Over the past two decades that I have worked in the building industry, mainstream attitudes toward sustainability have changed. Though many visionaries and pragmatists alike had the foresight to advocate for net-zero projects, countless others would roll their eyes when asked if construction waste was sorted and recycled, if nontoxic materials were considered, or if energy-code requirements could be exceeded.
Others immediately equated green design with cost premiums. A 2019 study by Built Environment Plus (BEP) found that zero-energy buildings in Massachusetts, where BEP is based, could be built with “virtually no upfront costs,” while existing office buildings retrofitted to zero energy could expect an ROI of five to six years. Earlier studies conducted in the 2000s, before ESG goals and IoT were commonplace, found premiums on first cost to range between zero and about 7%. With operational savings in energy and water consumption, rent premiums due to increased tenant interest, and vacancy reductions, that additional investment could quickly translate into savings.
Programs such as EnergyStar, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program, the International WELL Building Institute’s WELL certification, and the International Living Future Institute’s Living Future challenges offer additional bragging rights.
Beyond the numbers game, people ideally would feel a moral obligation to lighten their footprint on Earth. You can comb through reams of peer-reviewed studies to track our express train to irreversible climate change. You can also take note of the significant increases in extreme weather events, sea levels, and unchecked wildfires that may be happening right outside your door, or those of your relatives and friends—and certainly those of your fellow humans.
But climate action won’t happen if we spend our days wallowing in statistics. Climate action will happen by taking action. At the time of publication, more than 40 cities have required energy benchmarking for public and commercial buildings. In this issue’s cover story, “Decarbonizing New York: 3 paths to success in the city,” writer Gideon Fink Shapiro examines how owners and designers are leveraging passive and active technologies to reduce their environmental impact in the city whose buildings emit the most total carbon in the country.
By incorporating solutions readily available today, the building community can take meaningful steps to improve the performance of their portfolio and the well-being of their end users. At this point in the game, we need every tool we have, from smart planning, design, and construction to smart operations and technologies.