Is Green Building Becoming the New Normal?

The climate situation is not looking good—and that’s an understatement. According to The Guardian, 2016 will be the hottest year on record, and it’s the third consecutive year that has set a new record for the highest temperatures yet. If that fact alone doesn’t compel you to want to get involved with change, on a palpable level, perhaps a president-elect who supposedly doesn’t ‘believe in’ climate change will give you pause. If the powers that be in the United States aren’t reliable, in terms of taking action to prevent additional damage to the warming climate, perhaps private home owners, architects, and companies can shoulder some of the responsibility of helping to minimize non-renewable energy use.

So the question then becomes, has green building and sustainable architecture become the new norm? It seems as if there is certainly a new standard when it comes to energy efficient building materials and a push toward implementing certain baseline standards into the mainstream—at least when it comes to large commercial and corporate buildings. The reason for this is closely tied to economic good sense: according to the World Green Building Council, “39 percent believe they will see savings of 15 percent or more over the next five years.” And we all know that an appeal to the proverbial bottom line is the best way to pique business interests.

But how, specifically, will this take place? According to Marylhurst University, architects can reduce the negative impact on the environment via efficient use of all natural resources, ensuring the building occupants’ health is protected, and reducing waste on site. Since 65 percent of U.S. electricity consumption can be attributed to buildings, thus a move to more energy-efficient structures could make a tangible difference.

Moreover, since Leadership in Energy and Efficient Design (LEED) certification is becoming the standard for new architecture; professionals in the construction, engineering, and architecture industries will be required to comply.

Eventually, a building should possess the ability to generate its own energy—whether it’s built that way originally or retrofitted to comply with new green standards. That’s the eventual ideal, according to the Cascadia Region Green Building Council (CRGBC)—which is the Pacific Northwest chapter of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). The CRGBC defines a living building as a structure that “generates all of its own energy with renewable nontoxic resources, captures and treats all of its water, and operates efficiently and for maximum beauty.” The main obstacle to this standard of sustainability not being more widely adopted is the cost.

However, one of the main factors in the slow implementation—capitalism—is also one of the forces driving green building trends: Building Design & Construction names compete among green-rating systems as one of ten ‘megatrends’ shaping the future of sustainable construction and retrofitting. This competition also fuels debates over what should be considered healthy building materials: “The problem is that there are few accepted national consensus standards for determining the information that should be in an EPD or HPD and how that information should be verified.” Also among trends forecast to be continued are the retrofitting of existing buildings, greater use of solar power, and cloud computing playing which has a large role in the remote management of buildings.

This commitment to sustainability should extend through all parts of supply chain management, from the manner of transportation to the amount of water used to create the product—in other words, not merely focusing on the product in the final form, but throughout each stage in its creation and manufacturing process. Data visibility within supply chains is also important to ensuring that all stages of a product’s creation is carried out as sustainably as possible. And new trends in the use of augmented reality can save consumers costly and environmentally taxing trips to the store to shop for a brand which allows them to virtually walk through a retail space without ever leaving the comfort of their homes.

The use of sustainable materials is also important for home furnishings, whether or not they’re built into the structure. Aside from buying used design pieces or repurposing old furniture into new pieces, by hand, it’s possible to purchase retail items from environmentally responsible companies. For example, take California Closets, which utilizes composite wood—made from recycled and/or reclaimed wood fiber—to make their storage components. They also feature Ecoresin® inserts with 40% pre-consumer content, as well as LED lights, Chroma countertops, and fabric crafted from recycled materials. The company also contributed to the construction of the first two LEED-compliant houses in the country.

Although we’re making impressive progress in terms of the availability of environmentally-friendly building materials, the future of material technology is exciting, in terms of their level of innovation. Architect Magazine recently shared five cutting edge products that have not yet been made commercially available, but are on the verge of going public. First, there’s ‘solar-thermal cladding,’ a thermal storage system designed for colder climates that both deflects summer sun and absorbs winter heat in order to minimize internal heat loss.

The next most viable development is the implementation of 3D printing in architecture and design. However, rather than printing from a traditional box-like printer, the MX3D Bridge will be printed using 6-axis industrial robots. Clearly, the implementation of 3D printing is an exciting development that will eventually have wide-reaching influence in the architectural, engineering, and construction industries. There will also be so called ‘self-healing’ concrete, which can continually monitor and repair itself, without constant monitoring or costly maintenance. Finally, bioplastic promises to match aluminum, in terms of strength, as well as being biodegradable—a huge benefit for the environment, especially considering the massive and expanding islands of plastic currently floating around the Pacific Ocean.

Each of us can help lead the charge toward green building trends becoming the new normal—but the momentum doesn’t have to come from the pressure of ethical consumers, alone. The evolving free-market economy has also been lending more and more credence to the power of sustainable materials to help our businesses and residences conform to the most energy-efficient standards possible. Still, let’s do everything in our power to encourage local city and state governments to pass environmentally-friendly building codes and legislation. We can also encourage family members and local businesses to utilize eco-conscious building methods.

Imagine a future with zero net emissions and fully self-sustaining structures: we’re not there yet, but we will be—assuming we exert a concerted effort. Onward, fellow sustainability warriors: we can do this.