The Benefits and Barriers of Building Green
Written by Kiara
“Going green” is one of the most laudable goals of our modern age; we must hit net carbon emissions of zero as quickly as possible. One way we can try to reach this goal is by building green.
There are a lot of different ways to build green, and a number of potential meanings behind the phrase “building green”. Here, we take “building green” to mean “building in a manner which drastically reduces carbon consumption over time, as compared to traditional building design” Building green translates into, ultimately, building energy efficient buildings that save on financial costs while protecting the environment.
Optimally, building construction would be a carbon neutral process from start to finish. The need for concrete and heavy machinery in many construction projects, however, limits our ability to create completely carbon free structures. As such, we must set our lofty aims a bit lower - carbon neutral or carbon negative projects are the more attainable goals, meaning that the initial carbon cost of building is offset by renewable energy generation.
Our focus in this piece lies in a particular area of expertise - using heavy insulation, coupled with ventilators, in order to drastically reduce (or totally eliminate) the need for traditional HVAC. Cooling and heating are the primary energy costs for buildings around the world. When coupled with renewable energy sources, like solar, wind, and geothermal, it is possible to create carbon negative buildings.
The benefits of building green
Reduced carbon emissions
The most obvious benefit to building green is that it reduces carbon emissions. Building operations contribute a staggering 28% of global carbon emissions. If building operations were completely carbon neutral - or better yet, carbon negative - we could make substantial progress toward averting climate disaster.
This is, by no means, a pipe dream. Optimally, all new buildings can be designed to promote energy efficiency. And even old buildings can be retrofitted with insulation, ventilation, and renewable energy sources in order to seriously limit (or even eliminate) their operational emissions.
Best of all, when buildings are carbon negative, they effectively reduce the carbon emissions of their neighbors. This is, in large part, because of green contributions to the electrical grid from their renewable sources - we’ll discuss this feature in more detail shortly.
Reduced overhead costs
Electricity, heating, and cooling are all very expensive. When buildings are heavily insulated, traditional heating and cooling methods can be replaced with novel technologies - heat and energy recovery ventilation, coupled with heat pumps, can drastically lower a building’s overhead costs.
When those technologies are integrated with renewable energy generation, large-scale operations can actually make money by selling electricity back to the grid. This, however, is dependent on the willingness of institutions to buy that energy - two barriers we’ll address in the next section.
A more reliable (and greener) electrical grid
Green buildings will often generate more electricity than they can use. If most buildings in a particular area are carbon negative, the electrical grid becomes much more reliable. A diversity of energy sources is preferable for these purposes - solar for days that aren’t windy, wind generation for when it’s dark out, and geothermal generation for consistent reliability.
When coupled with traditional power generation (preferably from sources like hydroelectricity rather than coal), there is massive redundancy in the grid. This redundancy means that a failure in any one section of the grid is easily compensated for by the large amount of green, power-generating buildings.
If this seems utopian, remember: utopia means no place. This is not a utopia in the traditional sense because it’s absolutely attainable. With appropriate incentives, we can live in a world like this.
The barriers to building green
Higher upfront costs
Reduced overhead costs, when coupled with appropriate mechanisms to pay for power generation, can more than make up for the extra costs associated with building green. But there’s no getting around it - the initial costs of building green are higher.
This is a problem that will slowly solve itself. As more businesses and homeowners opt to build green, demand for green building materials and technology will increase. This will increase the scale at which these technologies are manufactured, and newer, more cost-effective methods of building these technologies will be developed.
We’ve already seen evidence of this with solar panels, which are now the least expensive form of power generation on the planet. Demand soared, manufacturing soared, and now solar arrays are inexpensive.
Of course, government incentives will be a huge boon when it comes to reducing upfront costs, and we hope that more governments will see the long-term value of green technologies.
Lack of knowledge
The second problem exists at both the commercial and residential levels - people simply don’t know that they can build green. While standards like Passivehouse and LEED have existed for decades, it’s rare to find someone who knows what these standards mean. If you don’t know that you can build green, you’ll default to traditional construction.
Part of the goal of this site, and the network of green activists around the planet, is to raise awareness of green practices. And while things, like recycling, have caught on, green building remains misunderstood and underutilized. Governments, construction companies, green activists, and other stakeholders should be yelling about green buildings from the mountaintops.
Lack of consistent government/utility incentives
This is perhaps the biggest barrier to green building - a lack of unified political will. Incentives are spread across federal, regional, and municipal levels. As different political powers take office, incentives can change rapidly. Some incentives are also handled by private utilities, whose whims can change as quickly as their boards of directors.
The lack of consistency in incentives is what Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber would call a “wicked problem” - there’s no obvious solution, and any attempt to solve the problem leads to new, equally complicated problems.
Our focus as activists, then, should be on informing the general public and businesses about the benefits of green building, and to inform politicians and utilities, continuously, about these same benefits. We must believe that the obvious incentives of building green speak for themselves, and that our efforts to keep everyone informed will greatly help create a healthier life for all.
Kiara is a part of the marketing team at Quik-Therm Insulation, a Canadian owned and operated development and design insulation technology company. Quik-Therm’s philosophy and passion is to create physics-based building envelope solutions that are environmentally responsible, require fewer components, install faster, and cost less.
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