The High Cost of NOT Going Green

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Courtesy: Architecture 2030

In my column this month in ARCHITECT magazine, “Follow the Money,” I mention that many readers complain about sustainability, as if it’s a distraction from economic woes. “The only green we should be talking about,” writes one, “is how to get paid for practicing architecture.”

A new UN study illustrates how staggeringly myopic this view is. Issued last month, the report, “Why Environmental Externalities Matter to Institutional Investors,” estimates that in 2008 the total cost of global environmental damage caused by human activity was $6.6 trillion, or about 11 percent of the global GDP. In other words, the damage created by the economy is worth more than a tenth of the economy. Imagine how much more profitable industry would become if it had a net-zero approach to the environment.

We’ve all seen the statistics about how much of the damage is due to buildings. According to Architecture 2030, construction consumes more energy (49 percent) than any other sector and is the largest single contributor to global warming (46.9 percent of GHG emissions). Building operations alone represents some 77 percent of U.S. electricity consumption. How these proportions might relate to the numbers in the UN study isn’t clear, but even if buildings account for only a sixth of the total global damage, that’s $1 trillion, which matches the approximate annual value of the U.S. construction industry.

Architects and builders cannot afford to ignore this simple fact: To turn your back on the environment is to leave the economy in peril.


Comments (12 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:57 AM Monday, January 03, 2011

    Myopic? We should be taking the power to harm the environment away from consumers and architects by focusing on implementing renewable energy and smart grid technology on national and international scales. Thus, architectural decisions, yes even orientation and insulation, will be relegated to economic decisions; which means a building owner would be foolish not to optimize their envelope, but they won't harm us all by not doing so. PV Solar is great but it should leave the domain of the individual and be a utility scale initiative where the utilities install run and maintain the arrays on the ideal roof tops of our cities. Buildings are not the answer; they are part of the solution.The answer is large wholesale institutional and infrastructural change. Simply put, lets change out the engine of our current system.

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  • Posted by: Lance Hosey | Time: 9:54 AM Friday, December 24, 2010

    About the 12/3 comment related to efficiency, you express a common but myopic view. Even if all energy were clean and renewable, we still should try to make buildings as resource-efficient as possible. Even a 100% solar-powered building can be a tremendous waste of materials and land if it's not designed to be the optimal size. And most of the best passive design strategies for energy efficiency (orientation, massing, etc.) also determine how comfortable the building is. Let's get away from thinking that sustainabiliy is just about renewable energy.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:36 AM Friday, December 03, 2010

    The chart linked to below (at the end of this comment) shows the real dilemma, and I think clarifies the point I was trying to make at the beginning of this discussion which is, in the big picture it's not about how efficient we can make our buildings (although currently this does have an impact) but rather about where our energy comes from; if we're on 100% renewable energy all this talk of efficient building envelopes, etc. will be relegated to a question of "how much money does the building owner want to save over the life of the building" and not "does the building owner care about the environment or not."

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 8:47 PM Thursday, December 02, 2010

    It continues to amaze me how the very mention of "sustainability" will bring out the extremist lunatics ranting about the UN and Al Gore. DLS, did you even read this article, or are you just finding any excuse to trumpet your Tea Party sound bites...?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:20 PM Tuesday, November 30, 2010

    re: "Chicago Unemployed Arch" ... Chin up. from a former Chicago architect. Your critique and insight is right-on. Seek out other paths than the "typical" architecture route., if it doesn't land you a job it will place you in a stronger position for your next architecture gig/venture. Best of luck!

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  • Posted by: Chicago Unemployed Arch | Time: 8:04 PM Monday, November 29, 2010

    Shipping bamboo flooring from the other side of the world does not make sense to me. Installing bike racks at schools where kids don't own bikes or would be afraid to store them on racks doesn't make sense to me. Jerking my knee and spending money on high efficiency technology (that looks good on paper) because some computerized energy model requires us to meet a goal doesn't make sense to me. If there are truly energy saving issues then let's stop jerking around with LEED and codify these issues. Most US cities were built when energy was readily available and inexpensive - well of course our buildings use a lot of energy! This has been the US vernacular and the economy and our codes have already been changing this accepted standard for years. It is also a fact that humans spend 70-90% of their life indoors – out of the elements and darkness which require ENERGY! We don’t need questionable ‘Green’ labels on everything we do – this is nothing more than more twisted marketing with the US government as producers and backers of this marketing orgy. This is a no-brainer. Buildings simply need to be kept warm or cool and need to provide illumination when the sun goes down and this will always require energy. I believe our technologies are already cutting edge and strive to reduce energy – you can only fit so much insulation in the walls. The cost of energy has already molded the design community’s way of thinking so in a way you are simply preaching to the choir, except, your sustainability preachings include long winded sermons, numerous unneeded bells and whistles, and countless golden calves running around with green tags in their ears. Give us real sustainable components for our buildings. We are design professionals – LEED and the multitude of sustainability ideas treat our community like children. I do understand why so many in our relatively small community feel the way we do. And now the UN!? Maybe we should up those bamboo shipments!

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  • Posted by: DLS | Time: 5:52 PM Monday, November 29, 2010

    A UN Report, which will be no doubt be used tp bludgeon the US as the evil empire of waste and want, says the global environmental damage is $6.6 trillion. The UN is the most corrupt, anti-American, self serving, third world propaganda machine ever created by man. ANYTHING the UN does and certainly any study it undertakes must be viewed as nothing more than scientific pornography. This is just the latest in the left's attempt to perpetuate the most cynical marketing hoax since Al Gore put solar panels on his McMansion in Nashville. DLS Architect

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:37 PM Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    ...this can be done simply by taxing big business and putting the revenue directly into large scale renewable energy projects and research. Otherwise, big business will take this money any build more relatively poor performing buildings which may be good for us (architects) but will not be good for the real goal which is to preserve, conserve, and restore our planet and by extension humanity.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:30 AM Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    oops...I meant 'horse before the cart'....thus, insulating, for example, will be relegated to an economic consideration rather than an environmental one....think about it....

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:17 AM Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    To the last comment.... Simply put let's put the cart before the horse; renewable energy before green makeovers. Digesting the meaning of the chart above, will lead you to the conclusion that its not about how many Btu's we use but rather where the Btu's come from in the first place.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:00 AM Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    Enlightening article, thanks. Weird, opaque comment from the reader, though.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:43 PM Tuesday, November 23, 2010

    Green architecture serves green architects whether or not it is the best approach for serving the environment is up for debate. Green architecture strives to optimize within an unsustainable paradigm in the hope that the tail will sooner or later wag the dog or to use a historical metaphor that the Christianity of green architecture will ultimately topple the Roman empire of the unsustainable status quo. While this might be an attractive, pragmatic (and dare I say lucrative(for some) modus operundi, I think we would find it far more efficient in the best interest of our environment to create wholesale change of our current paradigm by focusing on renewable energy projects, non-toxic biodegradability, etc. that will allow us to operate our existing buildings (and those to come for that matter) in sustainable ways without having to renovate, insulate, etc. That is, big government should be pushing big business in this direction, which they appear to be commencing, at least in part. Why does the little guy have to change? If he were presented with sustainable options in the first place we wouldn't need a green architecture community, it would just effectively be so.

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About the Blogger

Lance Hosey

thumbnail image Contributing editor and author of ARCHITECT’s monthly Eco column, Lance Hosey, AIA, LEED AP, Hon. FIGP, is president and CEO of GreenBlue, a nonprofit and consultancy dedicated to environmental innovation and the creative redesign of industry. A registered architect, he is a former director at William McDonough + Partners. With Kira Gould, he is the co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (2007). His forthcoming book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design, studies how form and image can enhance conservation, comfort, and community at every scale of design, from products to cities.