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Save money through lowering emissions

Buildings that emit smaller volumes of greenhouse gases can help produce greater profits, writes Toni Allen

| | May 17, 2021 | 8:03 am
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Although people may question the causes, there is widespread acceptance of global warming. We are seeing it even in terms of rainfall, with water being traded as a commodity. This provides opportunities for the building industry. Gone are the days when green building was cost-prohibitive and unprofitable. Today, constructing buildings that emit smaller volumes of greenhouse gases can actually be more cost-efficient and help produce greater profits.

Toni Allen


Lighting, heating, cooling and powering residential and commercial buildings utilise large amounts of energy, as does building such edifices. According to a report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, called Decarbonizing US Buildings, “Fossil-fuel combustion attributed to residential and commercial buildings accounts for roughly 29% of total US greenhouse gas emissions.” Buildings play a sizable role in greenhouse gas emissions. This is due, in part, to their operating energy, or the combined environmental effects of the energy required to power their outlets, appliances and lights, and to ventilate, heat and cool them. It is also partly due to their embodied energy or, essentially, that which is required to build them. As Green Building Advisor published in Climate Change for Builders, the US Department of Energy reported that buildings in the United States account for nearly 40% of primary energy consumption in the country. Considering both operating and embodied energy still depend heavily on fossil fuels, the country and its building industry face an unsustainable reality.


As Climate Change for Builders also revealed, the UN stated in its October 2018 International Panel on Climate report that “Large, immediate and unprecedented global efforts to mitigate greenhouse gasses are required.” Building construction and design can and must play a significant role in this. The same C2ES report that highlighted the problems with building practices that ignore matters like fossil[1]fuel combustion and carbon emissions also highlighted some good news. Energy-efficiency improvements in building practices since 2005 have yielded 17.3% reduced emissions in the residential sector and 11.4% in the commercial sector. Looking forward into the future of building, it becomes increasingly clear that sustainable solutions will be a growing and inextricable part of it. This involves modern building practices like electrification and intelligent-efficiency technologies. Public sentiment will play a huge role in this massive shift in building practices. In poll after poll, election after election, the public continues to show it cares about global warming. What’s more, people are growing more concerned over time. In large part, this is due to a spreading awareness of the cost-savings to consumers of energy-efficient homes and workplaces. As Green Building Advisor noted, “An efficient home may use USD 300 per month less in energy costs than a poorly built home – money that could go toward a mortgage.” Invariably, the day will come when the public expects the buildings where they live and work to do their part to reduce climate-change risk. It will, therefore, be essential for builders to communicate their efforts and the effects of those efforts on long-term energy efficiency and cost. Increasingly, consumers understand and accept the higher initial costs for energy-efficient homes and buildings.


The retiring of coal-fired power plants in the last decade has led to much cleaner electricity production. Whereas replacing fossil fuels with electricity used to be more of a lateral move in terms of carbon-dioxide pollution, there is now considerable environmental advantage to using electricity. As of mid[1]2019, according to Carnegie Mellon’s Emissions Index, per unit of electricity, carbon-dioxide pollution was already down nearly one-third from 2001 levels. According to Getting the Facts Right by RMI, a shift toward all-electric buildings might be challenging and even problematic in the short-term for areas powered mainly by coal. However, this is generally not the case and certainly not the case long-term. “Getting the Facts Right” goes on to explain that incorporating energy efficiency into buildings, such as through electrification, not only lowers costs for builders but also increases comfort for the end-users. Building all-electric is cheaper than installing gas-powered air-conditioning and appliances. It also eliminates the costly need to extend gas service to new constructions. Lifetime energy-usage costs are less for all-electric buildings – in part because formerly separate heating and cooling units are now combined into a single heat pump. RMI’s research concludes that heat-pump systems also produce more comfortable spaces by more effectively and efficiently maintaining consistent temperatures throughout the space. Electrification isn’t the only way to design and build energy-efficient spaces, however. As Climate Change for Builders explains, “The ways to reduce energy consumption are well known: Improve airtightness and insulation levels; install efficient windows, doors, fixtures and equipment; design to take advantage of the sun’s rays (while guarding against overheating); be smart about how you operate your home.”


Climate Change for Buildings also extols the benefits of focusing on building multi-family dwellings as a way to boost energy-efficiency. By effectively using fewer materials to accommodate a greater number of people, builders can cut down on the impact of using those materials. In addition to shifting from single[1]family to multi-family dwellings, builders can achieve these results by renovating wherever possible rather than building new construction. Additionally, it helps to upcycle or recycle first before resorting to new materials and, when new materials are required, avoid those like concrete and foam with a strong link to global warming. Schroders explains that the Buildings as Material Banks (BAMB) project (partially funded by the European Union) is currently investigating ways to transition to what is becoming known as a “circular” building sector that encourages reusing materials and reducing waste. Part of the approach will be to document materials used in renovations and new building construction with “data passports” that empower developers, architects and others to select circular and sustainable materials.


Fortunately for builders interested in exploring ways to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many government grants to help fund green building efforts are available. Among these are national, state and local programs from sources including:

  • General Services Administration
  • Department of Energy
  • The Funders’ Network
  • The Home Depot Foundation
  • The Interstate Renewable Energy Council
  • The National Association of State Energy Officials.

These programs may include grants as well as rebates, streamlined loan procedures and favorable loan terms, property-assessed clean energy (PACE) funds, and weatherization aid for low[1]income residences. There are also several federal tax benefits for green builders and green-building owners, including Federal Tax Credits for Energy Efficiency and the Tax Incentive Assistance Project (TIAP.) States with programs providing grants and other funding assistance to green builders include California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York. Localities with such programs include Arlington, Virginia; Austin, Texas; King County, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington. There are similar programs in other countries and localities. The bottom line is that focusing on building in ways that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions is not just good for the planet, it’s also good for your and your customers’ bottom lines.

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