Greening Our Buildings to Better Our Health

Jane Henley is the leader of the largest green building organization in the world. She is committed to driving market transformation that is underpinned by sound economic practices that simultaneously deliver financial, social and environmental benefits. She speaks with Women Of Green here about the empowerment of the consumer, the role of green in community health, and the true state of the green movement worldwide.

How uniform is the understanding of the word ‘green’ in the many different countries that you work with? How do you translate the language of sustainability from New Zealand to India? Or Ecuador to America?

The World Green Business Council recognises that the priorities identified by our green building councils are not homogeneous. While the business case for green building has been clearly established in mature markets such as the USA, UK, Australia and Canada, in developing countries the shift to green must be balanced with the need to address the legitimate aspirations of millions of people who still have no access to electricity, clean water or adequate shelter.

So the message has to fit the audience…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first – and largest – green building council is in the United States. Established in 1993, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) currently has more than 17,000 members and an astounding 40,000 buildings are either registered or certified under the US’ Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. In fact, the USGBC is currently certifying around 1 million square feet of green building space a day!

That sounds like a good number to start from. Are there any green leaders coming from the developing world?

While the USGBC is leading the world in green building certifications, many developing nations are providing inspiration and leadership in other ways, and demonstrating that green buildings can play an integral role in providing not only environmental benefits, but also social and economic benefits such as affordable housing, job creation and skills development.

What percentage of buildings being built this year incorporate significant aspects of green design?

My estimate is that under 5 per cent of new construction globally incorporates significant green design. In most countries, other considerations such as location, size and aesthetics are still viewed as more important than designing for efficiency, health and comfort. As the number of green homes and offices increases and the benefits become more obvious, this will in turn affect the way we value green features, which will become a critical part of the suite of considerations when choosing real estate.

McGraw Hill Construction, for instance, has found that, while just 13 per cent of global construction firms were dedicated to green building in 2003, this had grown to around a third by 2008 – with more than half predicting they’d be fully committed to green building by 2013.

That’s impressive progress.

As positive proof of this transformation, the WorldGBC’s network has more than tripled in three years – up from 26 green building councils in 2007 to 82 in 2010.

How do you plan to get that number up for next year?

The WorldGBC believes that green building councils and building rating systems are one of the most powerful mechanisms for affecting positive change and market transformation. Rating systems give the market a common language to define a green building and place a value on a building more broadly than just its size or location. Rating systems empower the market to lead beyond building codes which simply set a minimum standard. Around the world, green building councils and building rating systems have contributed enormously to driving higher environmental expectations and are both directly and indirectly influencing the performance of buildings.

We will continue to support the growth of green building councils with four strategic priorities for 2011:

1. Creating a globally-accepted methodology for measuring the carbon performance of buildings
2. Building a strong global GBC community
3. Increasing the profile of the green building movement
4. Demonstrating the value of green building to governments to meet their social, economic and environmental priorities.

Who’s the most interested in sustainable building right now?

Business is most interested in sustainable building. The leaders in the property and construction industry have recognised the benefits of sustainable building for some time, as it can deliver the ‘triple bottom line’ of environmental, economic and social benefits.

However, governments are now also recognising that green building can deliver rapid and cost-effective reductions to emissions and energy consumption while also helping them to meet other priorities on their social and economic agendas, such as delivering affordable housing, creating new jobs and supporting local economies simultaneously.

Who’s not interested?

I don’t think there is a sector of the community that isn’t interested in green building. From politicians and policy makers through to engineers and architects, and from teachers and healthcare practitioners through to general home owners – green building can support each stakeholder group to improve the quality of their lives while also minimising our impact on the environment.

What’s the role of the consumer in the growth of the green building sector?

Consumer attitudes to green building are certainly helping to drive the uptake of sustainable building practices. Increasingly, people around the world perceive green buildings as modern, ethical and proactive – and corporates, governments and individuals associated with green buildings benefit from these perceptions through pride, satisfaction and well-being.

We know that green buildings consistently outperform non-green buildings in terms of comfort and productivity. As a result, many workers are now demanding green office space because they recognise the health and productivity benefits of working in an environment where natural light, fresh air and access to views of the outdoors are prioritised.

Likewise, people want to be part of the solution to climate change, and so are making conscious choices to invest in green features in their homes.

How do you empower society to demand healthy development?

Education is the key. Designing buildings with fresh air, natural light, connections to nature, and giving people the ability to control their individual work environments has always made intuitive sense. Now we have the evidence that backs this up. The building industry is now able to respond to increasing consumer demand to offer green building solutions at the right price.

For instance, the Heschong Mahone Daylighting Study of more than 21,000 US students found a dramatic correlation between daylit school environments and student performance, including a 20% faster progression in maths, a 26% faster progression in reading and up to 10% increased performance simply by providing students with views out of windows.

Another study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that buildings with good indoor environment quality can reduce the rate of respiratory disease, allergy, asthma, sick building symptoms, and enhance worker performance. The potential financial benefits of improving IEQ are 8 to 14 times the cost investment.

When presented with this evidence and the choice between a green or not green environment, which one would you choose?

I choose health, for the planet and the web of life that it supports. I choose people, and the circumstances which promote their flourishing. What does the word ‘green’ mean to you? Is that different from your definition 5 years ago?

The definition of ‘green’ has certainly broadened over the last five years. While five years ago a ‘green building’ was still generally understood as one that minimised its impact on the environment, today we recognise that a green building is also sustainable, ethical and liveable. Green buildings are designed to support not only the environment, but also improve the health and wellbeing of the people who live and work there.

Jane Henley is the Chief Executive Officer of the World Green Building Council, which operates in over 70 countries to facilitate the global transformation of the building industry towards sustainability. ane was on the founding board then the founding CEO of the New Zealand Green Building Council in 2006. Jane has been a director of the World Green Building Council, since 2007 until becoming the CEO in 2010. Jane is a director of the United Nations Sustainable Building Climate Initiative board, an active speaker and passionate about business leading change.

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