June 19, 2024

Understanding the Social Benefits of Green Building

Green building reduces waste by promoting efficiency throughout all phases of a commercial or residential project. Green buildings promote resilience-enhancing designs, technologies, materials, and construction methods to reduce carbon, waste, energy consumption, and water usage over a structure’s lifecycle.

To achieve these goals, green buildings promote the use of durable materials, thoughtful site selection, rainwater collection, demand response, grid islanding, energy efficiency, onsite renewable generation, and more. And while many of us are familiar with the economic and environmental benefits, the social benefits of green building don’t usually show up on P and L statements.

Growing Consumer Demand for Green Building

Since its establishment in 2000, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Development) has grown to become the world’s largest building rating system. Using the LEED framework allows architects and designers to design healthier, more energy-efficient buildings and homes.

In 2009, California implemented “CALGreen,” the first statewide green building code adopted in the US. The eco-friendly code applies to all new construction, and for additions or alterations of 1,000 square feet or greater than $200,000 in value. Mandatory requirements include water and energy efficiencies, sustainable building materials and products, and indoor air quality. 

A recent public opinion project by the USGBC (United States Green Building Council) found that nearly a third of the respondents have suffered a direct, personal health experience resulting from their work or home environment. As a result, respondents expressed that clean air, water, and less exposure to toxins were among their top concerns.

Famous Green Building Projects

Many property owners consider LEED certification the gold standard for green building projects. But you might be surprised at how many famous buildings have already achieved that status by:

  • Minimizing pollution and strain on resources
  • Lowering maintenance and building costs
  • Improving energy efficiency
  • Increasing water efficiency
  • Utilizing sustainable materials
  • Improving indoor air quality

Salt Lake City Library achieved LEED Silver certification in 2018. The library achieved high indoor air quality and reduced energy costs thanks to a UFAD-based (Underfloor Air Distribution) HVAC system.

The Shanghai Tower is currently the world’s second-tallest building and achieved LEED Platinum status by incorporating passive cooling through a transparent curtain wall. Located on the exterior facades, 270 wind turbines power all the exterior lights. 

The Manitoba Hydro Place in Winnipeg is a 22-story marvel that uses 70% less energy than the typical office building. By incorporating a raised access floor for utility services, the owners can save over $500K in utility costs annually.

Facebook HQ attained LEED Platinum status by incorporating 3.6-megawatt solar roof panels to handle all its energy needs. And the Menlo Park location also includes an on-site black water treatment facility to provide reclaimed water for landscaping and irrigation purposes.

What Are the Social Benefits of Building Green?

Several previous studies indicated that certain green building features, such as daylight, outside views, connection to nature, and spaces for social interaction, appeared to have several positive psychological benefits:

  • Reduced stress levels
  • Improved emotional functioning
  • Increased communication
  • Stronger community identity

As a result, much of the early attention toward eco-friendly design focused on:

  1. Daylight and electrical lighting
  2. Thermal satisfaction
  3. Perceptions of air quality
  4. Open office areas

Unfortunately, all the factors above are largely subjective and based on the individual’s personal preferences, their location in the building, and their immediate surroundings.

In 2018, a study from Harvard found that employees working in green and well-ventilated environments experienced improved cognitive function, crisis response, and focused activity levels, compared to those working in non-green environments. The study participants also reported improved sleep quality, which ultimately boosted workplace productivity.

A recent report by the Green Building Council of Australia found that hospitals with green infrastructure reported: 

  • An 8.5% reduction in medical stays
  • Patient recoveries sped up by 15%
  • Secondary infections decreased by 11%
  • Decreased the need for pain medication by 22%

In addition, the doctors, nurses, and staff benefit from the eco-friendly infrastructure’s increased aesthetics, acoustics, and improved air quality in their daily work environment.

Another 2018 study by the NCIB (National Center for Biotechnology Information) calculated the societal benefits across six different countries from 2000 to 2016. They used Harvard’s CoBE calculator for pollutant emission reduction to calculate climate and health co-benefits.

Globally, green buildings provided a $7.5 billion savings in reduced energy and water use costs for property owners.

33 metric tons of CO2, 51 kt of SO2, 38 kt of NOx, and 10 kt of PM2.5 was prevented from entering the atmosphere, saving another $5.8 billion in environmental cleanup and disposal costs.

Public health savings amounted to $5.4 billion, as the US averted: 

  • 172-405 premature deaths
  • 171 hospital admissions
  • 11,000 asthma exacerbations 
  • 54,000 respiratory symptoms 
  • 16,000 lost days of school
  • 21,000 lost days of work

Using an hourly rate of $20, the lost workdays total $3,360,000 in lost revenue for individuals and families alone. On the other side of the coin is the lost revenue for companies that can’t sell their products or services until the employee returns to work.

Clearly, incorporating green building into individual projects can provide numerous benefits for property owners of existing buildings as well. Green upgrades such as LED lighting and smart thermostats will reduce operating costs today. Other options, such as a low-profile raised floor like the Gridd® Adaptive Cabling Distribution® system, can reduce future construction or remodeling costs. Pursuing green building standards on a community or larger level can encourage greater collaboration among residents, tenants, and property owners. Future green building analysis should consider these social benefits when weighing policy decisions that impact energy-efficient buildings.


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