polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Green and Healthy Buildings

by Craig Roussac

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, buildings account for approximately 40 percent of worldwide energy use and are responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. They also play an important role in the health and wellbeing of those who inhabit them each day.

A recently completed high-rise building at 1 Bligh Street in Sydney. Source: Business Insider

The mass of information about what makes a building green tends to concentrate on new and innovative designs that create beautiful photo spreads. While such examples are inspiring, they make up a very small percentage of all buildings in operation.

Melbourne's Central Business District. Source: Alexander Shafir

Green Buildings Alive is an environmental initiative aimed at collecting and sharing data on existing buildings between 10 and 60 years old. The data is collected from office towers in Australian Central Business Districts (CBDs) and shared on a public website.

The Pulse tool, for example, monitors an experimental group of buildings under management dedicated to reducing carbon emissions and energy consumption. The tool updates every 24 hours with new data, which can be organized by specific application (such as air-conditioners, elevators and lights) or comparison of predicted versus actual energy use for each building.

Excerpts from Pulse, an online tool that provides interactive visualizations of building-performance data. Source: Green Buildings Alive

Operators are stretched to constantly tweak and "tune-up" their buildings, critical skills that are difficult to capture in magazine spreads. The challenge is even greater because energy efficiency is actually a secondary goal. The primary concern is keeping people comfortable indoors.

Green Buildings Alive works to understand the complex interplay between energy savings and human health in indoor environments. The industry rarely uses the '80s term "sick building syndrome" anymore, focusing instead on health and wellbeing in relation to heat, cold, noise and air quality.

Stockland headquarters in Sydney. Source: Inhabitat

Yet, given the power needed for ventilation and climate control, does a focus on comfort indoors conflict with energy-saving goals? Do we know whether occupants need completely stable environments, or do they feel better when the indoor environment correlates with the outdoor environment?

One study of complaint data for more than 50 buildings gives us insight into the factors behind common feelings of "Monday-itis." The marked increase in complaints on Monday can’t be attributed to climate alone. Thus it may be possible to adjust building temperatures so as to reduce complaints on Mondays while decreasing energy use toward the end of the week when complaints are less prevalent.

Excerpt from Datalyzer, a tool for analyzing eight years of data from 63 different office buildings. Source: Green Buildings Alive

Online analysis consistently shows that operators make the biggest difference in nurturing green and healthy buildings. And their efforts are most effective when they have access to solid data. We see up to 10-percent reductions in energy use thanks to information alone, without any new technology investment.

Analysis of building data is becoming essential to new initiatives aimed at greener, healthier cities. Highly innovative projects include the Columbia University Heat Map of New York City — a map-based application designed to monitor block-by-block heating consumption — and the U.K. National Heat Map — an interactive map that tracks the use of heat in buildings to inform local conservation strategies.

Reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions in the built environment is central to global ecological sustainability. A 10-percent reduction, multiplied by the hundreds of thousands of buildings in cities worldwide, is a much needed step in the right direction. Reliable and accessible data can help make this step possible.

Craig Roussac is the general manager of sustainability, safety and environment at Investa Property Group. He also directs the Investa Sustainability Institute, which started Green Buildings Alive.

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