The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) are the present-day framework for sustainability in our society. These goals have evolved over time, and trace their roots back to the early environmental movement in the 1960s.
Following decades of over-industrialisation, major pollution incidents (such as Love Canal), and the impact of DDT pesticides on biodiversity, environmental issues became important to the general public.
The United Nations held a series of conferences leading to the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987 – Our Common Future. This report recognised that human activities had a negative impact on our environment. Crucially, it linked poverty reduction, gender equality and the importance of setting limits to economic growth of industrialisation to environmental conservation. The concept of sustainable development was born – balancing ecology, economy and social equity.
Sustainability and green buildings
Buildings, through their construction and use, contribute to almost 40% of world greenhouse gas emissions. As the environmental movement developed, architects and ecologists started to think in a different way. They saw that buildings should be less reliant on fossil fuels, more connected to nature, and fit with the surrounding environment.
Traditional green building design is one element of a holistic sustainability approach. They can create a positive influence on our climate and the natural environment. Today, the green building concept has evolved to include more holistic sustainability elements such as Green healthy buildings. Buildings are generally designed for people. Healthy, comfortable buildings for people to work in improves well-being, morale, employee retention and productivity. Concepts such as biophilic design are not just good for the environment, but improve the quality of life for the building users. One of the greatest costs of building operation for a company is not only energy consumption, but also the salary of its occupants. Therefore, green healthy buildings are in increasing demand and not just a slogan.
To understand the emerging importance of sustainable buildings, let’s take a look at some of the trends, themes and drivers for their demand.
Sustainable, energy efficient buildings can buffer the trend of rising energy prices. Buildings with can use on site renewable energy such as photovoltaics and heat pump technology can further insulate against rising energy costs and decarbonise business operations.
The 2015 UN Paris Climate Change Conference, COP 21, focused attention on the global need for governments and the business community to set carbon reduction targets for Scope 1, 2 and 3 greenhouse gas emissions and achieve a net zero carbon society by 2050. [Scope 1 covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources. Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company. Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur across a company’s value chain.]
So how will green buildings contribute to this goal? Building energy consumption represents the vast majority of Scope 1 & 2 emissions. Green, energy-efficient buildings, with access to renewable energy generation or purchase agreements allow organisations to set Scope 1 and 2 reduction targets, meet corporate sustainability goals, including their science-based reduction targets, and contribute towards the net-zero goal.
Scope 3 Emissions
The global net-zero target also includes Scope 3 emissions. This category can represent over 80% of an organisation’s carbon footprint. Green-building design considers location of the building and the promotion of sustainable transport, which can facilitate lower carbon emissions associated with employee commuting, a significant Scope 3 emission source.
Another element to a buildings carbon emission is its embodied carbon – the carbon emission associated with its building materials, equipment, fixtures etc. Green-building design often considers the use of low-carbon materials. Life-cycle assessment of materials, reuse of buildings and materials (circular economy) are key green-building design concepts.
Green Building Certification
Synonymous with green building design is third party certification standards such as BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environment Assessment Method); LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficiency Design) or Passiv Haus, for example. These schemes provide independent verification that buildings are designed, constructed and commissioned to an international green-building standard. Demand for certified buildings is growing as they set minimum standards for sustainability performance and hence assist companies is achieving their corporate sustainability goals.
Health & Well Being
As outlined earlier, green buildings have evolved to promote healthy, well-being spaces for building users. Attractive, comfortable workspaces are increasingly a key selection criterion for a new generation of potential employees. The current global competition for talent acquisition makes green buildings a desirable place to work. This has seen an emerging demand for buildings certified to the Well Standard, especially from North America-centric corporates.
A range of voluntary sustainability-reporting frameworks (e.g. CDP, EcoVadis; SASB GRI etc.) are used by investors and the value chain to evaluate the sustainability performance of an organisation.
The global drive for Net Zero by governments and business’ is focusing attention on supply chain emissions. Becoming a preferred supplier, now often means having evidence of a carbon reduction strategy for your business. Green buildings can help reduce a company’s Scope 1 & 2 emissions and be a lower carbon supplier.
The forthcoming EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) – mandatory for large companies – will bring even greater focus in this area.
Green buildings are no longer an architectural-nice-to-have. They are becoming key infrastructure for the built environment to;
- reduce reputation risks and demonstrate an organisation’s commitment to Net-Zero goals
- Future-proof firms against increasing energy costs
- Provide healthy work-spaces for building users
Green buildings must become the de facto design approach if we are to achieve the society goal of Net-Zero emissions by 2050.