Sustainability conversations have been prevalent for many years in the construction industry, and with the health concerns generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are now an abundance of conversations that focus on green construction and the health of building occupants.
First, what is “green construction” – and why does it matter? The US Green Building Council defines green construction as “a holistic concept that starts with the understanding that the built environment can have profound effects, both positive and negative, on the natural environment, as well as on the people who inhabit buildings every day.” Simply put, “green construction” is an effort to infuse sustainability into the building process from the ground up and then creating structures that promote a healthy environment – both inside and out.
Recent reports show that green construction practices are definitely influencing how buildings are being designed and constructed. Much of this change is being driven by customer demand. The cost to invest in energy efficiencies and other sustainable measures can be daunting, but there is data to support that an investment in energy-efficient buildings can pay off over time. No question this is an effort that requires a long-term perspective rather than a short-term point of view.
According to Elissa Looney, Director of Strategic Initiatives and the founder of our Special Projects Group, “Constructing sustainable buildings requires a partnership with both owners and tenants in terms of saving energy, using less water, and the many other elements that go along with sustainable development and living.” So how is green construction showing up in the industry?
Below are a couple of the most recognizable sustainability standards that builders, architects, engineers, developers, and other players in the industry are paying attention to.
The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system is the most widely known and most commonly used system in the industry. It was originally formulated by the US Green Building Council to evaluate the environmental performance of buildings in an effort to follow a vision of “buildings and communities that will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation.” More specifically, the organization has a mission to “transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built, and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life.”
LEED projects demonstrate how this focus on the “whole building process” produce benefits for clients, users of the building, and communities at large. Projects are able to gain LEED Certification or “credits” in nine potential categories. Credits are awarded for how integrative and collaborative the building process is, if attention is paid to public transportation and reduced parking needs, how efficiently materials and resources are used, what mechanisms and systems are set up to increase water use efficiencies, and whether energy efficiencies with a focus on renewable energy are implemented. In addition, LEED credits are awarded for keeping a focus on maintaining open spaces and protecting natural habitat, building structures that minimize or eliminate harmful chemicals for users of the building as well as providing access to fresh air and natural light, how innovative the project is, and whether the project qualifies as an “important project” to the region it’s in.
The Living Building Challenge
The Living Building Challenge is one of the most rigorous sustainability standards in the construction industry. The focus is on “making the world a better place” by literally challenging builders, architects, engineers, and developers to create buildings that are entirely self-sufficient from a resource standpoint and “regenerative” in the sense of connecting occupants with light, air, food, nature, and community.
Perlo recently partnered with Mahlum Architects on a project that received a Living Building Challenge certification, one of the first of these certifications to be awarded in Oregon. Specifically, Perlo helped Mahlum earn the “materials petal,” the part of the challenge that demonstrates a low-carbon and low-impact footprint in terms of sourcing building materials. The Perlo/Mahlum team carefully vetted over 350 products and materials to ensure all of them met the health and green standards the Living Building Challenge requires. In addition, Perlo enforced the processes necessary to recycle almost 95% of waste materials generated onsite during construction.
According to Jeff Hankins who served as the Senior Project Manager on the project, “It was important to Mahlum to actually ‘walk the walk’ and really demonstrate that they stand behind green construction. It was an exhaustive process that included a lot of research, especially for the products that don’t come with a ‘declare label’ that clearly states what the product is made of.”
“In the long run,” Hankins continues, “I think that the industry in general is moving towards healthier materials and more sustainable ways of building. It’s just where the market seems to be headed, especially as states like California, Oregon and Washington continue to tighten their building codes.” Programs like the Living Building Challenge will certainly aid in expediting the process of incorporating more sustainable practices into building projects.
Healthier Indoors and the IMMUNE Building Standard
The green construction movement has also put a spotlight on the importance of healthier indoor spaces for employees and occupants. As Elissa Looney shares, “Things like lighting and windows that open into courtyards and other visually pleasing spaces can make a huge difference for workers’ well-being and wellness. And fortunately, this trend goes hand in hand with lower energy consumption.”
Additionally, as employees grapple with the work-from-home movement and creating spaces that people feel safe occupying, there is now more emphasis than ever on clean buildings that prevent the spread of disease.
The Healthy by Design Buildings Institute (HDBI) is certifying buildings with The IMMUNE Building Standard. “Designed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this unique, global standard is inspired by advanced technologies and procedures successfully used in medical institutions and research facilities and adapted for use in commercial real estate.”
This three-tiered program works to boost health performance indicators for the spaces we occupy, encouraging health and wellness for employees and employers.
The decision about whether to include “green” or sustainable building practices into a project is ultimately one the client makes. “For every project we do,” shares Todd Duwe, Vice President of Business Development at Perlo, “we like to spend time up front with clients to help them understand their options, what those options will cost, and how that investment may pay off both in terms of impact on the planet and impact on people in the building.”
It will be exciting to see how green construction and the push for healthier environemnts evolves over the next several years, especially as demand continues to grow and as our world navigates the inevitable challenges that lie ahead.
If more sustainable practices are of interest to you on your next building project, we encourage you to speak with our estimating teams about the options available and potential cost impacts to your project.