Green Building Practices Gaining Wide Acceptance

14 Feb, 2007 By: Heather Livingston

Survey shows architects are fulfilling clients' demand for energy-efficient, sustainable materials building designs

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According to the results of Autodesk’s second annual Green Index Survey, architects are significantly increasing their use of sustainable design practices and expect to continue doing so. That’s hardly surprising news given the current focus on rising energy costs and global climate change. The green building movement is gaining momentum, a fact that’s underscored by the AIA’s recent effort to minimize the environmental impact of American buildings by issuing a challenge to “promote integrated/high performance design including resource conservation resulting in a minimum 50% or greater reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels used to construct and operate new and renovated buildings by the year 2010 and promote further reductions of 10% or more in each of the following 10 years.”

Research Methodology

Conducted by Fleishman-Hillard Research, the Green Index Survey was commissioned to gain a better understanding of the current and future states of green building design. The Internet-based survey polled 150 architects, approximately half of whom are residential architects, during a three-day period last October. The survey asked architects to report on their frequency of use of 16 sustainable practices over the past year; estimate the frequency of use five years ago; and anticipate usage five years from now.

Although the survey offers some helpful insight on the sustainability trend, it does have a few drawbacks. First, the survey is geared toward architects’ use of energy modeling software at the expense of omitting some low-tech sustainable practices. Second, the scoring is not weighted to reflect that more commercial than residential architects are likely to use sustainable technologies, particularly those requiring modeling software. Third, the survey relied largely upon architects’ best estimates instead of hard numbers. Finally, the polled sample is too small to be an accurate representation of the approximately 120,000 licensed architects in the United States. Still, the Green Index Survey does reinforce the rising trend toward green design and spotlight some technologies that are successfully penetrating the AEC market.

Survey Results

According to the report, the green technology that is most readily embraced by architects at present is high-efficiency HVAC systems. Over the past year, 64% of the polled architects specified high-efficiency HVAC on more than half their projects. Only 16% specified high-efficiency HVAC on less than 10% of their projects. This marks a tremendous increase over the 36% of architects who recalled specifying the systems five years ago. And it looks like they plan to increase their use of high-efficiency HVAC systems dramatically in the next five years, with 85% of architects planning to use them on most of their projects, and 59% expecting to specify them on 90% or more of their projects.

Ranking second in current usage is maximizing daylighting, followed by using retention basins to capture stormwater runoff. The report notes that both design strategies are now used by approximately 33% of architects on more than half of their projects, in contrast to five years ago when 20% of architects specified stormwater basins and 17% maximized interior solar lighting in their designs. By 2011, 48% of architects plan to incorporate retention basins and 69% expect to maximize daylighting on more than half of their projects.

Other sustainable technologies covered in the survey include the use of highly reflective roofing materials; salvaged, refurbished or reused building material products; continuous metering equipment to monitor lighting and HVAC systems; high-efficiency irrigation; and vegetated roofs. Although the polled architects are not frequently using these systems today, they do plan to use the strategies more often in the future.

In addition, the survey revealed that only 7% of the architects currently use on-site renewable energy sources on more than half of their projects and only 33% expect to do so in five years. Although costs for renewable energy sources are coming down, the break-even point is still too far out, says Ken Fisher, AIA. Fisher, an architect with the Boston office of Gensler, is the AIA’s Committee on the Environment’s northeast regional team leader. “Some costs are coming down, but they’re in very specific applications and the efficiencies still aren’t there. The paybacks aren’t in a time frame that makes it interesting to clients to start engaging,” he said.

Modeling Sustainability

The report placed particular emphasis on the use of software in specifying sustainable strategies, with seven of the 16 questions geared toward software usage in green design. The software application used most is for predicting and evaluating HVAC operating costs, with a third of the architects reporting using it on more than half of their projects. Closely following that are applications for energy modeling and baseline analysis for exploring and evaluating alternative building materials, with 25% and 22%, respectively, of architects reporting usage on more than half of their projects.

Other modeling applications that are not significantly used now are for predicting and evaluating solar lighting, solar heating, environmental impact and building materials lifecycle and minimizing construction waste. The report reveals that across all applications, anticipated usage in five years is dramatically higher, with architects expecting to use the programs on one-third to two-thirds of all projects.

Fisher thinks the industry is willing to embrace sustainability. “I think regulatory demand and costs of energy are going to start pushing it. It’s a chicken and the egg thing. In a lot of the energy codes, there’s a prescriptive method for determining building envelope and energy performance, but once you design outside the prescriptive method, you really then need to go to modeling to figure things out. I think that will end up pushing it, if in fact that’s going to be a regulatory requirement.”

The Green Index also asked the architects which factors most influence their use of sustainable practices. Client demand rated highest at 77% of the architects citing it as most influential. Following closely behind are rising energy costs at 62% and regulatory demands at 57%.

“My sense is the industry isn’t fully up to speed, particularly in issues such as energy modeling,” Fisher says. “I also know in terms of energy modeling and the cost of it, a lot of projects can’t take that on as a burden. I don’t think it’s a lack of willingness. I think it’s more of an economic factor in terms of how much fee one can charge to develop and design a project, given all the other competing factors.”

To view the full report, visit the Autodesk Sustainability Center.

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