As our country steps up to the challenge of addressing climate change, we’re seeing intensified interest in green buildings. Unlike a decade ago, when buildings were considered sustainable if they were energy efficient and used renewable materials (remember bamboo everything?), there has been a shift towards a new generation of holistic green buildings that move us from the ‘easy to measure’ to the ‘imperative to solve’.
Thought leaders and market forces are coalescing around three big ideas in what we demand from our buildings:
- A reduction of embodied carbon in our building materials
- Significant operational emission and cost reductions
- Ubiquitous on-site energy generation
Viewing buildings through the lens of our current and future climate represents huge advancements from what was previously considered ‘green’. And it’s not a fad. Enormous market forces in both the private and public sectors will accelerate green building construction and renovations over the next decade. In other words – The time is now for the adoption of these technologies and solutions, we cannot wait until tomorrow.
It’s worth noting that a truly holistic systems approach to designing green buildings is challenging and often complicated. Traditional construction materials and existing best practices are oriented towards solving ‘the problem’ which is really an order of operations problem; you design the structure, then the energy and plumbing systems, and then the interior.
Tomorrow’s green buildings need Swiss Army knives, not scalpels. Going forward, we need to develop and prioritize technologies that solve multiple problems at once, compounding the value of building materials and embedding systems into the structure. At Ubiquitous Energy, we think optimizing existing building materials and the solutions they offer act as “multipliers of good”. UE Power™, our transparent solar window technology, does just that by embedding solar energy systems into the window and subsequent building structure without compromising the aesthetics or efficiency of the window.
Holistic green buildings aren’t a burden on the industry, they’re an opportunity. First and foremost, they will help reduce carbon emissions, which is critical to addressing the climate crisis. In addition, these buildings can also help reduce energy costs over the long term, which can be a significant cost savings for building owners and tenants. Another key benefit of these buildings is that they can be more equitable. Green buildings have traditionally been associated with higher entry costs, making them inaccessible to many people including the disadvantaged. However, the burden of climate change falls disproportionately on lower income families, who may pay a much greater percentage of their income for energy. These new green buildings minimize that inequity inherently by design.
By weighing both carbon and energy, green rating systems are encouraging builders and owners to think more holistically about the environmental impact of their buildings. Beyond individual corporate commitments, international standards including USGBC’s LEED and International Living Building Challenge are now certifying for Zero Energy and accounting for a building materials’ embodied carbon. These certifications help differentiate green building leaders and their buildings across real estate markets.
The biggest driver of all though, may be the federal government’s focus on reducing carbon emissions in buildings. The Government Services Administration (GSA), responsible for 380 million square feet of buildings making it the largest building owner and manager in the US, has just announced a record $3 billion for initiatives that will shape all future building design and construction.
The first GSA initiative is focused on reducing the embodied carbon of materials, with a focus on concrete, steel, and windows. Why? Because 74% of all building emissions over the next decade will stem from building materials. This initiative directs federal procurement to target construction materials with lower embodied carbon – the top 20%, over standard materials.
The second GSA initiative is focused on requiring net-zero operations in those thousands of GSA buildings. All existing and new, leased and owned GSA buildings will be designed and operated in such a way that they generate as much energy as they consume. Such a bold move across such a diverse portfolio will certainly require a holistic approach and new tools to design with.
Federal actions are also spurring climate initiatives at state and local levels with a unified approach to building codes and standards. The National Building Performance Standard (BPS) Coalition does just that, by empowering state and local governments to deliver on energy and equity goals by accelerating energy retrofits in buildings. Similar holistic actions will be required here as well.
Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and to get started on this journey (to address climate change and achieve net zero?). The urgency is high, and the path forward is apparent. At Ubiquitous Energy we have embraced this better future and are developing technologies that integrate seamlessly with the needs of designers, builders, occupants, and the planet. In doing so we’ll continue to push the boundaries of what is possible.