The green building movement that began in the 1970s is making tremendous strides in sustainability and efficiency practices in buildings across the world. But as people begin to understand the impact of office environments on our mental, emotional and physical health, the “wellness” of buildings — and their occupants — is becoming just as important as minimizing their impact on the environment.
The next logical step in the green building movement, The Healthy Building Movement, looks beyond the buildings themselves and toward the symbiotic relationship between sustainability and occupant wellness. While green certification standards got us to this point, this new way of thinking is driving changes in behaviors and certifications. This new thinking is also changing who is at the table early in the process. For example, HR becomes critical when an organization embarks on a “healthy building” certification.
Some estimates say that commercial and residential buildings draw up to half of all energy consumed in the U.S. Zero energy buildings work to reduce that level of usage.
We’re talking about “an energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
In other words, a zero-energy building is one that produces as much energy as it uses. These buildings are still connected to the grid, but only draw energy from the grid at night or on cloudy days. Otherwise, they’re supplying power to the grid, usually via solar panels, effectively zeroing out their energy draw.
The U.S. Dept. of Energy worked hard to create a common understanding of metrics and boundaries for zero energy buildings, helping everyone work toward a common goal. In 2018, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) announced a new green certification called LEED Zero, which “rewards net-zero carbon, energy, water, or waste.” Buildings must first be LEED-certified to achieve LEED Zero status.
As we continue to experience these fundamental shifts — and climate change continues to make a dramatic impact — it will be important to know which programs and certifications best advance sustainability and wellness goals.
Zero-energy buildings, equitability and continuous monitoring are just some new areas of focus. But since this is the first of a three-part series, let’s start at the beginning.
High Performance Green Building Certifications
These days, a number of green building certifications and programs exist, each with its own focus area and sustainability goals. Environmental impact is just one piece of the puzzle. Air quality, humidity, ventilation and temperature are also important parts of this evolving challenge. It’s not just about energy savings and cost reductions anymore – it’s also about occupant wellness and how these impact the other. Let’s examine the most exciting green certifications available today.
Buildings are not eligible for a ZEB certification until it’s been documented and demonstrated a zero energy performance for one year.This information must be confirmed through a 3rd party audit. Certification may sacrifice wellness or comfort for efficiency.
Short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, LEED certification is the most well-recognized green certification program in the world. Since its inception in 1993, LEED has grown from a single standard for new construction to a comprehensive system for new construction and building maintenance.
Employees in LEED-certified buildings report being happier, healthier and more productive. LEED has seen more than 80,000 projects across 160+ countries participate in their programs and serves as the standard for new programs.
Initially, WELL focused on commercial buildings, but has recently moved into residential certification. Going beyond the standards of sustainability and efficiency, WELL is “focused exclusively on the ways that buildings, and everything in them, can improve our comfort, drive better choices, and generally enhance, not compromise, our health and wellness.”
Launched in 2014, WELL is now more well-known than ever, certifying more than 1,100 building in 40+ countries.
The Green Building Council of Australia launched the the Green Star rating system in 2003. A voluntary system, Green Star is designed to assess the sustainability of community and building design, encouraging recycling of demolition and construction waste, reductions in water consumption and ongoing evaluation of efficiency.
Starting in 2009, GRESB is controlled by Green Business Certification Inc. to “assess the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) performance of real estate and infrastructure portfolios and assets worldwide.”
With a focus on sustainability, GRESB has evaluated “903 real estate funds and property companies, 75 infrastructure funds, 280 infrastructure assets and 25 debt portfolios.”
While certification programs have had dramatic, positive and important effects, they’re still not enough. The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) says that net-zero energy buildings may not be 100% achievable in some instances, saying “buildings that are energy efficient, and supply energy needs from renewable sources (on-site and/or off-site) is a more appropriate target for the mass scale required to achieve Paris Agreement levels of global emission reductions.”
Regardless, the certification programs mentioned here are just a handful of programs available worldwide, indicating a growing preference for sustainable and thoughtful building development. It’s clear that green certifications add value to properties and encourage desirable features that occupants want more and more.
We’ll take a closer look at the benefits of green certification in part two of this series.
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