The 2 Other Ways in which Buildings Affect the Environment

The 2 Other Ways in which Buildings Affect the Environment

couple of weeks ago, I took part in a free online course entitled “Greening the Economy: Sustainable Cities by the University of Lund. Along with reminding me of the worrying current state of the environment the course introduced me to a new concept, Urban Sustainable Transformation. This highlights the fact that urban areas are hot spots for driving environmental change at multiple scales. Basically, there are certain demographic, environmental and economic changes happening in cities that call for a holistic and fundamental urban transformation towards sustainability.

50% of the world’s population now lives in urban environments and that figure is going to grow to 70% by the year 2050. The contribution to global greenhouse gas production from cities is estimated at 75%, even though they occupy only around 2% of the global land area. (1)

The mistake that people often make is in thinking that challenge is purely technological, that by investing more in sustainable/renewable energy or sustainable buildings the issue will be resolved. Whereas, in truth, the challenge is as much on the social and economic fronts as well as the technological.

However, when you consider the figures that you see in the image below, the built environment undoubtedly has a substantial impact on our planet. Seeing as we are developing a product that aims to shake up the construction sector, this seems like a good place to start.

The construction of buildings can be separated into three overarching life-cycle phases: Design/construct, use and end of life.

Design/construct involves everything from the conception of the project to the end of the construction process and involves a large group of different players collaborating towards the collective goal of building something. It is in this phase that the biggest impact on the overall environmental impact of the building can be achieved. All aspects of the building’s forthcoming environmental performance must be determined and designed during this phase. In other words, the biggest energy savings are realized before the building is even built.

It is important to note that when I talk about environmental performance I not only mean the physical effects to the atmosphere. Also the living conditions and the overall impact of the building to those in the area are important variables. As well as impacting the physical environment, an efficient building can stimulate the economy and can help trigger a positive social impact not only to those that live within but also too those who live around it.

1. Economic change brought about by building efficiently.

Given the large role that buildings play in the urban economy, building efficiency can enhance and create new job opportunities, improve local competitiveness through energy productivity, and strengthen a city’s economic and climate resilience. Efficient buildings can also show improved financial performance, as a result of rental or sales premiums that such buildings can command, as well as through higher occupancy rates. The 2015 Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB) study, covering 61,000 buildings mainly in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia, found that a higher sustainability ranking correlates to superior financial performance in terms of both return on assets and return on equity.

Efficiency as a Driver for Job Creation
The growing concern with the environment is leading to a surge in energy efficient buildings and is hence stimulating the creation of new jobs. For example, studies of the European market estimate that raising building efficiency requirements to achieve a 27% increase in energy efficiency in Europe by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels) would result in 2 million new jobs. (2)

Improved energy productivity
Energy productivity is how effectively energy resources are used per unit of economic product, measured in energy consumption per unit of GDP. Doubling the global rate of energy productivity has the potential to reduce global fossil fuel use by more US$2 trillion by 2030 and would create 6 million jobs by 2020. (3) Residential and commercial buildings make up around 34% of the total opportunity to improve energy productivity. The building sector has the largest unrealised potential for cost-effective emissions savings.See image below.

Improve energy resilience and security
The reduced energy demand of efficient buildings means that the impact of an energy disruption is lessened. Extreme weather conditions can affect buildings because of increased exposure to hot and cold temperatures or changes in access and availability of energy and water. Prolonged disruptions cause significant detrimental economic and humanitarian impacts. Keeping indoor conditions habitable during energy disruptions is key.

2. Social Development as a result of Building Efficiently

Building efficiently leads to an increase in access and affordability of energy for poor residents of cities. Access to energy means access to many basic services such as education, clean water and quality medical care. Inadequate energy supply or provision can threaten economic development and social well-being.

1.2 Billion people lack access to electricity, 20% of those people live in urban areas meaning that a substantial amount of people in cities suffer from unreliable, unsafe or expensive energy supplies. (4) Poor housing quality can force households to choose between adequate energy services and other essentials.

Efficient buildings can help increase energy access and reduce energy poverty for low-income residents, leading to improved health, productivity, and comfort. Occupants of energy-efficient homes are likely to spend less money on lighting, heating, or cooling, resulting in more spending power for purchase of food and other essential items.

In countries such as Brazil, China and India, a rapid increase in energy demand is outpacing the costly expansion of energy supply. Providing access to affordable efficient lighting appliances and weatherisation services could be a policy tool to help stimulate the inhabitants themselves to increase accessibility.

Globally, buildings are responsible for nearly 40 percent of energy use (including 60 percent of electricity use), 12 percent of water use, 40 percent of waste generated (by volume), and 40 percent of material resource use. In cities, buildings occupy 50 percent or more of the land area. (5) Also considering that buildings have the longest lifespan of any energy consuming equipment or infrastructure it is clear that the role of buildings towards a sustainable future is hugely important.

By prolonging the useful life of a building we reduce the amount of energy required to maintain the building as the years go by. A building designed to last 100 years is made of more durable materials that require less maintenance. Without question, this would most likely lead to an over-investment of funds for the building in question. However, we are currently headed towards the point where buildings are becoming energy neutral in use. I am curious as to how the energy embodied in the materials used will affect investments in the future.

With careful consideration and attention to the things that matter, buildings can turn from being huge contributors to the problems of unsustainable resource use and inadequate urban services to a large part of the solution. Considering that we spend around 90% of our lives indoors I think that it would be time well spent.


For those interested in the free course I followed, check it out here

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