments will be substantial considering the rapidly increasing cost of living and owning a home in Brooklyn. Most of these Passive House buildings are residential buildings.
Passive House does not only have to be a home, it can be a school, factory, office, etc. It can be a modern or historical building.
The results of a Passive House Green Building are the following:
• Energy Efficient – Reduce energy up to 90%
• Healthy – Fresh Air, free of mold and dangerous contaminants
• Comfortable – Interior environment with steady temperatures
• Affordable – Construction Costs are offset by reduction in system size. Lower energy bills
• Predictable – Electrical and HVAC optimized
• Resilient – maintains habitable interior, better power distribution, reducing power to make net zero
Find out more about Green Building and Green Living at the Eco-Carnival. On Sunday, October 11 the 2nd Annual Green City Challenge Eco-Carnival will be presented at La Plaza Cultural Community Garden on Avenue C and East 9th Street from 12 – 4 pm. This event is open to everyone and is absolutely free!
At the Eco-Carnival, you will learn about recycling, energy, green building, composting and much more.
Central to the City’s sustainability efforts is PlaNYC, the monumental program linking hundreds of greening initiatives across City operations. Yet how sustainable is PlaNYC itself? As a project of the Mayor’s Office, it was created almost completely by government agency staff and consultants. The public wasn’t involved in creating the plan, so no grassroots constituency or broad public support ever developed around it. The limitation of this strategy was quickly revealed when in 2007 PlaNYC aimed to stabilize mass transit funding and reduce traffic congestion by setting up fees for driving into Manhattan’s business districts. Vehement opposition quickly overwhelmed the initiative. Now, in its 2011 update, PlaNYC officials claim a strong commitment to public engagement. It’s not just pleasant rhetoric: building public support for PlaNYC before the 2013 Mayoral election may be the single most important initiative of them all.
In tough economic times, even the most sensible long-term priorities are at risk from budget cuts, especially for a Mayoral project like PlaNYC, without a permanent official role in City government. Unless the next Mayor has a strong sustainability commitment or constituency, the project is likely to fall from its current high priority. PlaNYC could quickly become a shadow of its former self.
One proposal to assure that PlaNYC continues would amend the City Charter to make PlaNYC into a permanent civic body run jointly by the Mayor and other elected officials, while developing a public planning process to guide its implementation, but logical reasons to support PlaNYC don’t offer strong enough motivation to work. Financial incentives, either through future savings or avoiding future costs, seem to work better. From the failure of the 2007 congestion pricing campaign, we’ve learned that the carrot of secure mass transit funding was too abstract and impersonal to trigger broad public support, but the stick of paying higher fees killed support. On the other hand, some sustainability programs that promise future savings are finding customers. Con Edison is offering free energy efficiency assessments, and 70% off retail price for upgrades. Government incentives now pay as much as 80% of the cost of solar power systems. If participation in even these programs depends on hefty incentives, ad campaigns, and the hard work of salaried outreach staff, is it realistic to expect New Yorkers to spontaneously self-organize neighborhood greening projects through PlaNYC’s new Change By Us social media platform?
Study existing neighborhood sustainability organizing movements.
Are there social movements whose narratives or techniques might support PlaNYC? Sustainable Flatbush and the Lower East Side Ecology Center, neighborhood environmental groups cited in PlaNYC, are good models but depend on dedicated staff and funding. Some groups are great at bringing together volunteers, like 350.org for climate change activists and United for Action for opponents of natural gas hydrofracking, but are too narrow in their appeal and lack a local focus. Groups affiliated with the environmental justice movement focus on providing low-income and minority communities with equal protection from environmental burdens, but lack broad appeal. All of these groups have some but not all of the features necessary.
Transition and Bright Neighbor may be better social organizing models for New York City. Started in Britain just a few years ago, the Transition method of grassroots organizing is now being used in hundreds of communities around the world. Volunteer-led talks or documentary screenings show how current economic worries, higher energy prices and climate change are all connected. Volunteers set up local brainstorming sessions, where neighbors meet, envision how their community can become more resilient and sustainable in the future, and create local projects to implement that vision.
Bright Neighbor, a Portland, Oregon software platform for neighborhood sustainability, combines community involvement and online social tools to enable users to get to know their neighbors, build neighborhood and block-by-block barter networks and food systems, inventory skills and items for trade, pay or free, set up ride sharing, and plant neighborhood fruit and nut trees. The network has been deployed in 95 Portland neighborhoods. Portland Mayor Sam Adams calls Bright Neighbor an important city partner, and founder Randy White calls it a training program for communities.
PlaNYC 3.0 – a laboratory for social movements
We must raise public participation in PlaNYC before the 2013 election to ensure that the City’s sustainability projects are themselves sustainable. PlaNYC could gain a vast amount of leverage by recruiting the City’s vast number of civic groups, but that won’t happen by good intentions alone: the City needs to provide financial support for public engagement. If just 1% of the City’s green business, social sciences and marketing experts started thinking about the City’s sustainability initiatives, who knows what innovation could result! Citizens who recognize what’s at stake can develop entrepreneurial ways for civic groups to profit from promoting sustainability and better narratives and organizing tools to make PlaNYC a permanent part of the City’s culture. It’s time for that 1% to step forward, and convene the laboratories for social movements that PlaNYC will need not just to thrive, but to expand.
Next steps: open source brainstorming
Beyond Oil NYC proposes to collaboratively organize a series of multidisciplinary group discussions using the World Cafe method of conducting meetings. The topics to be explored can include: ways for nonprofits and civic groups to produce valuable goods or services while promoting sustainability initiatives; ways to promote sustainability at the community level; or other questions that come up. The goal is to expand the sustainability discussion using decentralized, open-source, non-hierarchical but efficient methods.
Introduction to the World Cafe method
After welcomes and introductions, groups of any size break up into small groups sitting around tables for a round of 20 minutes. Each round is prefaced with a question for the context and purpose of the setting. One member of the group volunteers to be the reporter, and take notes of the table’s responses to the question. At the end of the 20 minute round, the reporters from each table take turns sharing their small group’s deliberations with the larger group. If there is a second round, everyone except the reporter would then go to another table and the process repeats. After the meeting, notes are summarized and shared via email with all participants.
The notes from each meeting will be posted on www.BeyondOilNYC.org and other sites so the combined insights of many diverse NYC groups and networks will be conveniently available.
Your group or network is invited to participate.
Any group or network interested in collaborating with Beyond Oil NYC can host a World Cafe meeting, by finding a venue with tables and chairs suitable for 20 – 200 participants, and putting the invitation out to its members or email contacts.
If your organization would like to host or co-sponsor a World Cafe meeting, or if you would like to suggest additional ways to organize meetings or coordinate information sharing, please contact Beyond Oil NYC.
By Dan Miner, Beyond Oil NYC
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