Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Green Buildings 2.0

The green building movement has been shaping our built environment for a decade and a half, and there can be no doubt that it has been a commercial and marketing success. Recent reports from Australia indicate property value premiums of as much as 12% and rental premium of 5% for Green Star certified buildings in Australia. This is consistent with much of the research emerging from the USA over the last decade.

However the commercial success of Green Star must beg the question on its environmental performance: if we filled our cities with Green Star or LEED certified buildings, would we be a significant step closer to addressing the major sustainable development challenges that face our country, our continent and our planet? A list which includes, but is not limited to poverty alleviation, health, education, social justice, ecological health, food security and climate change adaptation. And I'm afraid that at this point, the answer to that question must be no.

The framing question for modern green buildings has been "how can we reward the design and construction of buildings that have a smaller impact on the natural environment?" This question has led us down the current path of green building rating tools such as LEED and Green Star; tools which have started with a broad assessment of the environmental impacts of buildings and then rewarded discrete improvements in efficiency and process. This has allowed relatively straightforward decision-making around "green" initiatives, but has not been able to reward the resilience of complex systems that do not fit the mould of individual credits.

The question of simply reducing impact is not sufficient to deliver the sustainable cities on which our continued prosperity depends. Modern green buildings have typically improved their resource efficiency, resulting in lower stresses on city infrastructure, but without making significant contributions to sustainable cities. No longer is it sufficient to design buildings which look inward and seek to be "less bad" (as Cradle to Cradle author Bill McDonough has termed them). Rather we need to reframe our approach and ask: What kind of buildings do our future cities need? I believe this question could frame the development of Green Buildings 2.0.

Without the context of functional cities (ecologically, socially and economically), modern green buildings are unlikely to deliver the sustainable urban spaces that we pictured when first imagining green buildings. Similarly, if we rely on precinct tools which ask the same questions as building tools, just at a bigger scale, we will never see our existing cities transformed. We must accept that our cities are primarily made up of privately held plots and buildings, each separate, yet with a profound effect on the common urban landscape and functionality. We cannot look at buildings with impermeable boundaries any more, we must consider the spaces in between. To see our picture made real, we need to reward buildings for providing the spaces and services that our cities need beyond their immediate boundaries.

Primarily, we need buildings that are multifunctional. They must meet their primary function of providing places to work, trade, live and play. However, further to that our buildings must have secondary roles of providing decentralised services to our cities (water, power and waste services); and tertiary functions relating to the creation of excellent public space, enhanced opportunities for education and fostering of urban ecosystems.

On the topic of resource efficiency, it is not sufficient for buildings to simply reduce resource intensity or tie into existing green infrastructure. We should reward buildings that provide basic services (clean energy, waste treatment, clean water, nutrition) to their neighbourhoods, cities or villages. We must have tools for rewarding restorative buildings, and stop rewarding variations on the status quo.

Buildings that are premised purely on economic return in the private sector are typically poor at creating exceptional urban spaces. We must reward buildings that provide public services to their communities. These could include health services through the integration of clinics with retail, public amenities and education through both the construction and operation processes. Buildings should empower women in their function through the provision of child-care facilities and minorities in their expression of culture. When we recognise leadership in the development of our urban spaces, these are some of the things we could consider...

It is insufficient for buildings to act simply as investments for large funds, premised on the current global financial indicators. Buildings are too big a part of our lives to only provide prosperity to a single sector. We should reward "green" buildings that are economically functional across a range of city sectors, considering job creation, poverty alleviation and micro-business.

Finally, buildings that are only functional are not sufficient for our cities. We must reward buildings that are a delight for residents and visitors alike. We must reward decision-making that is based on the place-making potential of our buildings, and not just their revenue-generating potential.

So, how to move forward... Are our existing tools too far gone, requiring an alternative; a green building revolution? Or can we take our existing tools and re-imagine them to be more relevant to sustainable cities - a green building evolution? Being of Darwinian persuasion, I feel that evolution is the most appropriate way to go. It would allow us to stand on the shoulders of giants (for in their time, our present tools were indeed giants to an industry without even a starting point for sustainable development) while maintaining the industry legitimacy of the current establishment.

I intend to explore how this might work in more detail in future posts, but my framework that could allow us to both simplify and broaden building assessments follows.

1. Start with the status quo - categories of environmental impact (energy, water, construction management, materials, emissions, transport, IEQ, land use) as these remain key areas for contribution instead of simple mitigation.

2. Add to them key missing links, including, but not limited to:

   Biodiversity and eco-system services
   Public amenity
   Broad economic activity
   Social services

3. Instead of looking down and in, look up and out. Instead of devolving into credits, describe broad performance criteria which will enable sustainable cities. Create benchmarks of contribution to the city, not benchmarks of reduced impact on the environment.

One of the cornerstones of such a strategy is to move away from rewarding specific initiatives and instead reward the broad contribution to our cities. A good starting point for the style and format would be the Living Building Challenge (LBC 2.0) by the Cascadia GBC; however the content would be informed more by sustainable urban design and broad systems thinking than living within the natural footprint of the building.

My hope is that we can move away from line by line checklists, which are only able to reward incremental improvements in the efficiency of our buildings; and towards a system able to reward design which is cognisant of- and makes a contribution to- the real, complex, messy systems which are our cities.

For only once they are able bridge the areas between our buildings, will green certification tools be much use in delivering sustainable cities of the future. 


  1. What do you think of the GBCA's communities tool? It seems to cover off many more of these areas.

  2. I haven't looked at it in detail yet. Is it a tool for master planned precincts only, or does it apply to existing city centres with multiple land ownership profiles?

    One challenge with precinct tools is that not much development (as a proportion) is in a situation whe one party has design control of a whole precinct. That's why I think we need to start designing tools which look outward at the contribution to wider systems, rather than controlling what happens within the system being designed.

    This would apply to precincts as well as buildings. It's basically a systems synthesis approach instead of an analytical approach.

  3. Richard, fully agree with you.

    "Green" is a part of the sustainable building approach but not the whole as some see it now. It is a crucial initial step towards a sustainable future in buildings, so the Green Building/LEED tools have a place and a purpose but soon they should be the "standard practice" which I would guess was their initial goal (4 Star is now relatively common (in RSA); 5 star will be in the next 18 to 24 months and 6 star will be there to push the boundaries as far as possible in terms of Green). But the time is here for the green pioneers to move away from the point-garthering checklists and push the full 360 degree sustainable mind-shift that is required for truly sustainable developments and I really look forward to your further updates!

    PS Not sure if you have seen this Sustainablity 2.0 document from Incite Consultants in Cape Town http://www.incite.co.za/2011/09/27/sustainability-2-0/
    Interesting stuff....