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People versus planet: Is there ever a trade-off in green building design?

We are not alone at the World Green Building Council in believing that green buildings are better for us today as well as tomorrow. Why? Because green buildings can make the people inside them healthier, happier and more productive, and help us fight climate change – a “win-win” situation.

But are there times when these two goals are at odds with one another? As a building professional, do you sometimes find there are tensions between the two? Do healthy building strategies sometimes compromise on carbon emissions savings?

In a new series of blogs, we will be exploring these questions.

Two bold goals for buildings

Climate change and healthy buildings are high up the list of considerations in green building design – in fact they’re fundamental to it – and that is why two of WorldGBC’s flagship projects focus on these themes.

Advancing Net Zero addresses climate change and how to combat it through environmental features in building design, with a particular focus on carbon emissions. It calls for all buildings to be net zero carbon by 2050 (and all new buildings from 2030). The building and construction sector currently contributes 30 per cent of global carbon emissions and so this bold goal is needed for us to meet our climate commitments to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees.

Our Better Places for People project demonstrates the case for green buildings by helping us understand how they positively impact the health and wellbeing of the people inside them. And since healthy, happy people are more productive, there is a business case for this. Around 90 per cent of a business’s operating costs are spent on employees and so it is critical to maintain a working environment that encourages productivity. This is something we first explored in our 2014 report Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building and again last year in Building the Business Case: Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Green Offices.

Are incompatibilities emerging?

Strategies that maximise employee health, wellbeing and productivity are largely compatible with green building strategies.

But, with increasing awareness of both the urgency of creating net zero buildings and the health benefits of green buildings in general, have come questions about potential trade-offs, particularly the intersection of energy efficiency and health and wellbeing goals. Is it always the case that every attribute of a healthy building can get you to net zero carbon, and vice versa?

For example, we know enhanced ventilation beyond building code or even some green building rating tools can lead to better worker productivity, but what are the energy and carbon implications from this? How do we evaluate those choices?

These kinds of questions are essential for our industry and policy-makers to understand and to address.

Topics in the series

Our blog series – aimed at developers, architects, acoustics professionals, policy-makers, occupiers and anyone with an interest in green buildings – will discuss major building features that are critical for encouraging health and wellbeing, but may have tensions with our aims to reduce energy use and achieve net zero carbon. Each of the articles will provide practical examples of the tensions we discuss and explore (but not explicitly recommend) strategies to overcome them.

The topics include:

  • Indoor air quality and ventilation: Enhanced ventilation can improve indoor air quality and increase the productivity of occupants in green buildings, but enhanced mechanical ventilation can lead to higher carbon emissions (depending on the source of the energy). Are those increased carbon emissions worth the productivity gains?
  • Daylighting and lighting: The use of daylighting during the day can improve sleep quality at night and consequently productivity at work, but is the potential for heat loss or gain through larger glass windows worth it?

Other healthy building features will also be touched upon in further articles in the series, including:

  • thermal comfort;
  • biophilia and views;
  • look and feel;
  • location and access to amenities;
  • noise and acoustics;
  • interior layout and active design.

These features have been shown to improve the health, wellbeing and productivity of those inside buildings and at the same time generally reduce a building’s carbon emissions, and as such, many are included in various green building certification schemes supported and administered by our Green Building Councils. For that reason, we won’t dive too deep on these features as we don’t believe they represent significant tensions between health and carbon emissions.


Join the discussion

The series doesn’t stop there! We‘d love to hear from you. If you’ve ever had to make a choice between energy reductions and occupant comfort when designing a building, let us know. We would like to hear about your own experiences when encountering these tensions and how you have addressed them. You can even write your own blog about your experiences and we may share it. Any comments and questions related to this can be directed to me:

Colin Powell is Project Manager for Better Places for People, World Green Building Council

Read the second piece in the series on lighting. 

Find our more about our Better Places for People project.