Buildings must be the foundation of a green city

Densely-populated cities are good for the environment in many ways. Condominiums and apartment buildings are more efficiently and easily heated and cooled. Public transport systems move people using a smaller environmental footprint. Walking is healthy.Yet cities also bring noise and air pollution. They create heat islands as concrete absorbs the sun’s rays.

As cities are built or revamped with the environment in mind, much attention is now focused on buildings. A whole movement is underway to improve the environmental impact, including energy consumption, of buildings, especially large public buildings and office blocks. This is where building standards come in and the creation in many countries of green building councils, which encourage the application of these standards.

There are two international standards and certification systems for green buildings:

  • BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology), developed in the United Kingdom in 1990 and adapted to more than 50 other countries;
  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a rating system unveiled in the United States in 2000.

The scope of the standards includes energy balance and water use, health and well-being of occupants, pollution, transport, materials, waste, ecology and even the management processes. Buildings are rated and certified on a scale of Pass, Good, Very Good, Excellent and Outstanding.

The key difference between the two international standards lies much less in the content of the standards than in the process of certification. BREEAM has licensed assessors who examine the evidence against the criteria in the standard and report it to BREEAM’s parent, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in the U.K. BRE then assesses the report and issues the certificate, provided requirements are met.

LEED, in contrast, doesn’t collect the evidence. That’s the task of the design team, made up of architects, engineers, urban planners and other professionals retained by the builder/developer. The design team sends the data to the USGBC (United States Green Building Council), which examines them and issues the certificate of conformity if the design meets their demands.

Since the onus of providing data to meet LEED requirements is on design teams, they often spend considerable time providing calculations and submitting plans to USGBC to prove their compliance and receive accreditation. In contrast, buildings seeking BREEAM certification don’t face these onerous tasks because the process is more prescriptive, offering less freedom for the design process.

Obviously, the standards have to be adapted to a country’s climate, or to the various climates found in large countries and regions such as Russia and North America. For example, windows designed for sun loads in California aren’t suited for the cold in parts of Canada.

Building design and operations according to these international standards is a step in the right direction, even if implementation is slow everywhere.

Our research interest is in the Russian industrial city of Ekaterinburg and its project to create a green city. These standards can help. But the modern green building movement has been particularly slow to take root in Russia, the last major developed economy to organize a green building council. The Russian Green Building Council became a member of the World Green Building Council in 2010. The RuGBC trains and implements compliance with both the BREEAM and LEED certification systems, but on a voluntary basis.

Russian federal law has long required buildings be designed and constructed in accordance with strict energy efficiency and environmental protection codes and regulations. In practice, however, cheap energy and abundant natural resources, along with weak enforcement of regulations, has meant poor implementation.

This, of course, is what RuGBC wishes to change. And it has a willing candidate in the fourth largest Russian city, Ekaterinburg.

RuGBC has the support of the federal government. Russia is a signatory to international agreements to reduce their carbon emissions. The federal government has already made it clear that it views dramatically improved building energy efficiency as playing a leading role in helping it to fulfil its treaty obligations.

Every little step in energy efficiency helps in Russia. The country’s per capita consumption of energy (energy intensity) is more than three times that of many countries in the European Union. It’s twice that of the U.S. Yet Russia has committed to improving its energy efficiency by 40 per cent by 2020.

In Ekaterinburg, a business centre called Tsvety is being built according to LEED certification, possibly because of American participation.

Of perhaps greater international impact is that fact that FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, wants Russian stadia to follow BREEAM. The Ekaterinburg stadium for the World Cup later this year dates from the 1950s, but is being extended according to sustainable principles. Extra seating was needed to reach the minimum FIFA demand for at least 45,000 seats and an entire new stand has been built outside the original stadium.

FIFA wants the construction of sports facilities meeting green building standards to minimize stadium environmental impact. That includes decreasing expenses for water and energy supply (LED lighting, for example). The standards also cover the environmental safety of construction materials, accessibility by public transport, landscaping, air quality and level of comfort. In addition to calling on resource-efficient technologies, stadiums are constructed to preserve architectural heritage and biological persity. They are to ensure barrier-free environments for disabled people and people with limited mobility. The goal is to create comfortable public spaces.

Some lessons may be taken from the Russian experience.

Standards are important but need enforcing. Whether enforcement should be by law or by public and professional pressure is debatable.

Unfortunately, people tend to get around policies and procedures made with the best of intentions. For example, the grounds of buildings may have walkways and plantings, but people still take short cuts that damage the landscape.

Another example is found in the use of electric heaters in summer in air-conditioned building that are simply too cold. In winter, the same building may to too hot.

There are quite simple solutions. But should solutions be spelled out in the standards for general acceptance or be imposed by a building inspectorate?

That’s more of a political question than an environmental one.