Greening Buildings Big and Small, Old and New

Energy-efficient building standards and retrofitting older buildings hold tremendous potential for reducing energy use throughout the United States.

| March 24, 2010

The building sector is responsible for a large share of world electricity consumption and raw materials use. In the United States, buildings — commercial and residential — account for 72 percent of electricity use and 38 percent of CO2 emissions. Worldwide, building construction accounts for 40 percent of materials use.

Because buildings last for 50 to 100 years or longer, it is often assumed that cutting carbon emissions in the building sector is a long-term process. But that is not the case. An energy retrofit of an older, inefficient building can cut energy use and energy bills by 20 to 50 percent. The next step, shifting entirely to carbon-free electricity, either generated onsite or purchased, to heat, cool and light the building completes the job. Presto! A zero-carbon, operating building.

Some countries are taking bold steps. Notable among them is Germany, which, as of Jan. 2009, requires that all new buildings either get at least 15 percent of space and water heating from renewable energy, or dramatically improve energy efficiency. Government financial support is available for owners of both new and existing buildings. In reality, once builders or homeowners start to plan these installations, they will quickly see that, in most cases, it makes economic sense to go far beyond the minimal requirements.

There are already signs of progress in the United States, including provisions within the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act designed to stimulate the economy. Among other items, this act provides for the weatherization of more than a million homes, beginning with an energy audit. It also calls for the weatherization and retrofitting of a large share of the nation’s stock of public housing. A third component is the greening of government buildings by making them more energy-efficient and, wherever possible, installing devices such as rooftop solar water, space heaters and solar electric arrays.

In the private sector, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) — well known for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and rating program — heads the field. This voluntary program has four certification levels: certified, silver, gold and platinum. A LEED-certified building must meet minimal standards in environmental quality, materials use, energy efficiency and water efficiency. LEED-certified buildings are attractive to buyers because they have lower operating costs, higher lease rates and typically happier, healthier occupants than traditional buildings do.

The LEED certification standards for construction of new buildings were issued in 2000. In 2004 the USGBC also began certifying the interiors of commercial buildings and tenant improvements of existing buildings. And in 2007 it began issuing certification standards for home builders.

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