Green and Sustainable Building Construction Is the Future

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The green and sustainable building construction market in the United States was vital and growing before the Covid-19 pandemic. During this, it shrank over 7%. It is now recovering and projected to grow by 9.3% from that low point, reaching $103 billion by 2023. According to many sources, the green and sustainable building construction market is one of the fastest-growing industries worldwide.

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Drivers of the Demand for Green and Sustainable Building Construction

The growth of the green and sustainable building construction market in the U.S. is being driven by government regulations and initiatives, private sector green building and sustainability initiatives, and consumer preference for eco-friendly homes and workplaces.

Government Regulations and Initiatives

As the nation’s largest energy consumer, the federal government has taken the lead in the U.S. effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement. The construction industry accounts for more than a third of the nation’s process-related carbon dioxide emissions, so the logical starting point was to set emissions targets that apply to federal public works construction projects. Many federal departments and agencies now have green requirements specifically for federally-funded construction and renovation projects.

Many states and cities have developed, or are currently developing, their own initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change. Such initiatives usually involve establishing green requirements for taxpayer-funded construction and renovation projects. California has one of the most ambitious state initiatives, which sets net-zero energy goals of 2020 for new residential construction and 2030 for new commercial buildings.

Business Initiatives

Private sector companies increasingly establish initiatives for green buildings and long-term sustainability. For example, Walgreens retail store in Evanston, Illinois is the world’s first net-zero energy retail store, producing its own geothermal, solar, and wind energy. The list of companies that have made publicized commitments to renewable energy continues to grow.

Public Demand

A 2020 survey by the National Association of Realtors found 59% of residential real estate customers to be “very or somewhat interested in sustainability.”  However, consumers typically speak in terms of a desire for energy efficiency and lower utility bills rather than green and sustainable building construction. There is, nonetheless, a growing demand for homes with environmentally-friendly components, which suggests a growing demand for green and sustainable residential building construction.

Environmental Issues Driving Green and Sustainable Building Construction

A variety of environmental concerns are driving and shaping the demand for green and sustainable building construction, in terms of both buildings and the processes and materials used in creating them. Issues related to energy are having the greatest impact.

Reducing Energy Use

Reducing energy use is at the top of the list. Operating energy accounts for far more of a building’s energy consumption over its life (80% to 90%) than the embodied energy in the materials used in its construction (10% to 20%). The decisions made in the design and construction of a building can greatly reduce energy consumption in both categories (e.g., downsizing, passive heating and cooling, adequate insulation, graywater heat recovery, energy-efficient appliances and lighting, designs that comply with net-zero carbon/energy certification standards, use of durable and renewable building materials, etc.).

Renewable Energy/Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Renewable energy (primarily solar, wind, and geothermal) is becoming more affordable, and therefore is increasing in popularity. 

Reducing Water Use

Building design choices that reduce water use include blackwater and graywater recycling and rainwater capture and reuse.

Healthier Buildings

There is growing public awareness of the negative impact of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as acetone, formaldehyde, and butanol on human health. Off-gassing from the VOCs found in building products and materials (e.g., paints, adhesives, wallboards, carpeting, ceiling tiles, vinyl flooring, and more) can irritate the eyes and respiratory system and cause headaches. Long-term exposure can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.

Construction companies committed to green and sustainable building construction use products that carry a manufacturer’s health product declaration (HPD) or environmental product declaration (EPD). They may also adhere to the WELL Building Standard, which is third-party certified by the same organization that administers the LEED certification program.

Construction Waste Reduction

About one-quarter of the nation’s solid waste stream comes from construction and demolition. There are two ways to keep all that embodied carbon out of landfills. One is to use sustainable materials that can be recycled and reused, such as those certified as meeting the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Products Standard. The other is to design deconstructable buildings, so as to maximize the ability to salvage materials for recycling or reuse.

Building Certification Programs

There are a number of certification programs that are tangible proof of a construction company’s commitment to green and sustainable building construction. LEED is probably the best-known certification program. Buildings in the U.S. that are LEED-certified use 25% less energy and 11% less water than comparable buildings that don’t meet LEED standards.

The most stringent of the green and sustainable building construction certification programs is the Living Building Challenge, which judges a project on seven “petals” – site, energy, water, health, materials, equity, and beauty. To be certified as a Living Building, the project must be net-zero for both energy and water.

14 states and the District of Columbia, alongside some municipalities, adopted the International Green Construction Code (IgCC). The American Institute of Architects and ASTM International, among others, sponsor is; though it is not a certification. In many cases, complying with the Code is mandatory, but in some states and cities, IgCC simply serves as a model for green and sustainable building construction.

Clearly, green and sustainable building construction is here to stay, with a demand that continues to increase. Construction companies that ignore it, do so at their own peril. 

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