Since retrofitting buildings to make them sustainable is both more expensive and less effective than building them right in the first place, we create 50- to 100-year consequences when we construct buildings without consideration for sustainability.
Such buildings are leading sources of greenhouse gases, guzzle up our natural resources and are expensive to maintain for their century-or-so-long lifespan. The encouraging news is that many of these 100-year consequences are avoidable. Next-generation green buildings can be built now with mostly off-the-shelf technology at a cost similar to equivalent conventional buildings over their life cycles (in other words, higher construction costs are offset by lower operating and capital renewal costs). The University of British Columbia’s new Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) is one such example.
CIRS captures energy from the sun, the ground and a neighbouring, less-efficient building. In doing so, it not only covers its own heating requirements, but returns energy to the less-efficient building, thus reducing the campus’ natural gas consumption. Its wood structure — much of which utilizes pine beetle-affected wood from B.C. and Alberta — sequesters more than 600 tonnes of carbon and offsets greenhouse gas emissions from other non-renewable materials used in the building’s construction. It satisfies its own water needs by collecting Vancouver’s abundant rainwater and treats it on-site, leaving it cleaner.
Why are such best practices, increasingly adopted in Europe, still not universally adopted by developers and construction companies in North America? The barriers are not technical and rarely are they purely economic. Rather, they are institutional: codes of practice, regulatory requirements, performance criteria, even job descriptions push us toward less sustainable choices. To give one example, it is very difficult institutionally to transfer the benefits of lower operating and capital renewal costs from the operating side of the ledger to the capital side. As a result, sustainable buildings that have higher capital costs but actually cost less on a total cost of ownership basis are typically not built.