Sustainable design has long been a feature of the construction industry. Architects design windows to reduce electricity costs and include point of use water treatments to improve energy efficiency. Homeowners have always wanted the latest technologies to cut costs, but in recent years, there has been a push for expansive green technologies to be applied to massive development projects. This has drawn the support of not only environmental organizations, but also governments and the public.
President Obama’s recent call for a more sustainable federal government has led the Government Services Organization (GSA) to create a green innovation category in their Real Property Award. Last year’s winner was NASA’s Sustainability Base, a monstrous office building featuring a sunlight-trapping and solar powered electrical system that will produce twice as much energy as the building uses, as well as a 6,000-gallon underground water tank that collects rainwater for additional usage. Other large sustainable development projects include No. 1 Central Park in Sydney and The Media Centre in England.
However, as honorable the intentions are, these new buildings have come under scrutiny and developed a whole new set of issues in regards to sustainability. Advertising a building as ‘green’ and gaining support for the project has proven to be much easier than maintaining an affordable and environmentally friendly supply chain. No. 1 Central Park project in Sydney has recently been discovered to be using illegal rainforest timber, potentially undermining the development’s green claims, but also demonstrating the challenges of managing large, complex supply chains and distant certification processes. Sustainable building presents all the same risks and challenges of traditional construction with the added caveat that all materials and processes must be held to the highest environmental standard.
A recent article in Business Insurance highlights the legal difficulties of turning abstract ideals like ‘eco-friendly buildings’ into contractual language. A main concern is how to create insurance policies for these buildings and technologies. Many companies have only insured traditional projects and creating accounting schemes for a new set of materials and processes is proving to be very difficult. It has led to unmet expectations as far as the final product and price. ‘Green’ systems will often not create the anticipated energy savings leading to higher utility costs as well as a disconnect between the anticipated and real value of the systems.
As green technology envelopes more of the economy, unique challenges are emerging in almost every facet of each project. The inevitable difficulties must be seen as part of the road to vast improvements in the construction and building sectors of the economy. In time, the kinks will be worked out and sustainable design will no longer be a cutting edge technology but the norm in building.