The environmental challenges we face as a nation extend well beyond our borders. Climate change – driven by energy consumption, manufacturing practices, and transportation – is a global issue. Financial solvency is also a universal concept. While building owners and facility managers may grapple with unique circumstances, meeting market demand and saving money are organizing principles in every country. The opportunity to participate in green projects worldwide offers some international lessons.
Roles and Responsibility
Europe is ahead of the United States when it comes to focusing on actual building performance vs. design parameters. Scorecards rate individual facilities, and building owners must engage in public energy-performance reporting. In just the past year, this concept gained traction here as certain states began to establish reporting regulations.
Europeans tend to interact differently with buildings. Rather than expect the building to perfectly control climatic conditions, occupants regulate their own comfort and well-being by wearing sweaters when it’s cold or wearing lighter clothing and opening a window when they’re hot. Part of this dynamic could be a result of Europe’s large historic building stock. With so many centuries-old buildings that can’t artificially provide consistent environments, people have tempered their expectations.
In China, the scales between personal comfort and energy use are decidedly tipped. Air-conditioning isn’t activated in the majority of buildings until the external air temperature reaches into the 90s. Although this may have extreme impacts on personal comfort, it points to a completely different perspective regarding the value of energy use.
Stateside, our workplace facilities have offered very little indoor climate variation regardless of outside conditions. Usually, indoor temperatures remain between 68 and 72 degrees, overhead lighting provides all our visual needs, and plumbing fixtures use large amounts of water. We have set a standard for buildings to deliver our personal comfort. But conserving our limited resources requires a cultural shift here.
People’s behaviors have a huge impact on building performance. Building owners and managers can begin to address this by elevating their view of how occupants affect energy expenditures, water consumption, and materials use. Because people are part of the building function, ongoing education for employees and occupants can generate tremendous financial and environmental benefits.
Some of most valuable lessons from around the world are displayed in the real-life implementation of concepts we know to be effective, but have not widely put into practice.
The Reunification Palace, formerly the Independence Palace, was the official residence of the President of South Vietnam. Built in the 1960s, it’s an excellent example of using natural ventilation for a tailored response to bio-climatic conditions. The building houses dignitaries, yet it has no air-conditioning in a hot, humid climate. Instead, it’s a long, narrow structure with operable windows and 20-foot ceilings. Hard-surface materials, such as marble, granite, and stone, remain exposed. The orientation and window openings promote adequate airflow, and the tall floor height allows the hot air to rise out of the occupied zone. Intelligent use of natural ventilation isn’t a new concept, but it’s rare that buildings in our country take advantage of it to the extent that the Reunification Palace does.
Europe and the United States have similar environmentally responsive products and technologies, but the demand for these products and strategies hasn’t been high enough to spur legislative or permitting approval here. Items considered commonplace in Europe are deemed innovative in North America. As a result, Europe remains ahead in terms of implementation.
For example, Germany has less sunlight during the year than Oregon, but it’s a world leader in solar panel energy production. One reason solar energy production has been so effective in Germany is because it’s carefully integrated with other highly energy-efficient building operation measures. Germany has also explored creative applications of technologies, such as combining solar thermal energy with absorption chillers to create cooling instead of heat. Engineers are now beginning to experiment with this technology here.
Certainly, the conversation runs both ways. Companies across the globe are looking to us for guidance as well. As we take sustainable thought leadership abroad, it’s important to address the practical and cultural variations.
Lima, Peru, has low energy costs and no government or utility incentives to promote conservation; however, many global Fortune 500 companies have adopted organizational green standards and are refusing to locate in facilities that don’t achieve set environmental requirements. This makes market differentiation a primary motivation for commercial property owners in Lima to go green. Lima’s practical conditions of building systems, construction, and maintenance are reversed from the United States: they have very low-cost labor, but materials, components, and systems are expensive.
The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system is seen as an international symbol of quality in China. Similar to Peru, the Chinese are seeking to attract global clientele, and they are using LEED certification to ensure that their sustainable facilities are independently verified.
Building commissioning has gained extensive ground in the United States, but remains a complete unknown in China. Critical to assuring quality control during construction and successful operational performance, building commissioning is another area where our proven experience can provide valuable insights to help China create better facilities.
But even industries known as leaders in their respective fields are curious about our methods. Recently, a French viticulture publication requested information on the energy-efficient and passive strategies of the first LEED Gold-certified winery in the United States so it could describe the eco-design techniques to its audience of 18,000 winemakers.
It’s clear that there’s much to be learned on both sides of the equation. Maintaining an open dialogue across our shores will pool our knowledge and inspire new thought processes to help us address our collective interests. .