Leaders in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry are concerned about the changing climate, regardless of its cause. They’re worried about the challenges construction will face when projects are delayed or job sites are damaged by weather events, the massive task ahead when non-retrofitted buildings fail—and the losses when productivity is reduced by soaring temperatures.

Some experts think architects and builders need to be following two tracks in response to climate change. The most obvious one is to create structures that can survive extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, wildfires and more.

But we should also bear in mind that U.S. buildings—from construction to energy use when inhabited—create about 40 percent of the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions that lead to global warming. So the other track some industry leaders are touting with the news that the world is warming faster than expected is to minimize the “carbon footprint” of new buildings in order to reduce their impact on the planet.

History of green building

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines green building as “the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.”

The government has laid down several green building milestones over the past 20 years. The EPA launched the ENERGY STAR program in 1992. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) was founded in 1993, and established its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program in 1998. The Green Building Workgroup was created in 2003 to establish EPA leadership in the green building movement, and requirements for high-performance, green federal buildings were included in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

By the end of 2009, the LEED program had certified about 2,200 commercial projects, and they’ve gone on to update their certification system, which is now on version 4.1.

There are non-government green building certification systems as well, such as PHIUS+. The product of this approach was originally called a “passive house” but the term “passive building” is now used to indicate that the certification applies to commercial buildings, too. Any residential, commercial or industrial structure can be certified under the PHIUS+ 2018 Passive Building Standard – North America.

How is green building done?

Green building, or high-performance building, means building or enhancing of structures in a way that reduces overall impact on the environment by using energy, water and other resources efficiently.

An energy-efficient building doesn’t have to be a new structure: it could be an existing one retrofitted with new HVAC, mechanical systems and lighting. About 95 percent of buildings in the U.S. are over 10 years old, and four out of five commercial buildings were built before 2000. Meanwhile, about half of the floor space of all buildings in the U.S. is heated by on-site fossil fuel combustion. Therefore, retrofits and renovations will be an integral part of “greening” our built environment.

Construction giant Skanska is one construction company intent on creating buildings that can produce more energy than they consume over a 60-year life cycle. Carbon emissions from the building process are also reduced to a minimum, in part through materials reuse and upcycling.

Skanska is part of a collaboration between companies called Powerhouse that’s dedicated to creating these kinds of buildings—also known as “net zero” buildings, because their energy production equals or surpasses their consumption. The Pixel Building in Australia, for example, removes 524.6 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year, equivalent to taking about 100 cars off the road every year. The building also makes 25.644 megawatts hours of electricity per year, while it only consumes 9.479 MWh.

How affordable is it?

The Passive Housing Institute (PHIUS) claims that it only costs 5 to 10 percent more to build a “passive house”—a house that is designed to strategically circulate air and retain cool and warm air despite the season—than a conventional home.

Other studies have shown that green building is only 2 to 3 percent costlier than conventional building, and yet green buildings use an average of 25 to 30 percent less energy.

And if you’re wondering whether there’s a market for green building, consider this: According to the International Finance Corp., there is a business opportunity of almost $25 trillion associated with green buildings in emerging markets between now and 2030.

A hot issue

A pressing reason for construction to address climate change is rising temperatures, which are likely to affect all contractors, if they aren’t already.

According to BBC News, 2019 was the hottest summer on record for at least 29 countries. More than 30 all-time heat records were broken in the U.S., and 11 people died as a result of heat waves. An Architecture Magazine editorial reports that by 2050, the continental U.S. will experience around 30 days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit—and each of these days reduces outdoor labor by up to 14 percent due to fatigue and illness.

The very real threat of lost revenue may be what it takes to move more contractors in the same direction that Skanska is going—toward smarter building that will help prevent an unworkable and unlivable climate future.