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April 20, 2023 How Construction Can Build a Better Earth

Erin Mitchell

Dr. Seuss was a fixture of my childhood. Bedtime was filled with tales of abandoned children and the elephants duped into caring for them, kings attempting to behead kids for perceived slights, and the dangers of political dictatorship.  

But the one that has stuck with me all these years and did the most to shape my adult consciousness is The Lorax. It’s a story of reckless greed, corporate responsibility, and environmental degradation. Harrowing stuff, but with a semi-heartening message at the end: 

This Earth Day, in honour of that message, we want to highlight some of the benefits of environmentally friendly building that go beyond the badgering of a fictional furball. Making eco-conscious decisions can be as good for the bottom line as they are for the Earth.

Benefits of environmentally friendly building

Reduced energy costs:

One of the main benefits of environmentally friendly building is that it can result in significantly reduced energy costs. By incorporating energy-efficient systems and technologies, such as solar panels, efficient lighting, and insulation, building owners can reduce their reliance on traditional energy sources, such as electricity and gas. This can lead to significant savings on utility bills over time.

Increased property value:

Studies have shown that environmentally friendly buildings can command higher property values compared to conventional buildings. This is because they offer greater comfort, energy efficiency, and environmental benefits, which can make them more attractive to potential buyers or renters.

Access to incentives and rebates:

Many governments and utility companies offer incentives and rebates to encourage the adoption of environmentally friendly building practices. These can include tax credits, grants, and low-interest loans (we’ll expand on some of those below 👇). By taking advantage of these incentives, building owners can reduce their upfront costs and see a faster return on investment.

Federal Tax Credits:

Canada’s Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is a refundable incentive up to 30% of the cost of capital investment, including solar and wind power, storage, zero-emission technologies like EV, and clean hydrogen. The US federal government offers a tax credit of up to 26% for the cost of installing solar panels on commercial and residential buildings. The credit is available through 2023.

Long-term cost savings:

While environmentally friendly building practices may require a higher upfront investment compared to conventional building practices, they often result in significant long-term cost savings. By reducing energy costs, improving indoor air quality, and extending the lifespan of building materials, environmentally friendly buildings can offer significant financial benefits over their lifespan.

Green Building Incentive Programs:

Some cities and states/provinces offer incentive programs for building owners who incorporate green building practices. For example, the City of Los Angeles offers expedited permitting and reduced fees for projects that meet green building standards.

Energy Efficiency Rebates:

Many utility companies offer rebates for building owners who install energy-efficient equipment, such as LED lighting or HVAC systems. The amount of the rebate depends on the type of equipment and the level of energy savings.

Property Tax Incentives:

Some states and provinces offer property tax incentives for buildings that meet green building standards. In California, for instance, buildings that meet the state's green building standards are eligible for a reduced property tax assessment. For an extensive list of Canada’s province-specific tax incentives, check out this blog.

Grants and Loans:

Government agencies and non-profit organizations offer grants and loans for environmentally friendly building projects. In Canada, there are both Greener Homes Grants and Greener Homes Loans programs. In the US, the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy offers grants for projects that promote energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Net Metering:

Net metering is a program that allows building owners to earn credits for excess energy generated by their solar panels or wind turbines. These credits can be used to offset future energy bills.

Improved occupant health and productivity:

Environmentally friendly buildings often prioritize occupant health and wellbeing through the use of natural light, indoor plants, and non-toxic materials. This can result in reduced absenteeism and increased productivity, which can benefit both building owners and occupants.

Elements of Environmentally Friendly Buildings

Now that you know the “why”, let’s cover the “how”.

Passive design

Passive design is an approach that uses natural ventilation, lighting, and insulation to reduce energy consumption. It involves orienting the building to maximize natural light and airflow, and using materials with high thermal mass to regulate temperature.

  • Orientation and layout: A building designed with its longest axis running east to west can take advantage of natural daylight and solar heat gain during the winter months, while minimizing heat gain during the summer.
  • Natural ventilation: Using openings in a building allows fresh air to flow through. This can include the use of operable windows, vents, or passive cooling towers to create natural air movement and reduce the need for mechanical ventilation.
  • Thermal mass: Materials such as concrete, brick, or stone have a high thermal mass, which can be used to absorb and release heat to maintain a stable indoor temperature.
  • Insulation: Good insulation is crucial for reducing heat loss and gain in a building. Eco buildings often use natural insulation materials such as wool, cellulose, or straw bales to minimize the use of synthetic materials.
  • Passive solar design: Passive solar design involves the use of windows, shading devices, and other design elements to maximize the amount of natural daylight and solar heat gain in a building.
Net-zero energy

Net-zero energy buildings are designed to produce as much energy as they consume. This is achieved through the use of renewable energy sources such as solar panels or wind turbines, along with highly efficient building systems and appliances.

Net-zero energy buildings typically feature high levels of insulation, efficient heating and cooling systems, and energy-efficient lighting and appliances. They may also incorporate passive solar design strategies, such as orienting the building to take advantage of natural light and heat (as discussed above 👆).

To achieve net-zero energy status, a building typically incorporates renewable energy systems such as solar panels or wind turbines, which generate electricity to offset the building's energy consumption. Some net-zero energy buildings also incorporate energy storage systems, such as batteries, to store excess energy generated during times of high production and use it during times of low production.

Net-zero energy buildings can be found in a variety of sectors, including residential, commercial, and institutional buildings. They offer many benefits, including reduced energy costs, improved indoor air quality, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Green roofs

Green roofs are covered in vegetation, and provide a range of environmental benefits, including improved air quality, reduced energy consumption, and increased biodiversity in urban areas.

When it rains, the vegetation on the green roof absorbs and filters the water, which helps to reduce stormwater runoff and the load on the sewer system. The growing medium and vegetation also act as insulation, which can help to reduce energy costs by keeping the building cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

Green roofs can help to reduce the heat island effect in urban areas, where the concentration of buildings and pavement can create higher temperatures. The plants on green roofs absorb heat from the sun and release it back into the atmosphere through a process called evapotranspiration, which helps to cool the surrounding air.

Sustainable materials:

Sustainable materials are those that have a minimal impact on the environment. This includes materials that are recycled, renewable, or have a low carbon footprint.

  • Bamboo: Bamboo is a rapidly renewable resource that can be used for a variety of construction purposes. It is strong, lightweight, and has a low carbon footprint.
  • Timber: Timber is a renewable resource that can be used for framing, flooring, and other structural elements. It is a good alternative to concrete and steel, which have a high carbon footprint.
  • Rammed earth: Rammed earth is a sustainable building material that is made by compacting layers of earth into a formwork. It has excellent thermal mass and insulation properties, making it ideal for use in hot and dry climates.
  • Recycled plastic: Recycled plastic can be used to make a variety of construction materials, such as roof tiles, insulation, and decking. It is a good alternative to virgin plastic, which has a high environmental impact.
  • Hempcrete: Hempcrete is a bio-composite material that is made from hemp fibers and lime. It has excellent insulation properties and is carbon-negative, meaning that it absorbs more carbon than it emits.
  • Cork: Cork is a sustainable material that can be used for flooring, insulation, and wall coverings. It is a renewable resource that is harvested from the bark of cork oak trees, which can regenerate after being harvested.
  • Straw bales: Straw bales can be used to create highly insulated walls and roofs. They are a waste product of agriculture and can be sourced locally, making them a sustainable building material.

These are just a few examples of sustainable materials that can be used in construction. By choosing these materials, builders can reduce the environmental impact of their projects and create more sustainable buildings.

Smart technology:

Smart technology is being used to optimize building performance and reduce energy consumption. This includes sensors that monitor occupancy, temperature, and lighting, as well as automated systems that adjust these factors based on user preferences and environmental conditions.

Water conservation:

Water conservation is becoming increasingly important in environmentally-friendly building. This includes the use of low-flow fixtures, rainwater harvesting systems, and greywater reuse systems.

Stop using paper!

Last, but certainly not least, consider the materials you’re using while you build, not just those you build with.  Not only does digitizing your process provide you with a safety net from human error in data input, it keeps reams and reams of paper where they belong: On trees, Truffula or otherwise.

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