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Changing perspectives on green buildings

When people think about combatting climate change, certain images pop into their heads: coal power stations replaced by solar panels; smog-spewing trucks superseded by silent electric vehicles; sprawling highways transforming into green streets, filled with cyclists and pedestrians.

But what most people don’t picture is a building. What they don’t realise is that buildings actually contribute one third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and so getting buildings to be greener can offer one third of the solution to climate change – and more.

Did you know, for example, that the average green building saves around 25% more energy and uses 11% less water than a regular building? Or that state of the art individual green buildings are capable of producing no emissions at all? And that the green building industry is set to account for 3.3 million US jobs by 2018?

Maybe not. And that’s why the theme for this year’s World Green Building Week, our annual awareness raising event, is focused on changing people’s perspectives.

On Monday [26 September], the World Green Building Council, its global network of over 70 national Green Building Councils and their 27,000 member companies operating in the building industry, kick off this flagship event, now in its seventh year. Through a range of activities from panel debates and seminars, to conferences and site tours, the week will highlight how green buildings are the most effective means to achieving a range of environmental, social and economic goals, from addressing climate change to creating sustainable homes, businesses and communities.

Climate change is, in the words of G20 world leaders such as Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, “one of the greatest challenges of our time”. And buildings hold the solution to it. Last year at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, we held a Buildings Day, where for the first time, politicians and business leaders from around the world came together to celebrate the role that green building can play in combatting climate change. Their perspectives about building changed too – previously, it was a means to house their populations, to stimulate growth, to build new infrastructure for health, education and industry. But following Buildings Day, there was a new view that building can still can achieve all these goals – but at the same time bring about major change to the global climate.

Our aim of changing perspectives neatly aligns with the latest challenge from the organiser of Ecobuild, UBM – a member of WorldGBC’s Corporate Advisory Board (and of course, Building’s owner). That challenge is for the building industry to “redefine sustainability” – a particularly pertinent test given recent changes to the UK’s own policy landscape, but also in the wake of COP21, and the introduction of the UN’s global Sustainable Development Goals, aimed at improving social needs such as education, health and job opportunities.

We know that sustainability within buildings must focus on reducing emissions in order to meet the ambition of the Paris Agreement, and that there is an increasingly strong business case for it. But like many complex and wide-ranging challenges, there are other aspects to sustainability, with multiple and differing priorities depending on the local context. For example, our Green Building Council in South Africa places an emphasis on socio-economic issues such as employment or skills within its green building certification, while in the UK, addressing health and wellbeing in green buildings is of particular importance to the UK Green Building Council.

As a global organisation working to promote green building around the world, it is our job to support our Green Building Councils to pursue what they believe to be the most important aspects of sustainability – ones that will ultimately lead to buildings that leave a lighter footprint on our planet, but that also enable people to thrive and live a higher quality of life. And this is where we seek to further change people’s perspective.

The average person spends around 90% of their time within buildings, but how much do they really think about the building itself, and how it’s affecting them as individuals? They may only see inanimate structures, but buildings are so much more than that: they are the places in which we work, play, socialise, learn, rest, heal and more.

And we believe it’s through interesting and often untold facts and figures that we can genuinely change how people think about green buildings, and foster a deeper connection between them and the places they inhabit. For example, how green buildings demonstrate a 27% higher occupant satisfaction than a regular building. Or how office workers with windows have been shown to sleep 46 minutes more per night.

Sustainability often focuses on efforts to reduce our impact on the environment, which is undoubtedly critical. But we should also consider how to closely align sustainability with people. It is after all people who we design buildings for, and who will benefit from our efforts to make them more sustainable.

Terri Wills is CEO at the World Green Building Council

This article was originally published as part of Ecobuild’s series on Redefining Sustainability – #SustainabilityIs’.

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