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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: New Harvard study shows cost-saving power of green buildings

In this important study, Harvard’s principal investigator, Dr. Joseph Allen, examined the impact of green-certified buildings over a 16-year period in six countries: the U.S., China, India, Brazil, Germany and Turkey.  The study, supported by United Technologies and known as HEALTHfx, found nearly $6 billion in combined health and climate benefits.  Construction of green buildings has now reached cost-parity with non-green buildings, so why not capture all of the health, efficiency and climate benefits?  In the interview below, Dr. Allen and Chief Sustainability Officer at United Technologies, John Mandyck, explain the importance of the study.  Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Sustainability.

Tim: Why do green buildings matter for health?

Dr. Joe Allen: All buildings – our homes, schools, offices – are important to our health for the simple fact that this is where we spend the majority of our time. If we live until we are 80 years old, we’ll have spent 72 years indoors. Therefore, the way we design, construct and operate our buildings has an outsized impact on our health. Green buildings that focus on optimizing indoor environmental quality, while minimizing energy consumption, impact indoor health while also reducing contributions to outdoor air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why we developed HEALTHfx – new research about the health impacts of buildings beyond their four walls.

Tim: Why do buildings matter for climate change?

John Mandyck: Buildings consume 40% of global energy – more than anything else. So the future of buildings and the future of sustainability clearly go hand-in-hand, especially with rapid urbanization around the world. More than 100 million people will move to cities this year alone, requiring many more buildings. In India for example, 75% of the buildings needed in 2030 have yet to be built. This means real-time decisions are being made every day whether to build green, sustainable buildings or not with big implications for a lower carbon future – and human health.

Harvard’s new HEALTHfx study helps quantify that. The team found meaningful, previously undocumented benefits from green buildings equivalent to nearly $6 billion in combined health and climate benefits.

Tim: How is “greenness” measured?

John: Green building rating systems have been developed to define, measure and certify the sustainability aspects of a building. These rating systems typically produce a score by which buildings can be compared. In the U.S. and many parts of the world, the most common system is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) by the U.S. Green Building Council. Regional and country specific green building ratings systems also exist, which are tailored to address the local environmental priorities.

Tim: Are green buildings more expensive to build than non-green buildings?

John: There can be an additional cost associated with building green as compared to conventional building, but it’s often offset by a decrease in long-term life cycle costs.

The cost of green building will vary based on the type of building (office, hospital, residential, etc.) and the type of green certification achieved (LEED, BREEAM, Green Mark, Green Star, Standard 5281, for example), but data compiled by the World Green Building Council has shown that – globally – the actual reported cost premiums for green buildings fall within the 0% – 12.5% range. Buildings that aim for “zero carbon compliance” tend to fall on the higher range of this spectrum.

In the US, LEED certified buildings average a premium of less than 1% to 6.5% (based on LEED Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum).

And remember, upfront costs in green buildings are often offset by a decrease in long-term life cycle costs. Source: (pages 19-22, 27)

Tim: What parts of the world have made the most progress on green building development?

John: The U.S. is the most mature for green buildings because the movement started there in 1993 with the creation of the U.S. Green Building Council. United Technologies, through its Carrier brand, was actually the first member to join and helped to stand the organization up. According to the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark, certified green buildings accounted for nearly 40% of U.S. commercial construction in 2016, but there is no question the movement has gone global. Today, there are nearly 100 national green building councils all pursuing strategies and policies to accelerate green building adoption, with the World Green Building Council providing global direction and support. While the U.S. was first, other nations are quickly catching up, especially in Australia, China, Columbia, Germany, Singapore, the United Kingdom and many countries throughout the Middle East to just name a few.

China has emerged as the world’s largest green building nation with 320 million square meters of certified green building space, eclipsing the United States at 310 million square meters. What took the U.S. more than 20 years to accomplish, China has achieved in a decade. And, with the Chinese government’s pledge in 2015 to ensure that 50 percent of all new urban buildings will meet China’s green building standards by 2020, China is poised to have 50 percent of the world’s green building floor space by then.  Source:

Tim: Where is there the most opportunity for big gains on health and climate in the future?

Joe: Rapid population growth combined with rapid urbanization globally and a building sector that accounts for a large share of global energy consumption, place buildings at the epicenter of our global sustainability efforts. With energy-efficient buildings that simultaneously promote indoor environmental quality, we can begin to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases while maintaining healthy indoor spaces.

Tim: Could big gains in India and China help to significantly mitigate climate change? 

John: There is no question that green buildings can help India and China meet their climate targets. Buildings consume 40% of global energy versus transportation at 28%. While comprehensive strategies are needed in all sectors for a lower carbon future, buildings represent a singularly large opportunity, particularly for India and China that are building new city blocks – and in some cases new cities themselves – to accommodate rapid urbanization.

Tim: What are the impediments to accelerating green building development?

John: Inspiration can spark a movement, but only data will sustain it. That’s why United Technologies has been committed to working with premier research institutions like Harvard University to bring new data to life so better decisions can be made about buildings. In particular, we are helping to define the human context and its true value to green buildings in the form of productivity and public health benefits across society. This data in particular has historically been missing from the conversation.

Also, like many movements, education and awareness are essential for continued momentum, especially in developing economies where the demand for new construction is high and the opportunity for green building is great. To increase education and awareness, United Technologies started its Distinguished Sustainability Lecture Series, which brings experts and new research to emerging economies to encourage the adoption of green buildings. Since 2011, 33 lecture events have been held in 21 cities spanning 15 countries reaching more than 4,000 building professionals.

Joe: For me, I think the major impediment is simply that public health is not factored into the cost/benefit equation when it comes to the building sector. When health is included, costs are often far outweighed by health benefits. We need to start tracking Health Performance Indicators, or HPIs, just like every business tracks KPIs.


Tim:  What is your most inspiring green building (for both authors with pictures please)

Joe: I’m a big fan of what CookFox Architects and the Durst Organization did with 1 Bryant Park in NYC. They developed the high-rise with a conscious awareness of the building’s relationship to the world beyond the building – doing things like capturing and re-using rain water, using a thermal storage system that creates ice in the evening when energy use demand is lowest and then using that in the daytime for cooling, and creating a green roof to minimize urban heat island effects. They did all this while providing improvements that focus on the indoor environment and tenant health and productivity, like continuously monitoring indoor air quality and using high-efficiency filters.

John: I’m looking forward to seeing the new UTC Center for Intelligent Buildings in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. It’s designed to be the first LEED Platinum building in Florida under the new rating system. In addition to being built with sustainability in mind, it was also designed to improve the experience for occupants in many ways. One feature that Joe might be interested in is the decision to optimize the indoor air quality to the same conditions found by Joe and his team to double occupants’ cognitive function test scores in their previous research, known as the COGfx studies.

Tim: What did the HEALTHfx Study find?

Joe: The study showed that green-certified buildings do, in fact, have effects on the environment as well as the health and well-being of the larger population. LEED-certified buildings in six countries were evaluated: the U.S., China, India, Brazil, Germany and Turkey, and the results showed nearly $6B in benefits to both health and climate. In fact, in the U.S., for every dollar saved on energy cost from green buildings, nearly another dollar is saved in terms of societal benefits. In China and India, the societal benefits are approximately 10 times the energy savings.

Health benefits in the U.S.:

  • $2.7 billion in estimated public health benefits in the U.S. from fewer:
      • As many as 405 premature deaths
      • 171 hospital visits
      • 11,000 asthma attacks
      • 54,000 respiratory symptoms
      • 21,000 lost days of work
      • 16,000 lost days of school
    • Effect is up to 10 times higher in developing countries

Climate benefits in the U.S.:

  • $1.3 billion in the U.S. in estimated climate benefits from reductions:
    • 31MT of carbon dioxide (CO2)
    • 37kt of sulfur dioxide (SO2)
    • 28kt of nitrogen oxide (NOx)
    • 4kt of particulate matter (PM2.5)

Climate benefits, globally:

  • Prevented from entering the atmosphere:
    • 33MT of carbon dioxide (CO2)
    • 51kt of sulfur dioxide (SO2)
    • 38kt of nitrogen oxide (NOx)
    • 10kt of particulate matter (PM5)

Considering that the buildings studied only included LEED-certified buildings, which are approximately one-third of the global green building stock, the total benefits of green buildings worldwide would be even greater.


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