In the grand scheme of architectural design and land development, the quest for cutting-edge sustainability in a pretty package is a relatively new phenomena. For all its youthful enthusiasm, the field of green building architecture and design has yet to gain mainstream traction in the residential sector. For the most part, builders continue to put up the same kind of paper-mache tract housing they’ve been comfortably doing for the past 50 years. And consumers are content to keep buying homes from them.
A Problem of Perception
One of the biggest barriers to adoption of green homes into the mainstream is simply a problem of perception: the conflation of sustainability with added cost, and to a lesser extent, vague ideas of frivolous luxury. True, sustainability is anything but frivolous, and while it could cost more upfront depending on the situation, as a rule, truly sustainable homes always provide a good return on investment for their owners.
More importantly, some of the value they give in return is immeasurably priceless, and as a result, difficult to quantify financially. Only 13 percent of homebuyers polled named “creating a healthier home” as a primary impetus for purchasing a green home. Yet without question the healthiness of a home, and the impact of factors such as indoor air quality on the quality of our lives, is difficult to overstate.
The EPA lists indoor air pollution as the fourth biggest environmental threat to the nation. Concentration of pollutants in enclosed spaces can be 2 to 5 times more than outdoors. Considering the average person spends 90 percent of their time indoors, it stands to reason that indoor air quality would be a major concern for homebuyers and a major selling point for home builders.
And air quality is only the tip of the iceberg. A multitude of other intangible considerations left unaddressed by conventional home construction are natural lighting, solar orientation, and site remediation just to name a few.
Unfortunately, consumers continue to operate under an outdated paradigm of what a good home is or isn’t. And profit-driven developers are happy to keep giving us what we crave.
Other Markets Get It
In contrast, green is all the rage in the corporate and public building spheres. The growth of green building rating systems, such as Leadership in Energy Efficient Design, have enjoyed astonishing success, and certified buildings in certain markets are going up with all due haste. Corporations see a need to convince their consumer base that they do, in fact, care about the planet.
And while many corporate eco-directives are no more than transparent attempts at greenwashing, there is no denying the legitimate shifts in corporate culture taking place. Likewise, the education market has been particularly fertile ground for green building projects as educators and students alike recognize clean, healthy environments as a key catalyst for learning.
The nation’s infrastructure has also seen significant greening in recent times as government at all levels pursues a lead-first approach to sustainability. The City of Chicago, for instance, has been pushing urban green roofs for nearly a decade now. Ten years ago, the thought of planting grass on a roof, let alone shrubs or even trees, was absurd to the point of surrealism. Today, green roofs are a relatively regular occurrence in the Windy City, covering some 5.5 million square feet spread out over 370 buildings.
Why do all these companies, organizations, cities, and government entities choose to invest in green architecture and infrastructure?
Because building green gives added value. It’s as simple as that.
Corporations build green because they are sensitive to the cultural shifts of their consumers. Being sensitive to the leanings of the public helps them sell more, and ultimately, make more money in the long term. Sustainability brings them added value in the form of future financial returns and consumer loyalty.
Schools, education boards, and the parents and communities that support them, charter sustainable schools because they want the best for their kids. More specifically, there exists a growing body of evidence that points to many sustainable design principles, such as natural lighting, natural ventilation, and healthy indoor air quality, as key factors that contribute to an ideal learning environment.
Likewise, many municipalities are pursuing sustainability on purely practical grounds. Chicago’s push toward green roofs was predicated entirely on solving the problem of urban heat island effect in the city in an effective, and long-term way. In other words, they were looking for a “sustainable solution”.
Sustainability is not added cost. It certainly may require more upfront investment. However, at its very core, sustainable building is about adding some kind of value – not just financial savings or a patina of “luxury”. Many of the ideals green homes attempt to distill are no more “luxury” than they are basic considerations.
Health. Light. Responsibility. Environmental consciousness. These are but a few of the many key ingredients of a truly comfortable, delightful, and sustainable home. What are those things worth to you?