As time passes, we as a society have begun to realize the harm done to the long-term health of our natural world by our short-term decisions regarding our built environment and daily practices. It is a reasonable reaction to be skeptical of claims of global warming and other such environmental issues often delivered by overbearing zealots. However, we now have undeniable facts that our industrialized society, without corrected practices, will eventually have unalterable consequences due to wasteful consumption of our natural resources, filling our current and future landfills, altering the natural occurrences of our climate, etc.
For years, our focus has been on finding materials and methods that look good while costing as little as possible, with little regard to lifecycle costs or environmental impact.
Within our world today, we often see our built environment (buildings, roads, infrastructural grids, etc.) to be a native part of life. Obviously, these modern amenities that humans have introduced are becoming a more and more overwhelming part of what defines us. Here are a few facts on the far-reaching influence of the built environment in the U.S alone.
• Buildings annually consume 39 percent of the total energy and 68 percent of the total electricity used in the U.S.
• Each day five billion gallons of potable water are used solely to flush toilets.
• The U.S. is home to 4.5 percent of the world’s population, but is responsible for 15 percent of the world’s consumption of wood.
• In the U.S. we increase developed land area by about 25 percent every 10 years.
• Building-related construction and demolition (C&D) debris totals approximately 136 million tons per year, accounting for 60 percent of the total non-industrial waste generation in the U.S.
According to that last fact, while it is critical to make the recycling of our household disposables a routine part of life, understanding and managing the impact of our buildings is an even more crucial challenge. Plainly stated, the problem necessitates action before further irreversible damage is done.
Sustainable design is a general reaction to global environmental crises, the rapid growth of economic activity and human population, depletion of natural resources and damage to ecosystems. Green building practices (by architects, owners, developers, contractors, etc.) help to sustainably reduce or eliminate negative environmental impacts while reducing the use of non-renewable resources. Not only affecting new construction, these practices can improve existing unsustainable design, construction and facility operations. Owners find that buildings designed using a proven standard for green building, such as LEED, are simply better buildings holistically. A structured approach gives owners assurance that a building has been thoughtfully and thoroughly considered in both design and construction. As an added benefit, green design methods reduce operating costs through lessened energy burden, enhance building marketability and increase worker productivity via improved indoor air quality. To stress the importance of indoor air quality, consider these facts:
• On average, Americans spend about 90 percent or more of their time indoors.
• Indoor levels of pollutants are often five times higher and are occasionally as much as 100 times higher than outdoor levels.
• Many of these pollutants can cause health reactions in those suffering from asthma and allergies, thus contributing to millions of days absent from school and work.
• Sources of indoor air pollution include, but are not limited to, building materials (carpets, paint, plastics, etc.) and furnishings, central heating and cooling systems and household cleaning products.
Architects, interior designers and planners now have many resources for information on successful green building practices. One of these is the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System devised by the U.S. Green Building Council. While other standards exist, LEED is widely considered the benchmark for what defines “green building.” Our media and advertising is saturated with the term “green.” There is even a term for the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly — “greenwashing.” The LEED Rating System helps to boil down what is truly effective in sustainable design, while avoiding commercial influence. In short, buildings designed under this system are given points for achieving various levels of improved energy efficiency, recycled content, material emission levels, etc. In achieving certain point levels, a building is considered to be a definable example of responsible “green building.” While using any method of green building is better than nothing, there is no substitute for involving an experienced team (architect, interior designer, engineers, contractor, etc.) from a building’s infant stages.
Our short-sighted habit of seeking the quickest/cheapest products and services has caught up with us as a society, but fortunately, so has our problem solving abilities. Green design has environmental, economic and social elements that benefit all building stakeholders, including owners, occupants and the general public. While the list of these benefits is lengthy, we need to understand that being responsible with our planet is simply the right thing to do. These principles address the future effects of new development — not just the present day.
Justin Harrington, NCARB, LEED AP, is an architect at The McCarty Company-Design Group, P.A., a full service architecture and interior design firm. Based in Tupelo, the firm focuses primarily on healthcare, institutional, commercial, industrial and educational projects.