Greenwashing is a well-known problem within the sustainability movement, and particularly affects the construction industry – it is all too easy for companies to rebrand techniques and materials as ‘green’ while environmental impact or energy efficiency remain relatively unchanged. There is, however, a more fundamental problem with eco-consciousness within the building sector, one that threatens to upend the industry’s approach to green building.
The simple truth is, no matter how sustainable a building’s design or what current materials are used in its construction, the vast majority of new building projects will never match the degree of environmental impact or energy efficiency of existing structures. This fact is somewhat obvious – by using more energy and materials in new projects, you will never offset those required for previous ones. Proponents of green building expansion argue, though, that the long term energy efficiency benefits eventually make new project ventures worthwhile – but that data says otherwise.
Preservation Green Lab, a sustainability think tank affiliated with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, recently published a study showing trends in energy consumption for green builds versus existing structures in a number of U.S. cities, revealing that some green projects would take up to 80 years to match or beat the energy efficiency levels of existing structures, factoring in construction effort and materials.
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This means that even if minimal retrofits were made to existing structures, new green building projects would never be able to compete with energy efficiencies or environmental impact of existing facilities. According to the study, a 30 percent increase in efficiency in most current buildings would put them far ahead of potential savings from new sustainable projects on the same plot of land. The energy and materials required to demolish, clear, and build a new structure are simply too high to justify a replacement.
In fact, the study shows that retrofitting, as opposed to demolishing and replacing, just one percent of Portland’s office buildings and single-family homes over the next decade would allow the City to meet its 15 percent energy reduction goals. The study also touts the potential for job growth and revenue in an economy where few businesses and organizations are building, but many are looking for increased energy savings in the form of retrofit projects.
With industry unemployment still lingering around 20 percent and predictions of industry recovery cautious, at best, the time may be arriving for the building sector to turn its energies towards energy efficiency retrofits – not simply for growth, but for a legitimate way to advance the green movement and realize sustainability goals.
Even Pittsburgh's upcoming Tower at PNC Plaza - to be the world's greenest skyscraper - has environmental costs