The economic benefits of green buildings are well understood – improving workers’ productivity, cutting running costs, optimising life-cycle economic performance and achieving higher occupancy rates.
The environmental aspects – improving air and water quality, reducing energy use and waste and conserving natural resources – have just taken on a new significance as all New Zealand commercial buildings, including office, industrial and retail property, hotels, schools, libraries and a raft of others, will have to be certified carbon-neutral by 2050.
The New Zealand Green Building Council (NZGBC) introduced the first Green Star rating tools in 2007 for sustainable and efficient commercial buildings. Those tools cover building design, construction and operation, delivering benefits not only to owners but also tenants.
There have been more than 150 buildings green certified, 40 percent of those in Auckland's commercial sector.
NZGBC chief executive Andrew Eagles says the country has seen a 60 percent increase in owners building to green certified standards.
However, the biggest change for office buildings will be a new carbon-neutral certification tool to be introduced in June.
Building owners and managers will be able to use either NABERSNZ or the Green Star tools to measure carbon-neutrality. NABERSNZ is regarded as the best tool for rating efficient heating systems and ventilation.
With NABERSNZ, building owners and managers will need a professional to measure and verify the process; with Green Star that will not be needed.
Eagles says the new tool is specifically aimed at existing buildings. “The council is seeing more building owners and managers start to measure the impacts of buildings and consequently there has been a rise in office buildings to the NABERSNZ rating, which is an office building tool for energy efficiency, and also a rise in existing buildings to the Green Star rating for energy.
Ask a green construction expert if it's easier to design an energy-efficient building from scratch or retrofit an old one and the answer will almost certainly be unanimous: a new build every time.
Refurbishing old buildings is vital. "It makes sense for businesses to refurbish commercial buildings because it cuts their energy costs, which are likely to increase dramatically in the coming years.
“It is equally as important for new buildings, although until now none have been built at zero carbon because there has not been a requirement to do so,” adds Eagles.
Buildings account for 40 percent of global energy consumption and a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Eagles believes all buildings will achieve the 2050 target date.
“There is interest and a strong connection from new and existing office building owners to ensure their properties are running more efficiently to keep energy costs down, and tenants' staff are happier and more productive.
“When there are a significant number of buildings certified it will galvanise the whole sector to move.”
In Australia, certifying buildings carbon-neutral is mandatory and Eagles expects the government to eventually take the same stance in New Zealand.
Since it became mandatory across the ditch, it has resulted in $200 million of annual savings for Australian businesses.
“New Zealand is a sixth of the size of Aussie, so extrapolating those figures the council expects New Zealand to make about $40 million in energy savings a year once carbon-neutral certification is mandatory here,” Eagles says.
Helping meet the NABERSNZ certification are a number of technologies. “Many products are available and building owners and managers are, for example, specifying better meters to measure heating and ventilation, better lights and more efficient computers and screens,” Eagles says.
Retrofitting old buildings can provide immediate environmental benefits. In the US, there’s a great deal of appreciation for the sustainability benefits of retrofitting older buildings. The most prominent example is New York’s Empire State Building. Its 2009 retrofit has saved millions of dollars in running costs and the building consistently outperforms expectations for energy efficiency.
The historic Mason Bros building at GridAKL innovation hub, in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter, has been retrofitted and immediately savings came through energy and water costs and more productive workers, who take fewer sick days.
Of course, it is only possible to start saving energy when you know where and how energy is being wasted. While older buildings may still only have meters that measure overall consumption, newer facilities tend to use sub-meters to monitor energy consumption of individual floors, departments or even large pieces of equipment.
An important, but often overlooked, problem is heating and cooling systems fighting each other within the same building. This often occurs when air conditioning is added later in a building’s life. Although changes to building management systems or extra time-based controls can help reduce such conflicts, technology that integrates heating and cooling is a more effective solution.
Some of the new technologies used for retrofitting existing buildings include solar panels, high-performance glass and ground force heat pumps. While the price of solar panels has come down 40 percent, Eagles says the costs to hook up to the grid are “still in the prohibitive territory”.
There is also a shift by some property managers to look at sharing energy across buildings – using one plant to squeeze out more efficiency and cost savings.
Eagles says the top green buildings are those where tenants can take a lease and not have to do anything.
Over the whole life of a building, a Green Star-rated property will be more attractive to tenants and more profitable for owners.
Globally, office building investors are seeking green assets and are increasingly turning to US-based GRESB, which rates the sustainability performance of real estate assets worldwide and has access to investors with $17 trillion of property.
GRESB's assessments are guided by what investors and the industry consider to be material issues in the sustainability performance of real asset investments.
Assessment participants receive comparative business intelligence on where they stand against their peers, a roadmap with the actions they can take to improve their performance and a communication platform to engage with investors.
Healthy, productive staff
Trillions of dollars have been spent on new buildings in the past five years, about a third of which was spent on green buildings.
An increasing number of green buildings are being constructed by developers as the cost and health benefits become better known.
A study by Harvard University shows improved light, ventilation and heat control can boost workers' productivity by thousands of dollars a year and reduce sick days.
The research says people working in green buildings think better in the office and sleep better at night. It also suggests that more subjective aspects, such as beautiful design – the “delight factor” – may make workers happier and more productive.
This is the first study to show such buildings can also make their occupants smarter.
The researchers analysed workers in certified green buildings and compared them with other workers employed in different offices owned by the same companies.
The workers in the green buildings scored over 25 percent higher in a standard test using a computer game to assess the ability to think and plan. The tool assesses complex decision making performance, which mimics the real-world decision making that staff encounter in everyday work.
“We saw higher cognitive function scores for workers in green certified buildings, compared to their counterparts in buildings that were still high performing, but which had not achieved green certification,” says Joseph Allen, at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
“We see this additional, building-level effect,” Allen says. “There is absolutely a psychological as well as a physiological impact of being in better buildings and I think they are both critically important.”
He says while green buildings are a relatively small part of the property sector worldwide, attitudes are changing. “I see a sector that is engaged on this topic and starting to understand that they can make decisions around health that are going to impact the bottom line.”
Harvard's research also found that if high-spec building works are green certified it can give a price increase of more than 20 percent.
John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer at United Technologies, one of the world’s largest providers of building technologies, says that with the rapid growth and urbanisation of the world population, more green buildings are needed to meet that challenge.
“Focusing on energy efficiency is important, but 90 percent of the costs associated with a building are people’s salaries, so improving their performance could be an important driver for the adoption of green buildings.”
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