Most buildings in which we spend our lives are not as green as they could be. Their construction can generate lots of waste; once they’re up and running, inefficient use of energy and water could unnecessarily tax environmental resources, or even make human inhabitants sick. As humanity seeks to reduce its impact on the planet, innovators are turning to new technology to create more sustainable green buildings. The resulting cities might be better — not only for the environment but also for the humans that inhabit them.
Today, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards are among the most popular worldwide to help homes and businesses use resources more efficiently. These standards outline how much energy and water should be used in the building and what kinds of materials use the fewest possible toxic chemicals.
Building designers then get creative about how to fit the needs of the building within these parameters. They can make the building more efficient by careful selection of construction materials, good insulation and window placement to keep the interior warm during the winter and cool in the summer. Then they can add on technology to reduce the building’s footprint, heating the building with natural gas or incorporating efficient fixtures like water-conserving toilets and energy-efficient light bulbs.
As more LEED-certified buildings are constructed, their impact could be huge. Green building is expected to add 3.9 million jobs to the economy by 2018, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Green Building Council. A separate report from the U.S. Department of Energy found that LEED-certified buildings can revitalize neighborhoods; people who work in green buildings are less likely to skip work and tend to be healthier, too, as they are exposed to fewer pollutants.
Environmentally conscious companies are leading the way by constructing a growing number of facilities according to LEED standards — Northrop Grumman, for example, has eight LEED-certified facilities across the United States. Companies like these understand that green buildings benefit more than just the environment and communities — they make businesses more competitive.
Another way engineers are looking to reduce the environmental impact of individual buildings is by creating sophisticated systems to monitor energy use. That way, they’ll know what kinds of interventions can cut down on the amount of energy being used in the building.
Data collected by internet-connected sensors and processed by artificial intelligence systems will make individual buildings more efficient. Companies such as ON World are developing smart lighting systems that can automatically adjust lighting based on occupancy and the time of day; others, such as Verdigris, are targeting manufacturing to reduce wasted energy. Many of these systems also incorporate sophisticated thermostats to save on energy used in heating and cooling; researchers from MIT have created a system called “Local Warming” that only heats spaces when they are occupied.
Instead of focusing on individual buildings, some engineers are looking at cities overall in order to reduce the use of resources. One big push is to make better use of a city’s electricity through a “smart grid.” More homes and businesses are generating their own renewable power on-site, using techniques such as solar panels — two of Northrop Grumman’s operating facilities, for example, were recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency for their energy-efficient equipment and building-systems design, according to NGC’s forthcoming Corporate Responsibility Report. As the cost of this technology drops, more buildings are expected to do the same in the future. Any unused energy can be diverted to the larger electrical grid, creating a profit for the building owner and more efficient energy use citywide.
In order for smart grids to become widespread and profitable for those involved, better technology is needed. Ideally, these systems could efficiently send electricity to the buildings that need it. Several companies, such as Tendril and Groom Energy, have designed software that measures how much electricity the building is using and how much can be contributed to the grid. Partnership between private industry and government will further facilitate more efficient energy use; according to a U.S. Department of Energy webpage: “To move forward, we need a new kind of electric grid, one that is built from the bottom up to handle the groundswell of digital and computerized equipment and technology dependent on it — and one that can automate and manage the increasing complexity and needs of electricity in the 21st century.”
Green buildings clearly have many benefits, but some prospective builders choose not to build them because they assume they would be more expensive. In fact, studies have found that, in the long term, green buildings cost about the same as their traditional counterparts. They may seem to cost more up front, as more efficient building materials and installations may be more expensive, but ultimately these reduce operating costs. Green building owners save on electricity, water and heating bills — they could even make some extra money selling energy back to the grid.
As more of the world’s population moves to cities, and as resources like energy and water are put under greater strain, green buildings will become even more important. You might be working in a smart building — or even living in a smart city — sooner than you think. And chances are, your life will be enriched from it.