7 Sustainable Building Trends

Green roof on green building

Sustainable building has become a vital mission all across the world. With a growing population, and wider awareness of our changing climate, the time of building recklessly, with no mind to impending obsolescence or wastefulness, is behind us. These seven trends are already helping us build homes and facilities more sustainably — and they’ll remain important allies in the coming years as we learn to tackle climate and sustainability challenges, together.

1. Energy Retrofits Offer an Attractive Alternative to Building New

Since 2012, energy-efficient retrofits for existing buildings have grown at a faster pace than brand-new eco-friendly construction. Moreover, reports the U.S. Department of Energy, such retrofits are usually more cost-effective for companies to undertake and offer a smaller ecological footprint, and a better ROI, than building a new facility with the ground up, even if that new facility is designed with environmental friendliness in mind.

2. Zero-Net-Energy Buildings Are Rare (But on the Rise)

A zero-net-energy building is one which manages to totally erase its energy footprint. In other words, it generates as much energy as it consumes.

In the United States, at the moment, this type of building is fairly rare. But the good news is that contractors, the public, municipalities, companies and organizations everywhere are taking a more serious look at zero-net-buildings now that the required renewable technologies have come of age and gotten more affordable. According to the New Buildings Institute, the appearance of zero-net-energy building projects has increased by 700 percent since 2012.

3. Connected IoT Devices Will Aid With ‘Green Disclosure’

The urgency with which humanity must address our influence on climate change means commitments to lower emissions and even zero-net-energy performance can’t be voluntary. Increasingly, states and cities will have to mandate the disclosure of a building’s energy performance. The value of these “benchmarking and disclosure ordinances” in broadening awareness of energy issues and improving compliance is supported by research.

As of 2019, dozens of cities have committed themselves to greener construction and living by putting efficiency disclosure ordinances on their books and setting performance targets for commercial buildings, multi-family dwellings and other types of structures, or all of the above. This is possible thanks to more affordable Internet of Things devices, which can monitor every aspect of a building’s energy use, including pinpointing “lossy” areas like leaks in the building’s envelope and inefficient appliances and equipment.

4. Green Roofs Are Still Costly, but Catching On in a Big Way

Before citywide mandates came into vogue, “green roofs” were relatively uncommon. Green roofs use plant material — sometimes even a full community garden — to cover at least a portion of the top of a building. The benefits for energy consumption can be enormous, since buildings with green roofs cost less to cool. They even aid in retaining some of the potentially chemical-laden runoff in cities that enter the water table during heavy rains.

Denver, Colorado, was one of the latest U.S. cities where voters signaled their support for mandatory green roofs on new building construction. This is notable for a number of reasons, one of which is that the measure persisted even though it stands to add about $15 per square foot to the cost of roofing a new building.

5. Cities Will ‘Compete’ With One Another on the Way to Grid Parity

The term “grid parity” refers to the point at which renewable energies become as attractive to energy investors as incumbent energy sources like coal and oil. According to some, the solar market has reached that point already, even if cities, states and countries are still lagging behind. The energy market in the U.S. is worth $6 trillion, but that doesn’t mean money moves around that quickly. Even with all of the practical and moral cases for rolling out renewable energy, it was, until recently, not the most attractive investment vehicle for shareholders.

Solar technology has dropped in price by roughly 17 percent each year, however, which means it’s more realistic than ever for cities to pursue grid parity for renewables with even more steely determination. According to Centre for Climate Finance & Investment, New York City, London and Munich could achieve grid parity as early as 2020, beating sunny Johannesburg to the punch.

6. Generative Design Becomes a More Common Architectural Tool

Multiple pieces of software go into the design and construction of your average building. But while architectural software is a boon when it comes to dialing-in a new design concept, it hasn’t, until recently, been that useful in helping architects appraise and adjust the energy performance of a building, right there on the screen.

With generative design software, an architect can make changes to a building design and watch as its “performance rating” is adjusted in real-time. Does the building encourage air flow? Take advantage of the regional sunshine? High-tech building tools like these take a lot of the guesswork out of the equation and ensure every detail of our buildings can be optimized, from the ground up, for efficiency.

7. ‘Living Concrete’ Joins a Growing Roster of Sustainable Materials

Finally, we come to the challenge of choosing sustainable building materials. You’ve likely seen with your own eyes how popular reclaimed barnwood has become for brand-new construction and retrofits, as well as an abundance of other recycled, “upcycled” and repurposed materials that would otherwise be destined for a landfill.

Concrete is a popular and hardy building material — but its likelihood to form cracks means it requires maintenance over time, which costs time and resources. Thankfully, concrete is getting a high-tech makeover thanks to some decidedly low-tech helpers: bacteria. Next-generation concrete will be able to “heal itself” after sustaining cracks, meaning it could become one of the world’s longest-lasting and most resource-friendly building materials yet.

Excited by these sustainable building trends? What do you think will be the next biggest trend?

Emily covers topics in sustainability and green living, and she is the creator of Conservation Folks. You can follow her on Twitter for her latest updates.

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