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"The Building of Tomorrow": Event Report on the Panel Discussion at the Austrian Embassy in Washington DC

bridges vol. 11, September 2006 / Green Buildings Focus
by Sonja Strohmer

 

On June 22, within the framework of the Austrian EU Presidency, the Office of Science & Technology (OST) at the Embassy of Austria in Washington DC hosted a symposium titled "The Building of Tomorrow" with US and European design professionals, experts from the policy field and academia, and representatives from the construction industry.

Over 80 attendees participated in lively discussions with the panelists on such topics as how to define a "green building," the public reception of and participation in sustainable building, and how public policy might hold the key to defining a successful future of building green. Most of the panelists agreed to share their expertise with an even broader audience by contributing to this bridges' focus on "Green Buildings" (see related articles box on the right.) In addition, international experts on the topics will impart their knowledge on issues ranging from how to successfully "green" educate people, to how to make good money by building green.

 

1_SoS_Ueberblick_klein_web "You walk into a space and you sense something before you see something; the odors are gone and the climate is just wonderfully attuned to who you are; the acoustics are great; there is a wonderful sense of well-being between temperature, daylight, and air quality that just treats you differently as a human being - with more dignity."

This is how Rick Fedrizzi, president of the US Green Building Council (USGBC), defined a green building at the OST symposium on "The Building of Tomorrow" co-sponsored by the Austrian Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology.

A green building may not necessarily look distinctive, but the occupants feel a difference. The American experts at the panel discussion especially emphasized "well-being" as the main argument for the investment in a green building, while the Austrian panelists put sustainability in the foreground as the major idea behind green buildings.

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So, Exactly What Makes a Building "Green"?

If you ask the Austrian Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology (BMVIT), a green building is characterized by higher energy efficiency, greater use of renewable energy sources, and the use of renewable and ecological raw materials. Many green houses make use of the passive house and the low energy solar building methods.

With the goal of breaking new ground for innovative buildings, the ministry launched an incentive program called "The Building of Tomorrow ." This program initiates and finances sustainable buildings with high market potential and considerably increased comfort at costs comparable to conventional construction.

One of the most impressive projects within the "Building of Tomorrow" program is the Schiestlhaus on Mount Hochschwab. The ecological Alpine refuge is located on a platform at an altitude of 2154 meters (7067 feet) where it is exposed to extreme weather conditions. Built to passive house standards, the energy self-sufficient refuge does not need a conventional heating system but is heated by a ventilation system that re-extracts thermal energy from the air. Keeping this example in mind, it is easy to believe that building highly energy-efficient houses in flat regions would be a piece of cake.
4_SoS_Trebersburg_web Professor Martin Treberspurg, one of the leading architects in sustainable construction in Europe and a key contributor to the Schiestlhaus, explains that the construction costs of an average passive house in Austria exceed those of a traditional building by 8 percent. Its annual energy costs, however, are only one-tenth those of a conventional building. (Click here for Treberspurg's/Smutny's article)

Lacking Awareness

5_SoS_Veach_small_web Unfortunately, the awareness and acceptance of sustainable construction among customers in Europe, and especially the US, are still low. "The fact is that people only have a vague idea of what a green building might be," said Linda Veach, President of the Home Builders Association of Maryland and President of Bobward Companies. "The general American public is not educated on this subject."

In order to raise the awareness of green buildings, Georg Reichard, professor of building construction at Virginia Tech, suggests branding any building that helps to protect our environment as a green building - even if the term is somewhat misused. Professor Reichard is convinced that the new "energy pass" soon to be required for all property leases or sales6_SoS_Reichard_picture_web under the EU Directive on the Energy Performance of Buildings (Click here for Surprenant's article) has great potential. The energy pass will list details about a building's energy consumption, and will have to be prominently displayed on all public buildings. "Everybody who enters the building should see the energy pass. This will help to raise awareness." (Click here for Reichard's article)

Despite the current lack of public awareness, Linda Veach is confident that once consumers are educated and the demand is created, supply will follow. And based on last year's progress, Rick Fedrizzi, president of the US Green Building Council (USGBC), also looks ahead with optimism: "7_SoS_Fedrizzi_Foto_webWe are not reaching exponential growth yet, but we've experienced an increase in awareness and acceptance that we would not have expected." The USGBC is a coalition of companies from across the building industry that promotes buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy places to live and work. The council has developed a Green Building Rating System called Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED ), which is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for sustainable buildings. Currently, the USGBC has a membership base of almost 6500 organizations and regularly welcomes about 100 new members each month. (Click here for Fedrizzi's/Sackett's article)

Different Approaches
Although the growth of green building is generally anticipated, participants expressed different opinions about how the process could be accelerated. Professor Reichard is concerned that, as long as there is no direct financial support from the government, progress will be slow. "Why don't we follow the Austrian model and offer incentives and support loans if a building complies with certain rules? It will not require a lot of money to motivate consumers, and this measure is going to speed up the process." Mr. Fedrizzi, however, believes that only a voluntary system will ensure a long life for their program. "LEED is essentially designed to influence the building code city by city and state by state."

This difference in philosophy concerning the extent of government regulation was not the only contrast between Europe and the United States to become apparent during the discussion. One factor that influences the real estate market significantly is the degree of mobility. "The time Americans live in their house before they move to another place is much shorter than in Europe," says Linda Veach. "Therefore, many Americans think that the investment in a green building will not recoup for them." As a comparison, Professor Reichard illustrated the Austrian approach: "Austrians do not only build for themselves. They want their grandchildren to live in their house. What they invest in the beginning is what they save on the way."

8_SoS_Browning_photo_web A further consideration that plays a significant role in the spread of "green building" technologies was identified by Bill Browning, co-founder of Browning + Bannon LLC, a company that provides strategic thinking for environmentally-responsive real estate projects. Browning is convinced that the different ownership structures of real estate, as well as the social status of architects and engineers, play a significant role in spreading these technologies. "In Europe architects and engineers are regarded higher socially than they are here in the US. Consumers are willing to spend more money to get higher quality and design." (Click here for Browning's article)

Hesitant Optimism
While Linda Veach perceives that US customers increasingly demand houses with energy efficiency labels like Energy Star and expects that their houses will be very different ten years from now, Professor Reichard does not see a general rethinking. "The environmental awareness is still low. When people shop for a car they would rather ask for the number of cup holders than for the mileage."

Yet, the American panelists consider recent initiatives in the popular media a promising means of reaching out to large population groups. For example, Bill Browning is convinced that the US series dealing with sustainable architecture, "Design e2 ", broadcast on PBS and narrated by Brad Pitt, will contribute to raising awareness. Linda Veach is also hopeful that Al Gore's documentary film, "An Inconvenient Truth ", will help wake people up.

On a more practical level, Professor Treberspurg is confident that high energy bills will change customer behavior. "After all, both the United States and Europe suffer from the high oil prices." But Alan Abrams, president of Abrams Design Build and guest at the green building event, offered a less pragmatic explanation for why living in a green building is the most plausible thing to do: "Outside of the performance and characteristics of a building, outside of the technology that has been used, outside of the market forces that are involved in the decisions, outside of the mandates and codes that might exist or might not exist and outside of the concept of return of investment and life cycle analysis, what I discovered or, better, rediscovered is that when we build green we are responding directly to nature. And the responses are very profound, very sensual and very spiritual. To me that's sufficient reason to build green."

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The author, Sonja Strohmer, was project manager in the Office of Science & Technology (OST) in Washington DC, during the Austrian EU Presidency and assisted in coordinating the EU Presidency activities of the OST.

Further information:
If you are interested in further information, please find the panelists' bios, the program, and other background materials available for download at:
http://www.ostina.org/html/researchTools/OSTdownloads.cfm#EU

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