The Future of Green Building: Top 10 Megatrends

THE FUTURE OF GREEN BUILDING: Top 10 Megatrends

The strength of a megatrend is that we can’t wish it away; it’s here to stay. The key issue is how to take advantage of it. In the realm of technology, the turn to mobile computing after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010 is clearly such a trend, one that building owners and green building proponents cannot ignore.

Globally, green building will likely continue its worldwide growth, especially in most countries of Europe and North America, as well as in fast-growing countries in the Asia-Pacific region, South America, and the Middle East. Each year, more government agencies, universities, property developers, and corporate real estate managers incorporate green design ideas and measures into their buildings and facilities. There is nothing on the horizon that will stop this megatrend, yet as I argue in RGB, certification systems will continue to falter owing to their cost, time delays and complexity.

It’s worth noting that five of these 10 trends revolve around energy: energy efficiency, zero-net-energy, cloud-based (and data-driven) energy management, energy performance disclosure, and solar power. These are largely impelled by two practical considerations: first, for most buildings, energy is the largest uncontrollable operating cost; second, the growing understanding of a connection between building energy use and global climate change means that corporate social responsibility and government action will result in rising demand for building energy efficiency.

These 10 megatrends will continue to accelerate the growth of low-carbon green buildings, adoption of renewable energy in buildings, and promote water-conserving architectural designs for the next 10 years. In the book, I argue that three of these megatrends—a strong focus on energy efficiency, renewable energy use (mostly solar power for buildings), and water conservation—should form the core of all new green building rating and certification systems.

Megatrend #1: Green building certification growth rate is slowing.

Green building in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific will continue to grow as more building owners come to accept the business case, especially for larger office buildings, corporate real estate, and high-end university and government buildings. Green building project registrations accounted for about 20% of total new construction project area in the U.S. during 2014 (but only about 15% of actual certifications). The 2015 Green Building Adoption Index documents the continued strength of both Energy Star and LEED certification in the U.S. commercial office market.

However, in contrast to the new construction market, the 2014 tally of less than 200 million sq.ft. of existing building LEED certification represents an annual increment of only 0.2%. At the end of 2014, the U.S. total for LEED certifications remained abysmally low—about three billion sq.ft., or about 3.6% of the 85 billion total area of existing commercial buildings.

Slower growth of green building certification in new construction doesn’t mean that important elements of sustainable design are being ignored. The key point is that certification as a practice is increasingly falling by the wayside. This has implications for both certification organizations and for sustainability in the built environment.

Megatrend #2: Energy efficiency leads the way.

Since 2012, energy-efficient green building retrofits have shown stronger growth than energy-efficient new construction. This trend has been most pronounced in corporate and commercial real estate, along with “MUSH” (municipal, university, school, and hospital) market projects. In the MUSH market, cheap capital and the emergence of energy service companies (known as ESCOs) have encouraged building owners to trade future energy savings for upgraded or modernized physical plants.

In my 2013 book, The World’s Greenest Buildings: Promise vs. Performance in Sustainable Design, I make the case that absolute building performance, with resultant lower operating costs (vs. the currently more common “relative improvement” approach) should be an primary focus for green building.

There are huge opportunities in energy efficiency, and most are concentrated in a 25% of the building stock. A more cost-effective approach to certifying existing buildings should also attempt first to take advantage of the concentrated nature of efficiency opportunities by launching a rating system tailored for such buildings and their key performance indicators.