Canadian Consulting Engineer

COMMENT: Visions of the future vs. reality

“The population of cities is expected to double by 2050. With this challenge before us, the property industry must be brave and innovative if we are to create and manage buildings, communities and cities which are not only efficient in...

May 1, 2013   By Bronwen Parsons

“The population of cities is expected to double by 2050. With this challenge before us, the property industry must be brave and innovative if we are to create and manage buildings, communities and cities which are not only efficient in environmental terms, but also promote a high quality of life for all who pass through them.” So writes Kate Brown in The Business Case for Green Building published by the World Green Building Council in March.

Assuming that we do want buildings to exert a smaller toll on the environment (worldwide, buildings produce one-third of greenhouse gas emissions), then building designers need to be not only brave, but also persuasive, in order to guide their clients along the road.

The WGBC has unearthed some useful statistics that could help. Based on various types of buildings in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Singapore and Israel, WGBC found that the added cost of designing and constructing green buildings ranged from -0.4% to +12.5%. The figures were from 2000 to 2010, using code-compliant buildings as the benchmark.

I know businesses these days are pushing the limits in squeezing costs and maximizing profits, but since most green buildings provide a lifetime of energy savings, a capital cost premium of around 0-12% sounds pretty good to me.

If the cost differential is relatively low, however, it’s because our green buildings are not that much different to standard buildings yet. In a century’s time our buildings and cities could look utterly unlike anything we have seen. As with the evolution of cars and other technologies, it will take decades for sustainable buildings and cities to evolve to their most effective physical form.

For retrofits, the WGBC report cites a small 2012 U.K. study of six buildings where the green refurbishments cost between 0.3% and 40% more than the market standard.

But retrofits amount to so much more than energy savings. A building saved means less material going to landfills, less draw on natural resources (for materials, etc.), and the retention of workers and people in downtown areas close to public transit. In this issue we feature two examples: the Nova Scotia Power Building in Halifax and the Calgary Public Building.

In the green cities of the future we could have historical jewels like these to remind us of our past, set among drastically different structures and complexes, possibly all feeding off each other’s energy systems.

We can only begin to imagine what these cities will look like, but we catch glimpses in developments such as the Al Bahar towers in Abu Dhabi which are wrapped in an outer wall of folding and unfolding sunshades. Or the BIQ building at the IBA Exposition in Hamburg which has a facade incorporating tanks of algae that act both as a sun filter and a biomass energy source.

But these are the exceptions — the oddballs. Despite all the rhetoric about sustainability we hear from business and government, what do we see growing behind the construction hoardings? Scores of glass-walled high-rise condominiums. On the highways almost every other car is an SUV with a single occupant. And whether it’s on suburban fields or on downtown streets we’re building homes on a grandiose scale. Something big has got to change in our western psyche if our visions of gleaming, futuristic sustainable cities in 2050 are ever going to materialize.


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