Building ‘greener’ is an admirable goal, but one that many builders and buyers struggle to make happen. Green construction credits, however, have emerged as a solution, replacing the ‘9 steps’ to green building that are too costly, or simply impossible to implement for most new construction projects.
But you may be wondering how can green construction credits achieve the same ecological benefits as the lengthy process that is currently the ‘standard.’
Understanding the Emerging Carbon Marketplace
You may have recently heard about the growing carbon removal marketplace. It’s emerging as a way for businesses and organizations to get environmentally beneficial credits that are designed to remove the carbon emissions the company produces.
And while this sounds great at first glance, the market is currently in a sort of ‘wild west’ phase, with voluntary offsets being both lauded and disparaged, for good reason.
Some people claim carbon credits can help solve the environmental crisis the planet is facing, while others say they’re ineffective in making real change.
The truth is somewhere in the middle… because it all depends on the type of removal system that is used to generate the carbon credit.
For example, forestry offsets widely differ in their approach, but typically offer a good return on the ‘green investment’ as long as they are done correctly. Reforestation, in particular, when it is carried out using native species to repopulate areas that were destroyed (like cleared rainforests), offer a way to make a huge benefit for the planet. By replanting an area (with the same trees that were removed), these projects rebuild the natural ‘carbon sinks’ that exist to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. However, when reforestation is performed using the wrong species, the project can do more harm than good.
Likewise, some forestry credits are claimed by businesses for ‘protecting’ areas from destruction. But, if the area is already protected (like in a National Park), or wasn’t threatened to begin with, the benefits to the planet are imaginary.
So, the carbon removal project being used to generate ‘credits’ has to be effective. That way the positive impact to the planet is both real and measurable. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to check the veracity of some of the best carbon offset programs.
The Green Building Process: Time Consuming, Costly, and Out of Reach for Most
Construction processes are necessary, but when carried out traditionally, they come with a heavy ecological price tag. According to the UN, the construction industry and building sector generate 38 percent of the world’s energy related CO2 emissions, not to mention the resources that are consumed (like lumber and the excavation process).
Currently, there is a method in place to rate a ‘green building,’ outlined within the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. These standards are used worldwide, and are developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).
But, the sad truth is that because almost every construction project is different, and each one presents different and specific challenges to green ideals, achieving full certification is simply out of reach for many new projects.
A generalized list of nine goals (which can also be understood as steps to certification) that have been established by the USGBC involve:
Goal 1: The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
This goal examines the environmental and ecological cost of any given structure from the earliest phases of planning, throughout the entire life of the building, including its societal, operational and maintenance drains on the planet, until it’s demolition.
Although this goal, when conducted thoroughly, delivers a clear evaluation of the impact any building will have, it’s currently not a ‘required’ step, just voluntary. Given the fact that a slew of professionals and a huge price tag is attached to a life cycle assessment, regular use of the tool is lacking.
Goal 2: Design Efficiency of Site And Structure
The concept stage of any new construction project, regardless of scale, plays a key role in how the green the building will be. For example, an environmentally optimized structure has the goal of reducing the overall impact of the building, at every step of the process, from the first shovel full of dirt removed.
The efficiency of the site and the structure is assessed according to location, but also the impact that the building will have on the surrounding area. Considerations include:
- What sort of site preparation will be required? (Will substantial earthworks be needed, or how will water drainage be impacted?)
- Will natural, local materials be used, or will materials be sourced from other locations… and how far away?
- How will the building be accessed? (Will people have to drive 10 miles to access it, or will it be located along a route that is accessed by mass transit options?)
- What resources will be required to make the building functional?
- Will wildlife be disrupted by the new structure?
And these are just the beginning…
Incidentally, research from the U.S. LCI Database Project shows buildings built using mostly wood deliver a lower embodied energy than the ones constructed with brick, concrete, or steel.
Goal 3: Establishing Energy Efficiency
This might seem to be a no-brainer, because according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 20 percent of all US energy related greenhouse gas emissions are generated by powering households, and that doesn’t take into account commercial structures.1 And, according to the UN Environment Program, buildings and construction account for nearly 40 percent of energy related carbon emissions on a global scale. In the U.S. alone, buildings account for 40 percent of all energy consumption.
So naturally, taking steps to reduce energy use is a primary goal of all sustainable green construction.
Fortunately, there has been a number of improvements in the area over the last few years. Scientists are devising new methods to heat and cool structures, and many of those ideas are being inspired by nature and how animals live in trees and the environment. In one instance, a cooling system based on the vents used in African termite mounds is being employed.
But, additional green building methods involve using the newest, most efficient HVAC systems, and also designing buildings so that areas that are not being used are not being climate controlled. Additional reduction practices include:
- Increased insulation in walls, floors, and around windows
- Solar generation additions
- Design orientation that maximizes winter sunlight (for warming) and limits summer heat (for retaining cool temps)
- Onsite renewable energy options
Regardless of the methods used to reduce energy consumption, every structure still requires it, so finding a way to offset the CO2 generated with green construction credits offers a new solution to global energy use. Moreover, many of the reduction methods are costly to implement (for the average builder).
Goal 4. Water Efficiency
Sustainable building and construction considers the overall ecological impact of any new structure, and an important goal is reducing water use and ensuring that water quality are protected both during the work and the life of the building.
Areas of consideration include:
- How much demand will be added to the current water supply system?
- Will the new structure be able to collect, purify and reuse water by employing a dual plumbing system that recycles waste water?
- Will fixtures be installed that reduce fresh water consumption (like low flow faucets and toilets)?
Other considerations include how the structure will divert water run off and whether any impact to the local flora and fauna will be experienced.
Goal 5. Materials Efficiency
LEED certifications outline specific materials that have been designated as sustainable (aka green materials) based on specific criteria, including:
- Lumber harvested from certified forests
- Renewable, fast growing materials like Bamboo
- Recycled stone and metals
- Additional materials that are rated non-toxic, reusable and recyclable
- Specific concrete products
- Recycled industrial goods (from demolished structures)
- Energy certified efficient appliances
Goal 6. Enhanced Indoor Environment (Air Quality)
The LEED System includes five environmental categories, and the Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) category was designed to enhance the happiness, comfort and productivity of the occupants in any structure. The guideline includes indoor air, heat, and lighting quality.
The air quality goals consider how indoor air is circulated and filtered (such as removing microbial contaminants) as well as how fresh air is ventilated indoors, especially related to buildings that house a number of occupancies (like strip malls, and skyscrapers). It also considers materials used that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can have a negative impact on occupants’ well-being.
Additional air quality controls that are considered include moisture accumulation and condensation (which can grow bacteria), both from indoor sources (bathing and cooking areas) as well as outdoor sources, such as improperly sealed window casements and doors. Also, flooring that reduces dust (like wood, vinyl or slate) attains a higher rating than carpet, which traps dust and germs.
Lighting quality goals are determined by how well lighted occupancy areas are (both with natural and artificial light).
All of these factors, as well as how the building is used and how occupants interact, combine to generate the IEQ measurement of any new structure.
Goal 7. Optimized Maintenance and Operations
Regardless of the materials used during construction and the best, most energy design, a building’s operation and maintenance plan also impacts it’s green building status. For example, if a heating and cooling unit delivers greatly reduced energy use, but is never properly serviced and cleaned, the projected savings will evaporate.
Likewise, if broken seals and other design elements are not maintained, the building will cease to have a green rating. To ensure maximum environmental benefits, the USGBC suggests sustainable practices be included in the operations standards.
Goal 8. Waste Reduction Practices
Waste reduction, especially during the construction phase, can have a big impact on a building’s green certification, but also during its operation. The most preferred systems involve reducing waste and reusing anything possible. Recycling is the next best management practice, with treatment and disposal as the least preferred method for disposing of solid waste.
Goal 9. Reduced Electricity Dependency
Reducing the drain on the current electricity grid is another goal of green construction, specifically targeted for electricity. While energy use as a whole is addressed in another area, so many electricity grids rely on coal powered plants, that reducing consumption is a key for sustainable building, especially during peak demands.
With specific designs, peak demand times can be limited, for less impact on the environment and less Co2 generation, but even with energy management systems, renewable technologies, and increased insulation, the electricity used to build and operate a structure is a constant.
How Green Construction Credits Fulfill and Replace LEED Goals
All of the preceding goals are based on reactive strategies. They focus on establishing protocols and standards that are designed to reduce the ecological cost to the planet, which is good, but they aren’t able to erase the impact of new construction completely.
There are no real green buildings unless the entire lifecycle of the structure is covered. And, since people still need some electricity and non-renewable materials, all buildings are associated with a cost to the environment.
But, that’s where green construction credits can step up. By calculating the carbon footprint of any building, construction credits can be purchased based on the specific emissions generated.
Proactive Eco-Options: Holistic (Low Cost) Approach to Green Building
As mentioned above, forestry offsets have the power (when carried out correctly) to eliminate the ecological cost of any building, regardless of it’s use of ‘green design.’ This is accomplished by proactively working to erase the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the construction and operation of any structure, through natural solutions.
Traditional methods (like the design changes and the renewable energy options outlined above) are expensive to implement, and are not in the budget for most new construction buyers.
So, instead of focusing on individual aspects of energy, water, and waste… green construction credits operate from a holistic approach, and make it possible to effectively reduce carbon emissions through reforestation efforts.
If it sounds simple… it’s because it is!
How Reforestation Fits In
Reforestation, when conducted using scientific process to collect and replant native species in areas where natural carbon sinks have been destroyed, helps renew the planet’s natural defenses against excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
One of the reasons CO2 concentrations continue to rise is because rainforest areas and other natural vegetation around the world is being removed, either through deliberate methods (like clear cutting) or through unintentional ones (like unnatural wildfires and weather patterns).
These areas are considered “carbon sinks” because plants, especially certain tree species, both use and store carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere.
Carbon offsets programs that generate green construction credits through reforestation replace those missing natural resources. The new trees store the CO2 generated by any new structure, regardless of it’s LEED rating.
So, essentially, the new forest achieves the same ecological benefits outlined by LEED standards and practices (removing CO2), but it actually goes a step farther for the planet.
Doing More for the Planet’s Health
By rebuilding the forests that were removed, reforestation not only increases the environment’s ability to remove carbon emissions, it delivers replacement habitats for endangered species and other wildlife to flourish.
One example is the jaguar, which is threatened because its habitat has been systematically erased.
When forests are reestablished, animals that have lost their native environment are able to move back in and restore their healthy populations.
So… when green construction credits (that are based on reforestation offsets) are used to eliminate the ecological cost of new construction, both the native species and the world can breathe easier.
1US Energy Information Administration, Monthly energy review-September 2019, (DOE/EIA‐0035[2019/9], US Energy Information Administration, Washington, DC, 2019).