With better technology, building green starts on the inside – where the people are.
Originally published in Licensed Architect, A Publication of the Association of Licensed Architects
As Vince Lombardi said, “If you’re not keeping score, you’re practicing.” So, if you’re an owner who’s building green, it helps to have a reputable score card. Then you wonder if it’s worth the time and expense of chasing certification compared to the other sustainable things you could do with the money. But without a LEED plaque on the wall, will your employees or tenants believe you did what you said?
The most widely used green building rating system in the world, LEED, was introduced twenty years ago. Rather than continuing to grow, the number of LEED projects going through with certification has plateaued. Getting LEED is no longer newsworthy, and many employees are more vested in their day-to-day than big-picture environmental sustainability. The great exception is attracting and retaining young employees or tenants. They demand proof you care about them personally and the planet generally.
LEED is one scorecard among many. Other certification systems may reflect your goals more precisely and at less cost. Things like Green Globes©, the web enabled tool from the Green Building Initiative, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s fitwel™. They’re considered “business-friendly” compared to LEED, though less well known.
All certification is a placebo if everyone isn’t onboard early. The best place to start is an early examination of the values of the people who will inhabit the finished project. Like everything, it’s what’s and who’s inside that counts.
Jerry Yudelson, author of Reinventing Green Building says we need to go all the way back and retool architectural school to get it right. “Architectural students aren’t given any psychology courses or input from health professionals or social scientists,” says Yudelson. “When they join a firm, they wonder why people aren’t happy and don’t operate the buildings the way they designed them.”
Since the insides are really where the action is, should we work harder to keep existing buildings working? Many believe the greenest building is one you don’t build. “There are a lot of bad buildings out there,” argues Yudelson. “Most buildings aren’t classics, especially those thrown up in the mid to late 20th century.” He notes the costly labor of love to modernize the Empire State building isn’t likely to be undertaken for a cheaply made box with lousy windows, bad materials and no human-centered design. His research indicates the cost to refurbish these are not worth it if you’re just worried about embodied energy.
Some studies, however, show it can take up to 80 years for the embodied energy of a building to equal the operational energy. But it’s hard to measure. The U.S. Department of Energy notes, “Due to the complexity of calculations and the wide range of production methods, transportation distances and other variables for some building products, exact figures for embodied energy vary from study to study.”
But maybe none of that matters. New technology could make all existing buildings—glorious, ugly and in between—more viable and desirable to keep around. “Whether we’re talking conservation or design,” agrees Yudelson. “Less is more.”
Recently the Greater Atlanta Christian School faced a $20 million bill to tear down a 1980s cinderblock building to create a proper performing arts facility on their campus. They envisioned an Oxford university-feel. Time, disruption, safety issues, cost of demolition and rebuilding, all made the school leaders look for a way to avoid tearing down and building new.
Brett Harte is the project manager for the school. He knew the existing building couldn’t physically support the heavy timbers of Old England. “Our initial design was using light-gauge metal studs. Framing and wrapping them with a material that looked like wood.”
The project team recently finished renovating the school’s interiors using digital construction. Everyone was interested when they heard DIRTT was launching a timber division.
Data-rich virtual reality is used to design and manufacture the timber and walls. “It's all fabricated off-site,” explains Harte. “Everything is cut and dovetailed in together so it all fits.” The performing arts center now looks like it’s been there for 200 years. “And could be here for 200 years more,” says Harte. The final cost was 20% of what it would cost to tear down and rebuild.
The healthcare industry faces the biggest real estate dilemma. Aging seniors are about to overwhelm available medical facilities. Transwestern, the largest dedicated healthcare real estate firm in the U.S., estimates people aged 65+ in the U.S. will reach 56 million by 2020 – comprising 17% of the nation’s total population. Historically, this is a demographic requiring more healthcare services than any other age group.
According to Transwestern’s study, Medical Office Space Gets Tight, the demand could range from 150.5 million square feet to 225.8 million square feet by next year. Meanwhile, as of the second quarter of this year, only 110 million square feet are available in existing and under-construction buildings in the U.S. Since digital construction translates designs into virtual reality and manufacturing data, it allows for the speed and clean construction of prefab while building mass-custom components. This makes updating old buildings feasible.
Hudson River HealthCare (HRH) in Poughkeepsie, NY is an example of a healthcare group in need of space and facing few building options. The only building available to them was a longshot. “It was a former IBM punch card sorting plant and had all the amenities one could expect from that,” explained Benjamin Boltin, the VP for Planning and Sustainability at HRH.
After considering digital construction as their solution, they took the old IBM plant down to the shell.
We brought this custom yet manufactured system into the process and we ended up with what’s considered the jewel of the HRH system.Benjamin Boltin, the VP for Planning and Sustainability at HRH
Whether it’s apps gamifying personal carbon footprints or software minimizing the use of materials and real estate, technology and early design thinking will lead to the creation of truly green buildings that go far beyond ticking boxes.
DIRTT Environmental Solutions uses its 3D software to create prefabricated interiors. Each space is tailored to our clients' needs. Manufacturing facilities are located in Phoenix, Savannah and Calgary. DIRTT works with nearly 100 construction partners globally. DIRTT trades on Nasdaq under the symbol “DRTT” and on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol “DRT”.