Worldwatch Paper #124: A Building Revolution: How Ecology and Health Concerns Are Transforming Construction

March 1995
David Malin Roodman and Nicholas Lenssen
ISBN: 1-878071-25-4
67 pages

The modern buildings we live and work in rival such well-known polluters as cars and manufacturing as sources of harm to the environment, adding greatly to deforestation, the risk of global warming, overuse of water, and acid rain.

A new Worldwatch report, A Building Revolution: How Ecology and Health Concerns Are Transforming Construction, by David Malin Roodman and Nicholas Lenssen, finds that:

  • 55% of the wood cut for non-fuel uses is for construction
  • 40% of the world's materials and energy is used by buildings
  • 30% of newly-built or -renovated buildings suffer from "sick building syndrome," exposing occupants to stale or mold- and chemical-laden air

"As severe as these problems are," says the report, "combinations of ancient techniques and available technologies can eliminate almost all the damage new buildings do--making buildings healthy and reducing utility bills dramatically--while still preserving the amenities people expect."

As an even larger bonus, they create homes and workplaces that are more desirable to live in and more productive to work in. And the high home values and productive offices resulting from "ecological design" are capturing the attention of real estate developers and investors.

Three examples highlight the financial advantages of ecological design:

The 1987 Internationale Nederlanden (ING) Bank headquarters in Amsterdam uses only 10% of the energy of its predecessor and has cut worker absenteeism by 15%. The combined savings equals $3.4 million per year.

Homes in a California subdivision with solar heating and bike paths are now worth 12% more than conventional ones nearby.

An affordable housing development in Texas cut household utility bills by $450 a year by using efficient appliances and solar heating while adding only $13 a month to mortgage payments.

"It is important that innovations like these spread rapidly, because the environmental problems generated by buildings are getting worse worldwide," say Roodman and Lenssen. Builders in developing countries are copying Western, resource-wasting designs in their construction booms. If current trends continue, the number of people living and working in such destructive buildings could increase 4-fold to 8 billion by 2045, putting even more strain on the global environment.

Roodman and Lenssen note that although policy makers and industry leaders have paid little attention to the harm caused by building construction and operation today, the problems are easy and profitable to fix. At the nuts- and-bolts level, there are three ways to make better buildings: exploit natural forces like the sun and wind for heating and cooling, select efficient appliances and climate-control systems, and use better construction materials.

Since half the energy used to make and run buildings goes to heating, cooling, ventilation, and lighting, designs that co-opt natural forces to do the same thing are the biggest way to reduce the environmental impact of new buildings and to save money. Positioning windows to capture sun in winter, along with insulation and airtight construction, can cut heating needs more than 97%. Similar techniques can eliminate air conditioners in hot climates. Simply planting trees near buildings can cut cooling needs up to 30%.

Other essential building features can be made far more efficient. Compared to those sold in the U.S. ten years ago, the best refrigerators on the market today use 35% less energy and no ozone-depleting chemicals, and new toilets and showerheads use half the water. What little energy that efficient buildings use can be collected on site by employing solar water heaters, or roofing tiles or window glazings with built-in solar cells. Rain water can be stored in holding tanks, much like "old-fashioned" cisterns.

The principles of reducing the health and environmental impacts of building materials are equally simple and attainable: use materials that don't emit toxins or require much transportation or processing; use them efficiently; and use ones that are renewable, recyclable, or both.

One environmentally-sound and inexpensive material that lies underfoot at construction sites in many parts of the world is the earth itself. Machine- made, unbaked earthen bricks compete in dollar terms with kiln-fired clay bricks, but their environmental cost is 500 times lower.

The huge gap between potential and reality indicates that the big challenge in changing buildings is changing the building industry. Much like Japanese auto makers decades ago, leading-edge building designers worldwide are discovering today that to create higher-quality products they have to abandon the conventional, compartmentalized design approach in favor of an integrative method that emphasizes communication. And by giving customers more of what they want, these designers are gaining an edge in a competitive industry.

The results of teamwork can be spectacular. To design its new headquarters, the ING Bank brought together engineers, architects, scientists, and future occupants. Considering numerous concerns simultaneously, the group came up with solutions that no one participant could have discovered alone. The result was an efficient, healthy building that saved $3.4 million a year.

Others have recognized the advantages of ecological design:

The largest U.S. architectural and engineering firm is evaluating the environmental and health impacts of all the materials that it specifies.

Most major German cities have shops that sell healthy building materials.

Sweden's largest housing bank announced in early 1995 that it will lend money only for ecological buildings.

The Thai government has commissioned a 25-story office building that will use 80% less energy than others in Bangkok.

To speed the penetration of ecological approaches into the marketplace, governments, educators, and lenders can combine a number of tactics, including strengthening building codes, taking steps to educate professionals and the public, and creating fiscal incentives that reward good building.

Already government and industry groups in many countries have established voluntary systems for rating buildings' environmental and health performance. High marks earned in the United Kingdom's system--now reaching 25% of commer- cial construction there--are being used by real estate agents to promote their properties. A similar system will be launched in the United States in 1995.

"Only a concerted effort from all parties concerned can ensure that people will be able to provide shelter for themselves without jeopardizing the livability of their greater home--the planet," conclude the authors.