Note: This is the first article of a four-part series covering green-building plastics (1) trends, (2) material advances, (3) process technologies and (4) applications.

The construction and operation of buildings has a significant impact on the environment. In Europe and the U.S., buildings account for 40 percent of total energy consumption. Buildings also use a tremendous amount of natural resources to construct and operate.

Green building, also known as green construction or sustainable building, refers to a structure and its operation that is environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's life cycle: from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and demolition.

Constructing and operating green buildings that consume resources more efficiently, while minimizing pollution that can harm renewable natural resources is crucial to a sustainable future. Green building, the practice of minimizing the impact a building has on the natural environment has several clear goals:

  • Select building materials and methods that conserve resources and materials required to construct a building.
  • Create a healthy indoor environment for occupants, free from volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mold or other harmful airborne pollutants —studies have shown that healthy indoor environments can improve employee and student productivity.
  • Reduce energy consumption and fossil fuel use to heat, cool and illuminate the building — in addition to benefiting the environment energy-efficient buildings cost less to operate.
  • Incorporate water-conserving systems that limit the use and prevent water pollution of this important natural resource.

Plastics Institute of America
Green building market growth

The focus of the green building industry will continue its switch from new building design and construction to the greening and rehab of existing buildings. As new building construction slowed over the past 2-4 years, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance (LEED-EBOM) had a cumulative floor area in certified projects greater than in new construction, a trend that is expected to increase this year.

One driver of this trend is that "green" buildings have rents and asset prices significantly higher than those documented for conventional office space. More than 90 countries with incipient or established green building organizations, on all continents, will drive considerable green building growth in 2013 and into the future.

Zero-net-energy buildings will become increasingly commonplace, in both residential and commercial sectors. As LEED and other green building certifications become increasingly common, developers of speculative commercial buildings are looking to zero-net-energy designs to confer competitive advantage.

Building performance disclosure (BPD) is a fast-emerging trend, as commercial building owners increasingly have to disclose actual building performance to all new tenants and buyers — and in some places, to the public at large.

Green buildings will increasingly be managed in the "cloud." A large number of new entrants and new products in fields of building automation, facility management, wireless controls and information management were introduced over the last two years to improve building operating efficiency.

Local and state governments will step up their mandates/incentives for green buildings which will continue to serve as strong market drivers.

U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)
LEED Gold Certification Standard emblem

LEED is an internationally-recognized green building certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED promotes sustainable building and development practices through a suite of rating systems. LEED is intended to provide building owners/operators a concise framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions.

The voluntary system is based on a 100-point formula, and the more credits a project earns in several categories including sustainability and water efficiency, the higher a rating it earns on the LEED scale — platinum (80 points), followed by gold (60-79 points), silver (50-59 points), and certified (40-49 points). Categories include:

  • Green Building Design & Construction
  • Green Interior Design & Construction
  • Green Building Operations/Maintenance
  • Green Neighborhood Development
  • Green Home Design and Construction
  • LEED for Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance (LEED-EBOM)

The Green Building Council, which updates LEED standards periodically, is proposing to include a "chemical avoidance" provision. Industry groups argue the proposal will discourage builders from using certain products that promote energy efficiency. Those products could include heat-reflecting roofing membranes, PVC piping and foam insulation — all of which promote energy efficiency, so stay tuned.

Plastics Institute of America
LEED Platinum-certified Lafayette Tower in Washington, D.C.

Lafayette Tower in Washington, D.C. is an example of a LEED Platinum-certified building. The project achieved platinum status as a result of balancing all factors — sustainability, cost, marketing, functional aspects, on an ongoing basis from start to finish of the project. Among design aspects of particular note include the selection of building materials that maximize the use of recycled content.

Looking forward, Architecture 2030 is a U.S.-based, nontraditional and flexible environmental advocacy group founded by architect E. Mazria. In 2005, in a keynote speech at the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada’s annual convention, Mazria issued a challenge to the international architecture community.

The 2030 Challenge is an initiative by Architecture 2030 asking the global architecture and construction community to adopt a series of greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets for new and renovated buildings. All new buildings, developments and major renovations can be designed to meet a fossil fuel, greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting and energy consumption performance standard of 50 percent of the regional (or country) average for a given building type — now 60 percent since 2010.

Or put another way, at a minimum, an amount of existing building area equal to that of new construction can be renovated annually to meet a fossil fuel, greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 50 percent of the regional (or country) average for that building type — now 60 percent.

The fossil fuel reduction standard for all new buildings was 60 percent in 2010; and anticipated to be 70 percent in 2015, 80 percent in 2020, 90 percent in 2025, and carbon-neutral by 2030 (zero fossil fuel, GHG emitting energy to operate).

Architecture 2030
"The 2030 Challenge" greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets.

The Living Building Challenge, issued through the International Living Building Institute, in contrast to other green building programs, measures the actual performance of buildings one year after a building is completed to ensure that it is, in fact, meeting energy/environmental targets. The International Living Building Institute was founded in 2009 to promote the creation of living buildings, sites and communities in countries around the world.

The Directive on Energy Performance in Buildings (EPBD; Directive 2010/31/EU) is the main legislative instrument affecting energy use and efficiency in the EU building sector. It tackles both new construction and existing building stock in all sectors. The recast directive version significantly increases energy efficiency ambition levels in EU buildings.

As of Dec. 31, 2020, new buildings in the EU will have to consume "nearly zero" energy and the energy will be "to a very large extent" from renewable sources (Dec. 31, 2018 for public buildings). Individual goals set by member states are as follows:

  • United Kingdom: Zero-carbon homes by 2016 (heating and lighting)
  • Hungary: Zero-emission buildings by 2020 (Climate Change Strategy)
  • The Netherlands: Energy-neutral buildings by 2020
  • France: Energy-positive buildings by 2020

The California Green Building Standards Code (CALGreen) is the first mandatory statewide standards code in the U.S. that addresses green construction. The code issued for state-owned buildings, low-rise residential buildings, qualified historical buildings, general acute care hospitals, and public elementary and secondary schools became effective Jan. 1, 2011. CALGreen requires going forward that every new building constructed in California accomplish the following:

  • Install low pollutant-emitting materials;
  • Divert 50 percent of construction waste from landfills;
  • Reduce water consumption by 20 percent;
  • Install separate water meters for nonresidential buildings’ indoor and outdoor water use; and
  • Mandatory inspections of energy systems (furnace, air conditioner, mechanical equipment) for nonresidential buildings greater than 10,000 square feet to ensure operating efficiency relative to design.