What Does “Green” Building Really Mean in 2017?

I just returned from the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo and Architecture Boston Expo (ABX) in Boston, where I had the opportunity to interface with a wide range of folks from different industries related to building and construction. It’s always a treat to connect with those in spaces outside the commercial glazing industry, be they architects, designers or other environmentally minded attendees.

This year’s event was put on jointly between the U.S. Green Building Council and the Boston Society of Architects, bringing some local flavor and a diversity of attendees with good foot traffic throughout the show. And beyond the great conversations I had with some of these folks, I came away from the show reflecting on how it has evolved over the years since I first attended Greenbuild in 2010.

Some of the earliest Greenbuild shows I attended were different, and so was the perception of “green building” as a concept. On a broad scale, many viewed green building with some hesitation that perhaps it was just a phase some designers and builders were going through. I’m sure you’ve heard terms like “environmental activist,” “nature-lover” or other less favorable terms. Such was the perception of Greenbuild attendees by some.

But as you’ve probably picked up on, that’s changed. Drastically so. Green building practices have been adopted widely, and those who have helped blaze the trail toward more efficient structures have found success. Consider that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced an initiative to cut the city’s large building emissions by 80 percent. My colleague Anthony Wright, director of strategic marketing and analysis at Quanex, notes that due to its size, New York City is a bellwether for new building techniques that often catch on more broadly.

It raises the question—what do we mean, and what are we seeking, when it comes to “green” building materials in 2017? It means products that contribute to overall efficiency, certainly—products that reduce the consumption of energy necessary for optimal operation within a given building. LEED Certification has been one of the leading indicators of building efficiency for years in the U.S., while Passive House certification is big in Europe.

Now there’s WELL Certification from the International Well Building Institute, which I encountered at Greenbuild. WELL accounts for not just efficiency but for how a building can be holistically optimized “to advance human health and well-being.” WELL Certification might not be widespread, but I think it may be indicative of how “green” practices aren’t just good for cutting back on energy costs—they’re good for people and they’re good for business. Daylighting can be used not just to reduce the electric bill, but to help occupants sync with their natural circadian rhythms.

Elsewhere, I think our definition of “green” materials must account for those that are manufactured efficiently, with minimal waste, and offer lengthy product lifecycles. Products and materials that offer high performance for many years reduce the need for energy and emissions that come with making replacement products.

Green building is evolving; standard building construction in general is increasingly incorporating green practices. It’s enough to make you wonder if there’s much of a difference between the two anymore. Regardless, I think the bottom line is this: green building shouldn’t simply be a “feel good” initiative. It must have a real impact. And it’s something building and construction professionals should always be thinking about. For some of us in the industry who have been providing these types of products for decades you might say we were green before green was “in.”