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Are Green Buildings just Houses Painted Green? An Austrian-American (Sustain)ability Test

bridges vol. 11, September 2006 / Green Buildings Focus
by Georg Reichard


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If you had asked someone a decade ago, "Can you imagine living in a green building?" the answer would probably have been, "You mean my house painted green? Nah, it's not really one of my favorite colors . . ."

Unfortunately it's impossible to think of an equally ambiguous question in German to compare public awareness of ecological concepts with that of Austria ten years ago. "Oekohaus" might just be mistaken for the house of a person with a particular "political agenda." Perhaps if you asked people what they think of "Nachhaltigkeit" in Austria or "sustainability" in the US, some might be at a loss. However, if you asked if they would like to live in a "Low-Energy House" the results would be quite different from ten years ago.

This ambiguity forces us to consider the multitude of meanings bundled under the wide umbrella of "Green Building." Energy efficiency is often considered a significant part of sustainable building concepts - indisputably important, but not the only indicator of an ecologically valuable building. In Europe, people tend to point their fingers across the Atlantic when discussing energy efficiency and squandering resources. European houses in general are more efficient in terms of energy used for heating and cooling. However, this is more an economic than an ecologically-driven development. Energy is more expensive for European consumers, so it makes sense to invest in more efficiency. When it comes to sustainability this competitive edge can quickly diminish. Here we have to look at the life cycle costs of materials we use to achieve this goal - for example, the embedded energy needed for production and demolition of extruded foam insulation panels.

With that in mind, I want to discuss the idea of Green Buildings against the background of academic education, public incentives, mass production, and the general public awareness of sustainability for buildings.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Academic education
To examine academic education regarding green building concepts in Europe and the US requires a clarification of the academic systems.

In Austrian universities, buildings and their functions are clearly part of architectural and civil engineering curricula (although I have to add, as a personal note, that functional design has been neglected for several years in favor of arts and individual expression).

In the US, architectural education can range widely from arts- to engineering-based approaches. However, Civil Engineering (CE) programs often focus mainly on heavy construction (streets, bridges, dams, etc.) and buildings are not a significant part of their courses. Even Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) programs usually do not cover buildings and their ecological impact on our environment, but rather emphasize air and water quality or transportation research.1 Thus, several universities offer their own Building Construction (BC) programs, where construction really focuses on buildings and their management. Still, the gap between architecture and engineering can be observed. To address this problem, the Department of Building Construction and the Program of Civil Engineering Management at Virginia Tech founded the first School of Construction at a US university that actually bridges the colleges of architecture and engineering.

If we consider energy efficiency as a measurable criterion, European universities may have integrated this concept into their curricula earlier. Building Physics courses and even entire Building Physics departments have been focusing on energy issues for quite a long time. Yet most research dealing with simulation tools for building performance2 (e.g., to predict, compare, and design different solutions) has been carried out in the US. Research at European universities often concentrated on detail levels3 (e.g., thermal bridges or moisture transportation) and contributed more to solving "real world" problems of our buildings. It is interesting to observe that the cutting-edge research carried out at US universities is often not applied in their own country but picked up by other nations. The building performance simulation tools mentioned above did not bring a significant change to the built environment - instead, residential houses in the US generally lag behind their European counterparts.

On the other hand, if we look at current academic incentives to foster energy efficient developments, the US Department of Energy offers a "Solar Decathlon " for universities to compete against each other in ten design disciplines. This competition - held in 2002 and 2005 with the next one coming up in 2007 - takes place on the National Mall in Washington DC and invites the public to observe the powerful combination of solar energy, energy efficiency, and the best in home design. European universities participate in this event (Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in 2005 and 2007, Technische Universität Darmstadt in 2007), but it would be nice to see a European equivalent. Why don't we plan a Sustainability Pentathlon held in Vienna along the Ringstrasse with international participation?

If we consider sustainability, the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech just hired Prof. Annie Pearce, a new faculty member with an extensive research background in this area, to emphasize its commitment to this subject. Courses on sustainability and building sciences have just recently been added to the undergraduate and graduate curricula.

But Austrian Universities have also shifted to this approach. In Graz, Prof. Peter Maydl (Department Head of the Institute of Technology and Testing of Building Materials at Graz University of Technology) has successfully established a research focus for sustainable design. The course "Sustainable Engineering," part of the CE curriculum, introduces students to the basics of sustainable engineering and recycling of building materials. Professor Maydl just hosted the successful symposium "Nachhaltiges Bauen" in June 2006. This top-class event showed that civil engineering can take a trendsetting role within university programs. All speakers shared the understanding that the concept of sustainability needs to be an integral part of our built environment.

Vienna University of Technology has gone a step further, and joined forces with other European universities (TU Dresden and Politecnico di Torino) to establish the new MSc program "Urban Wood ." This program jointly offers high-level teaching with international mobility, while stimulating innovation and a wider dissemination of knowledge.

Public awareness incentives
The most prominent public incentives for sustainability are the "Building of Tomorrow" program in Austria and the "LEED" certification program of the Green Building Council in the US. LEED is a rating system based on a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings.

Austrian researchers in the building sector are very familiar with the Austrian Program on Technologies for Sustainable Development ("Building of Tomorrow ") that was developed by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Transport, Innovation and Technology (BMVIT). Supporting research and development of exemplary pilot projects, this program also offers financial incentives. With a total budget of more than €19 million, it was possible to support 156 projects in the area of new and renovated residential construction. Meanwhile a new subprogram called "Factory of Tomorrow" was launched in 2000, followed by the subprogram "Energy Systems of Tomorrow" in 2003.

In the United States, LEED was originally founded to establish common measurements for sustainability, to promote whole-building design practices, and to recognize environmental leadership and further stimulate green competition. It was envisioned that this would also raise consumer awareness of green building benefits and thus transform the building market. The Green Building Council does not provide direct financial support - it actually collects member and project fees. However, it recognizes achievements and promotes expertise through project certification or professional accreditation.

In contrast to the Austrian program, which moved from residential to commercial construction, the US Green Building initiative started out with their first standard LEED-NC for New Construction, focusing mainly on office buildings, schools, manufacturing plants, or laboratories. Other standards followed, e.g., LEED-EB for renovation of existing buildings, or LEED-H for homes, which is currently under development.

LEED-NC has become well known in the construction industry, and more than 400 buildings have been certified. However, LEED is a voluntary standard, and might pay off with enough prestige for highly visible showcase projects. It will be interesting to see if LEED-H will be able to reach out to the home builder market.

Mass production versus mass tax incentives
Because the US market for residential homes is driven by real estate mechanisms rather than by quality, it will be hard to be equally successful with the LEED-H standard. For large home builders - and we are talking about companies that build 50,000 homes per year - LEED-H provides an intriguing opportunity: if they can "sell" the cost for LEED certification to home buyers, they will gain a huge advantage over many small home builders. However, in many areas of the US, people only live in a house for an average of three years before reselling it. Thus, a major problem will be convincing home buyers that LEED certification will pay off when they put their house on the market again.

I am concerned about this development, which will lead again to market-driven incentives, where it is more important for home buyers to have granite countertops and stainless steel appliances than an efficient heating and cooling system.

For the US market, incentives would be more successful in the form of small, but affordable and fixed-rate loans that benefit the buyers rather than the builders. A decade ago, in Austria, people received a subsidized loan for an additional €7,000 to build a low energy house. If we consider this relatively small amount in relation to the total cost of a house, it is amazing how successful this program has been. Many people have become aware of this incentive and asked for houses following energy efficient concepts.

An attempt at a conclusion
Returning to my original question - "Would you like to live in a green house?" - I believe that Austrians today would answer more quickly than Americans, as increasing awareness of energy efficiency has also improved environmental responsibility. I do not want to diminish the merits of the successful Austrian initiative, "Building of Tomorrow," when I say that this program has probably had less impact on the public awareness of energy efficiency than financial incentives have (be they tax relief or subsidized loans).

My vision for the most successful future approach is threefold: First - Academia needs to get more involved in international competitions (e.g., a "Sustainable Pentathlon" in Vienna) to foster the exchange of cutting-edge knowledge and to promote new ideas. Second - the industry needs a platform to recognize achievements and promote expertise. This can be achieved through a standard similar to LEED, and should be directed by an international panel to establish consistent and objective guidelines. Third and last, but not least - the public must recognize the benefits of a sustainable built environment. Media can play a significant role, but the "fast lane" to achieving this goal will be individual financial incentives.


The author, Georg Reichard is Assistant Professor of Building Construction and a core faculty member of the recently founded Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech. He has been previously employed with the Graz University of Technology in Austria, where he has been teaching and researching in the Department of Structural Analysis from 1996 to 2004.

1Of course there are exceptions, e.g., the CEE department at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)
2 TRNSYS, DOE-2, energyPlus
3 HEAT2&3 (Blocon Software, Lund University), WUFI (Fraunhofer Institut)



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