Watered down green buildings vs the whole truth

When I visit buildings and developments that claim to be ‘green’, I like to ask the building owners and facility managers about the details.

Not details like ‘What type of corner joint did you use here?’ or ‘Did you use recycled PVC pipes and sustainably produced timber?’

I’m talking about questions such as ‘How often do you actually run this equipment?’ and ‘How long is the actual payback?’

I usually do this on the sly so that I don’t embarrass the person I am talking to and am more likely to hear the honest truth, rather than the hype.

Don’t get me wrong. Most of these sustainable commercial buildings are way ahead of their conventional counterparts.

But some ideas and inclusions that are fine in theory are not suitable (or are at least questionable) for particular applications and climate zones.

In other cases, all that was needed was a bit more thought at the design stage. Or a change was made at the construction or fit-out stage that undermined the original design intent.

For example:

  • It is not uncommon for co- and tri-generation (combined heat, power and cooling) systems to be installed but not run for all or part of the year.
  • Large solar photovoltaic (PV) cell arrays and wind turbines may be installed but not yet connected to the grid or supplying any electricity to the building.
  • Energy recovery technology may be incorporated into heating, cooling & air conditioning (HVAC) system but be by-passed for much of the year or be so marginal that the extra resistance caused by the transfer process negates the potential energy savings.
  • Sophisticated lighting controls may have been disabled due to frequent complaints from tenants that cannot be easily remedied.
  • Blinds may be closed for much of the day and require artificial lighting due to glare.
  • Openable windows may have been intended to provide natural ventilation but are rarely opened due to problems with noise, dust, security, turbulence or condensation.
  • Rainwater tanks may be topped up with mains water while lots of other potentially reusable sources go down the drain.
  • Grey and black water treatment systems may be installed but not run as the development is more water efficient than expected (so it keeps clogging up) or the energy use is so high that the system costs a small fortune to run (especially if mains water is underpriced).
  • Green roofs may look great but leak, while green walls may have turned into a maintenance headache and been abandoned.

Developers don’t usually care as long as they have met their green design targets and offloaded the building.

Building owners probably care most about being able to attract a quality tenant and return a decent profit.

Then it is up to the facility managers to operate and maintain the building. They have to make tough decisions based on common sense and limited resources. This might mean not being able to take full advantage of the green features.

In some cases, a simpler solution may have made buildings easier and cheaper to run – and ultimately more sustainable.

Having a green lease can help as the facility manager or building owner may be required to meet minimum efficiency standards and the tenants will be obliged to do their bit. And structuring tenancy agreements and setting up electrical boards correctly can ensure that the party that influences the energy use also pays that portion of the energy bill. 

When it comes to cost effectiveness, I always ask what is really happening.

The cost per m2 might be okay on paper but the true numbers (e.g. cost per occupant) are unlikely to stack up unless the building is fully occupied and being tuned regularly.

(It hurts when you realise that paying lower rent for a less efficient building may more than compensate for slightly higher energy and water costs – if an organisation is prepared to ignore their sustainability policies and other benefits.

It’s not greenwash if the building meets the agreed sustainable design criteria – but it is perhaps ‘green watering down’ if it is not operated as planned or does not perform as promoted.

I’d prefer to see building owners and managers sharing the whole truth (even if it’s not pretty) so that the ‘green’ building industry can learn from its mistakes, lobby for changes to legislation and utility networks, and protect its reputation and authenticity.

Photo credit: Green wall © Jordi Clave Garsot | Dreamstime.com (ID 38410787)

Categories: Eco-design

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. The examples you provide seem to indicate that the designer was plugging in “things” rather than providing an integrated, sustainable design. issues like glare can be more related to how people set up the building for occupancy; other issues are related to the skill set (and desires) of the building management staff. Building it is great, but what doesn’t happen is training the occupants and operators on what to do.
    Related is the push to LID in stormwater. I can’t find qualified installers, or maintenance folks. LID needs to be done differently than standard civil construction, or standard landscape maintenance. We just need to educate and train more!

    • Thanks for the comment. You are quite right about the need to educate each group as well – including trades, managers and occupants. I am a big fan of case studies and lessons learned that allow people to share experiences with their peers- as long as they do not try to gloss over what could have been improved or what they wish they had done differently.

      • Ps I also agree wholeheartedly with your point about the need to integrate sustainability into the design of a building from the outset rather than tacking on green features late in project.


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