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In the Sustainable Version of the Future, We All Live and Work in Better Buildings

If we want to live in a world where our carbon footprint is sustainable---if we want to live in a habitable world at all---we have to literally build a better future for ourselves and our grandchildren. We have to build better buildings.

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash
Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

As the climate crisis worsens, we’re all trying to do our part to help turn things around. Whether that happens in small ways, like taking reusable bags to the grocery store (and not forgetting them in a pile in the closet!) or larger ones, like ditching the car for a full-time bike commute, there are countless ways we can all chip in.

But building a sustainable future is more than the sum of these individual efforts. If we want to live in a world where our carbon footprint is sustainable—if we want to live in a habitable world at all—we have to literally build a better future for ourselves and our grandchildren. We have to build better buildings.

Green Building Keeps Growing

The green building revolution is well underway, and it’s only growing. Between 2000 and 2016, nearly 80,000 LEED buildings popped up in 162 countries around the world. A report by The US Green Building Council (USGBC) also finds that 57 percent of building owners plan to make most of their projects green by 2021.

“With more and more people demanding and expecting healthier places to live and work, more and more leaders around the globe are committing to green building, which is now a trillion-dollar industry,” says USGBC President and CEO Mahesh Ramanujam.

And this isn’t just for new buildings. Builders and investors worldwide are expected to put more money into green-retrofitting existing buildings over the next few years than they will into building new, green, high-rise residential buildings. Giving your existing building a makeover could be just as impactful as starting from scratch.

Healthier Buildings Support Your Productivity, Mental Health, and Bank Account

As Ramanujam pointed out, people are demanding to live and work in healthy, green spaces. The USGBC report also found that client demand—not environmental regulation—is the leading trigger for builders to go green. We want green spaces, and builders are listening.

People like these spaces because working in a green building feels better. And those good feelings matter. They contribute to an overall sense of wellbeing that has a positive impact on productivity. In fact, one study found that working in a green building can add 38.98 work hours per year, per employee to a company’s productive output because of improvements like reduced absenteeism, and lower rates of stress and depression. What’s good for the environment is good for us, and that in turn is good for business.

While working in green buildings boosts health and productivity, going green at home can save us money on the bills. In Portland, where I live, putting solar panels on a house can save its residents $17,291 over a 20 year period. And in bigger cities like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, that number’s much higher. That’s more than enough to offset the up front costs of installing a solar system in the first place. And needless to say, each gigawatt hour of solar electricity means 690 metric tons of CO2 that never gets created or pumped into the air. So you’ll sleep better, too.

Plant a Tree and Hug a Commissioning Engineer

At the heart of these green buildings, retrofits and redesigns are commissioning engineers. These are the diligent folks who work with the owner as a 3rd party from design all the way to construction closeout or even months into operations, in some cases. The commissioning engineer’s driving goal is to turn over a building that is designed and operated as the owner specified. LEED includes credits for fundamental and enhanced commissioning which give the owner confidence that the building will perform the way the LEED energy model was designed allowing the realization of the energy savings that were promised.

With more efficient lighting, water use, and mechanical systems, your building could be performing at a healthier and more earth-friendly level. Commissioning these systems is one step you can take in the direction of a sustainable future. Because we can’t just make small adjustments here and there. We need to rethink the spaces we move through on a day-to-day basis, and how those spaces impact or support the environment at large.

We all have those days where we forget to bring the reusable grocery bags. It’s maddening, yes, but don’t worry. There are other ways we can pitch in.

We can demand healthier living and working environments. The people that design, build, own and lease the spaces that we move through are listening. Together we’re building a better built environment to support our health, our grandchildren, our economy, and our earth.

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