Green Construction 101: Everything You Need to Know
Quick Key Facts
- Construction and the built environment contribute to about 40% of all emissions globally.
- The construction and building sector make up 34% of global energy consumption.
- Raw resource consumption for construction is predicted to double by 2060.
- Building floor area globally is also expected to double by 2060.
- Concrete, steel and aluminum alone comprise 23% of total global emissions, Architecture 2030 reports.
- Investments in energy-efficient buildings will need to more than double current investments by 2030 to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
- The average green building emits 34% less carbon compared to a standard building.
- Buildings that incorporate renewables, energy-efficient design and electrification can reduce energy-related emissions by 90%.
- Sustainable buildings can greatly reduce ongoing operational costs. A building with LEED certification typically sees 20% lower operational costs.
- Green design can reduce building water use by over 30%.
What Is Green Construction?
Green construction involves building structures efficiently and sustainably. This can be done in a number of ways, from using more sustainable building materials or making use of recycled materials, to crafting buildings that minimize energy and water consumption. The idea is to focus on sustainability and eco-friendliness of the building throughout its lifecycle, from the first design and planning stages throughout the construction process and as the building is used, and finally to when the building is eventually demolished.
In addition to protecting the environment, green construction practices should emphasize health and wellness for those who will occupy the building for years to come, whether it’s a small residential space or a large commercial building.
Why Are Sustainable Building Practices Important?
Construction projects and the built environment as a whole are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. According to Architecture 2030, ongoing construction contributes about 13% of total annual carbon dioxide emissions, while operations of existing buildings make up 27% of annual carbon emissions globally. While emissions dropped during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, emissions quickly rebounded to reach record highs.
Buildings require a lot of energy to build and operate. A 2022 report from the United Nations Environment Programme found that the buildings and construction sector make up 34% of total energy demand. Even though investments in boosting energy efficiency in buildings increased by 16% in 2021, any benefits were counteracted by an increase in the size of buildings.
Further, buildings draw a huge number of resources like raw materials and water. Materials for construction, like steel and concrete, make up about 9% of overall energy-related emissions, and raw resource consumption for construction is expected to double by 2060. Just one square meter of wall can require an average of 350 liters of water to construct.
About two-thirds of all buildings standing today will still exist in 2040, and without retrofitting or renovations to make them more sustainable, they will continue to contribute large amounts of emissions and could even prevent humanity from limiting warming to 1.5°C and the accompanying worst impacts of climate change. According to Statista, the average global annual investment in energy-efficient buildings will need to reach over $536 trillion from 2026 to 2030 in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. As of 2022, these investments were around $215 trillion.
Benefits and Challenges of Green Construction
While focusing on green construction practices and a more sustainable built environment is critical to meet Paris Agreement goals and curb the worst effects of climate change, there are many benefits of these practices. But transitioning to new policies and procedures can also come with challenges for building occupants, property owners and builders.
Creating a more sustainable built environment isn’t just a perk; it’s a necessity. We’ll need to see sharp increases in green construction investments moving forward in order to reduce emissions and resource consumption and ultimately meet the goals set by the Paris Agreement. Aside from being better for the Earth, though, green construction also offers project stakeholders some financial perks.
Green buildings are designed to reduce emissions at every stage of a structure’s lifecycle. In fact, the average green building reduces its carbon emissions by about 34% compared to traditional buildings.
By using less resources, LEED-certified buildings reduce emissions, even outside of minimizing one of the biggest source of building emissions, energy consumption. One study by The Center for the Built Environment at University of California, Berkeley found that buildings certified as LEED for Operations and Maintenance had 50% less emissions from water consumption and 48% less emissions from solid waste compared to conventional buildings.
Because green construction incorporates ways to minimize resource demand, these practices can improve building efficiency. Buildings that are Energy Star-certified, for instance, save about 35% energy compared to conventional buildings because they are designed for lower energy consumption.
Green construction can also lead to more efficient water allocation, and sustainable buildings reduce water consumption by about 15% simply by incorporating elements like low-flow faucets or water-saving toilets. Water usage can also be minimized throughout the construction process.
Whether building new structures or retrofitting older ones, green construction practices provide opportunities to incorporate renewable energy. Renewable energy sources can greatly reduce emissions for buildings. According to International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), renewables, energy-efficient design, and electrification combined can reduce energy-related carbon emissions by about 90%.
From making use of recycled or reclaimed building materials to designing structures that use less energy and water, green construction and sustainable buildings can minimize upfront and ongoing resource costs. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, sustainable buildings with LEED accreditation have about 20% lower ongoing maintenance costs compared to conventional commercial buildings. Not only that, but these LEED-certified buildings can save $1.2 billion in energy costs and $149.5 million in water costs.
There are a few roadblocks when it comes to constructing or renovating buildings to be more sustainable. But when you compare the challenges to the economic and environmental benefits, the advantages often outweigh the concerns and make green building the best option for our future.
One big challenge to green construction is the real and perceived upfront costs. Property owners and builders may believe prices for sustainable materials and technologies will cost more to install and implement than conventional products. That may be true, but it isn’t always. Even using reclaimed or recycled materials can lower costs, but project stakeholders will also need to weigh long-term cost savings as well as financial incentives like grants or tax credits for eco-friendly projects.
One thing for project stakeholders to keep in mind with green construction is that finding experts, materials and technology that meet sustainability targets can be more difficult than simply sourcing conventional products. Fortunately, this is quickly becoming less and less of a challenge as green building products and those trained in green construction and design are becoming more available and accessible.
Just because something is labeled “green” doesn’t always mean it is sustainable. Projects can be described as green construction or buildings may be labeled as green or sustainable, but their improvements could be minimal. Maybe a building is made with “natural materials” including wood linked to deforestation of important wildlife habitats or flooring is made from reclaimed materials but is treated with harsh chemical sealants.
Examples of Green Construction Materials
So how are builders reducing the carbon footprint of new structures? Turning to more sustainable materials is key, considering just three materials — concrete, steel and aluminum — contribute around 23% of all emissions, according to Architecture 2030.
Cross-laminated timber, or CLT, is a strong yet lightweight material made from layered, structural grade wood that is arranged in crossing layers and glued together. It requires less energy to manufacture than concrete or steel and offers some carbon sequestering potential.
Hempcrete is a long-lasting, fire-, pest- and mold-resistant material made from the inner core of hemp mixed with water and aggregate. In addition to making use of agricultural byproduct of hemp plants, hempcrete is considered non-toxic and a carbon-sequestering material. It is popular for wall or roof insulation.
From interior cork flooring to exterior home cladding, cork is a sustainable building material sought after for its insulating and soundproofing properties. Cork is also reusable, natural and biodegradable. Cork oak is the only tree that can regenerate its bark after the material has been harvested.
Like cork, bamboo regenerates quickly after harvest, with some species growing as much as 35 inches in a day. According to Project Drawdown, living biomass and long-lived bamboo products could total up to 19.60 gigatons of sequestered carbon by 2050. It is ranked as a harder material than some woods, like oak or ash, yet lightweight, making it useful in many construction applications.
Rammed earth makes use of local materials and minimizes waste. It typically involves compressing damp earth into frameworks to form walls. This material is strong and durable. While rammed earth has typically been considered best in areas with moderate temperatures and minimal rainfall, one study found that rammed earth walls saw only slight erosion, 2 millimeters, when exposed to the elements for 20 years in a wet continental climate.
Reclaimed and Recycled Materials
One significant way to reduce the embodied carbon of a building or retrofit is to use salvaged or recycled materials. In a concept paper, All for Reuse explained that using reclaimed materials could reduce embodied carbon emissions by over 90%. Reusing materials reduces the resources and energy needed to manufacture virgin materials and can even reduce the project cost.
Building… with mushrooms? That’s right. Mycelium is the root-like structures of fungus, including mushrooms. When harvested and dried, mycelium can be made into an incredibly strong material that is waterproof and resistant to fire and mold. As a natural material, mycelium is naturally biodegradable and has potential to work in a variety of different ways for construction. It requires more study and development, but offers a promising future for green construction.
Types of Green Construction Certifications
There are many third-party certifications around the world that can determine whether a building has met specific sustainability- and wellness-focused criteria in order to earn that certification. Typically, designers will need to choose a certificate that they’d like the building to earn, apply, then begin designing to meet the requirements and ultimately earn the certification. From LEED to Passivhaus, here are some popular green building certifications around the world.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), established by the U.S. Green Building Council, has a rating system with four major categories: certified, silver, gold, or platinum, with platinum being the highest certification possible for earning the most points toward sustainable design. Projects should reduce emissions, conserve water, enhance human health, protect and boost biodiversity, promote sustainable materials, and improve local quality of life. LEED offers certifications for various types of projects, from residential to building design to building operations to entire cities.
Passive House, or Passivhaus, is an internationally recognized concept as well as a certification for buildings designed to minimize energy use. Developed by Passive House Institute, Passive House buildings may use up to 90% less energy than conventional buildings. In addition to reducing energy demand, Passive House principles are focused on improving the health and well-being of building occupants, through elements like improved ventilation and reduced noise pollution.
The WELL Building Standard, created by the International WELL Building Institute, includes 10 major concepts for its certification: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Sound, Materials, Mind and Community. Projects earn points toward these concepts, and those points add up to bronze, silver, gold or platinum certification. While WELL is focused more on human health of occupants over environmental benefits, it does incorporate sustainable design elements, like integrating more green spaces, reducing air pollution and utilizing non-toxic materials.
Many people are familiar with EnergyStar when it comes to home appliances, but this label, administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can also apply to buildings. EnergyStar commercial buildings can boost energy savings by up to 30% through improvements like installing efficient lighting or using Energy Star-certified products. Commercial buildings can earn a 1 to 100 rating for Energy Star performance, with 1 being the lowest, 50 being average and 100 being a top-performing building.
Living Building Challenge
The International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge is focused on regenerative design and focuses on seven key areas: Place, Water, Energy, Health and Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. It is one of the most rigorous green building concepts in the world. These projects are designed for self-sufficiency and connection between humans, human habitats and nature. Projects incorporate features like closed-loop water systems, renewables to reach net-positive carbon each year, regular indoor air quality tests and more.
Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) ranks buildings from pass, good, very good, excellent to outstanding. The method is focused on water, management, energy, transport, health and wellbeing, resources, resilience, land use, materials, waste, and innovation. Achieving this certification can result in many benefits, including reduced energy use, improved cost savings and increased occupants’ satisfaction.
Sustainable Buildings Around the World
There’s no shortage of examples of sustainable buildings. You may have incorporated green building practices within your own home, perhaps by installing solar panels on the roof or bamboo flooring in your office.
Some projects go above and beyond, earning multiple certifications and even achieving net-zero emissions. Here are just a few top examples of sustainability in the built environment:
Shanghai Tower in Shanghai, China
The Shanghai Tower, opened in 2015 and designed by Gensler, is the second-tallest building in the world and one of the most sustainable. This skyscraper was made with recycled materials and has a design to capture and reuse rainwater and capture wind for natural ventilation. Over 270 wind turbines produce over 150,000 kWh each year. It has earned LEED Platinum certification.
The Edge in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
From a green roof and a facade made of solar panels to the rainwater harvesting system and smart shades that can be controlled by an app, The Edge, designed by PLP Architects, is an impressively sustainable building. In fact, The Edge has earned a 98.3% BREEAM Outstanding ranking.
Bosco Verticale in Milan, Italy
The residential Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) by Boeri Studio is covered in green, encompassing 800 trees, 15,000 perennials and ground-covering plants and 5,000 shrubs. All this plant life has become habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife while absorbing carbon, improving shading and insulation and reducing energy costs.
The Crystal in London, UK
Designed by WilkinsonEyre, The Crystal is now home to London’s City Hall and is the winner of many sustainable design awards. It features multiple renewable technologies, from solar and wind power to EV charging stations and geothermal energy; excess energy is sent back to the grid. It has achieved both LEED Platinum and BREEAM Outstanding.
Green Construction and the Future
A sustainable built environment is the future. Whether through designing and building new, energy-efficient projects or retrofitting older buildings to be more airtight or to support renewable energy sources, green construction must amp up for the world to limit warming to 1.5°C, or else suffer from the extreme consequences of unchecked climate change. Even maintaining 2°C warming compared to pre-industrial levels will require building-related emissions to decrease 85%, putting an extreme emphasis and dependence on green construction.
There are many excellent examples of sustainable buildings out there today, and green construction investments are only expected to grow. Focusing on reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment could create value pools worth $800 billion to nearly $2 trillion, and retrofits has the potential to become a $240 billion to $1.1 trillion market by 2036.
While these figures are promising for the future of green construction, the reality is still that this sector needs to ramp up dramatically to decarbonize before the world surpasses the 1.5°C threshold. As one of the biggest contributors to global emissions, the construction industry must put sustainability first moving forward.