Suppose Henry David Thoreau built his cabin by Walden Pond today. Would he reproduce the spare dwelling of 170 years ago? I doubt it. He’d have electric lights, running water, and refrigerators to simplify his life. But he’d also install solar panels, a rainwater harvest system, and maybe even a wind turbine.
Thoreau loved nature, so perhaps that’s not surprising. But the tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, who cared much less for nature, likely would do the same thing. His thrift was legendary.
The simple reason? Green technology saves money.
Hence we’re seeing a revolution, though it could be aptly termed a rapid evolution. It’s happening all around us, yet many are unaware of it. Green affordability has arrived gradually over a few decades and been easy to miss.
Green buildings come in many forms, but all save energy and aid the Earth via recycled water, solar panels, good insulation, plenty of natural light, and cleaner air, to cite some of the common identifiers.
Basically, green buildings cut operating costs, in water, energy, waste disposal, and maintenance. They’re like cars that get great mileage. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), certified buildings use 25 percent less energy and 11 percent less water, and have prevented over 80 million tons of waste from reaching landfills. The University of Hawaii says its green buildings saved $3.4 million in 2014 by cutting energy costs alone. One major hotel spent $184,000 on a green retrofit and saved $58,035 annually.
It has become much easier to demonstrate that green is a wise investment. The USGBC estimates that if you spend a little more to construct a building that’s green, you save over 10 times that cost in its lifecycle. In the stock market, they call that a “ten-bagger,” almost as rare as a no-hitter in baseball. But green is a ten-bagger anyone can get, and it’s not a gamble.
Poll after poll shows we prefer green buildings. They command higher rents, yet yield higher occupancy rates. In one study by McGraw Hill Construction, green construction increased the value of new buildings by 10.9 percent and existing ones by 6.8 percent.
“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space,” Mies van der Rohe said. And the will of our epoch is—or will be—fighting climate change. Buildings account for almost a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Costly damage is coming, but green buildings save people money here too, whether they spend time in them or not.
As a business case, green buildings vs. non-green buildings is like Google Maps vs. paper maps. The changeover is already clear in construction; in 2005, just two percent of nonresidential building starts in the U.S. were green, but last year over 40 percent were.
Today, more people in the United States work in solar than either coal or oil and gas. As the price of solar plunges, sunshine is powering not just homes, but also streetlights, parking meters, and garden lights.
The shift is global. We think of developing countries as being poor in wealth, but they’re poor in energy too. One out of every six people on Earth lives without electricity, but as green technology gets affordable, they may put solar devices on their rooftops and leapfrog the grid.
Globally, by 2018, the companies that expect to have over 60 percent of their building projects green-certified will more than double from 18 to 37 percent. Much of the growth will occur in developing nations. Global universities like New York Institute of Technology help ensure that the local workforce is properly trained and educated to join the ranks of the energy management elite across all fields.
And much more will derive from universities, which continue to lead the way. We must constantly spur dialog to help find solutions to pressing problems, and well as incubate new ideas and test them. A professor named Augustin Mouchot invented the first solar device in 1866; at NYIT, we were building hybrid cars in the 1970s and putting roof-top solar panels on our buildings in the 1990s.
More recently, our student teams have built full-scale green homes using their skills in architecture, engineering, design, and communications.
Today, scientists at various universities are developing solar films that are relatively inexpensive and non-toxic, so glass skyscrapers can have solar windows.
Oil and coal will not disappear tomorrow. Patterns of energy use lie embedded in our infrastructure, issues are varied and complex, and the technology is growing incrementally. We’re at a tipping point.
Universities are linking government, academia, and industry to meet modern challenges; at NYIT’s 11th annual energy conference last month we convened experts across many fields to examine the future of green buildings. The ideas put forth there may wind up in the buildings of tomorrow, housing enterprises that employ members of Generation Z, those reared with the benefit of access to technology, but also the burden of climate change implications.
Today the price is right. We’ll never run out of wind, and the sun gives our planet more energy in one hour than we use in a whole year.
So, welcome aboard…the train has left the green station.