Making Green Buildings Affordable

Did you know that green buildings are only about 2-3% more expensive than conventional buildings (Dailey, 2013)? Read more about how green buildings are actually more affordable than you think.

Did you know that green buildings are only about 2-3% more expensive than conventional buildings (Dailey, 2013)? Read more about how green buildings are actually more affordable than you think.



Aiden McGrath – Pre-Veterinary Science

Brandon Hennessey – Building Construction Technologies

Sarice Scher – Sustainable Food and Farming



A few weeks ago, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk revealed their joint plan with Solar City, a company dedicated to bring solar energy to the public. Their goal was to create solar panel roof tiles that would work efficiently, but would also look and perform better than conventional tiled roofs (Richardson, 2016.). Some might ask why a CEO that makes unaffordable sports cars would be interested in solar panel roof tiles; the answer is actually displayed in plain sight within their mission statement. “…Each new generation (of electric cars) would be increasingly affordable, helping the company work towards its mission: to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.” (Tesla Motors, 2016). Tesla strives to bring our world into the future of renewable and reusable energy. It was only a matter of time before Musk would begin innovating more green technology for powering our houses in an environmentally conscious way. This is Musk’s method of pushing us out of our comfort zones and into a new normal, a normal where having a solar paneled roof is as easy as buying an electric car.

While green technology might appear to be a relatively new phenomenon, it has actually been on the upswing since the industrial revolution. In the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, solar power plants were built in order to utilize the sun’s renewable energy for steam power (USDE, 2005), and once the energy crisis hit in the 1970’s, green buildings were on the rise (USDE, 2005). In 2016, green technologies are within reach everywhere, but the general public seems to be unaware of the sheer availability and affordability offered. Luckily, the general public is anxious to join the “green movement,” and many consumers have started buying more environmentally conscious.

As environmental impact became more of a selling point for customers, companies across a range of industries have projected ways that they are focusing on becoming more sustainable. Coca-Cola began using sustainable-packaging (Coca-Cola, 2014.), McDonald’s started recycling and now plans to install containers for recycling and composting (McDonald’s, 2014.), and Wal-Mart launched a long-term plan to power all of its stores using 100% renewable energy sources (Walmart, 2015.).

Green buildings are environmentally sustainable buildings that are designed, constructed, and operated to minimize the total environmental impacts the said building has on the world (Kriss, J. 2014.).  These structures are an outstanding way to improve our world today, and pave a more sustainable future. The most impressive thing about green buildings is that they are proven as better than conventional buildings in numerous instances. Green buildings run more efficiently (Lin et al,. 2016.), are often more comfortable to work in (Singh et al,. 2010.), and are more beneficial to the health of their occupants (Laing et al,. 2014.).

There are various green building code and certification (GBCC) codes that certify whether a building is considered green or not. The Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) is the most commonly used green building code (Suh et al,. 2014) and will be explored further in this paper. Another commonly used standard code is set by American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), an organization dedicated to “…advancing human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment.” (ASHRAE, 2016).

Within the umbrella term “green buildings” exist many different specific types of green buildings such as passive buildings, and net zero buildings. A passive building can be characterized as a green building with a strict standard for energy efficiency by reducing the ecological footprint that results in an ultra-low energy building (NYPH, 2014.).  Passive buildings use passive strategies to better capitalize certain principles in order to achieve a quantified level of energy efficiency in a comfortable manner (NYPH, 2014.). Lastly, net zero buildings are buildings that produce energy that is equal or greater than the amount of energy they consume (Steven Winters Associates, Inc., 2016), a large feat that is actually quite easily attained.

One of the key aspects that makes a building net zero is how the overall building performs, specifically focusing on energy usage and operations. Building performance is one of many areas where green buildings have been proven to be better than their conventional buildings. Building performance is one of the most important comparisons between the two building styles because it shows which building is less expensive to operate. For example, green office buildings keep the temperature inside the building 5 degrees Celsius cooler than a conventional office building during the summer months (Pei, Lin, Liu, & Zhu, 2015, p.86). Green roofs are one of the most commonly used green building methods and allows buildings to stay 2 degrees warmer in winter (Park and Hawkins, 2015, Table 3). A green roof is when you have vegetation on the roof instead of regular roof, and provides extra insulation on the roof.  Green buildings stay warmer in cold weather and colder in warm weather more efficiently than conventional buildings because it allows them to save energy on both heating and cooling. On average, a green building will use 25%-35% less energy than a conventional building (Daily, 2013, Where and when you see saving section, para 1). Eventually, the green building will actually pay themselves off based on the amount of energy savings the building will provide throughout its lifetime. Green buildings don’t only perform better than conventional buildings, but they also provide a healthier indoor environment for those that inhabit them.

A critical factor in building occupant happiness is comfort. People that occupy green buildings are happier and more satisfied than those who occupy conventional buildings (Dailey, 2013, Figure 1). According to a study done by Liang et al. (2014) 99% percent of people that work in a green building are happy with the indoor temperature, while only 50% of people that work in conventional buildings are happy with the indoor temperature (Table 6). When just about all of your employees are happy while at work, they will be more productive and that will result in them making you more money (Dailey, 2013, Figure 1). Green buildings provide a better indoor environment, with a more comfortable temperatures and they also provide cleaner air.

Green buildings will provide anyone that is working or living in them with much cleaner air to breathe. Allen et al. (2016) found that CO2 levels in green buildings range from 486-761 parts per million (ppm), whereas conventional buildings exceeded 900 ppm and that is double the atmosphere CO2 levels 400 ppm (Table 2). Living and working in buildings that have higher CO2 levels lead to numerous different health effects, with the largest being respiratory problems (Callahan, 2013, respiratory effect section, para 1) . Conventional buildings are also more harmful to the outdoor environment due to the amounts of CO2 they produce. When you do the math, conventional buildings have an 18% to 85% increase of greenhouse gas emission compared to their green building counter parts. In conventionally built office buildings, on weekends when they are unoccupied, they are still producing around 100 ppm more CO2 than green buildings (Pei, Lin, Liu, & Zhu, 2015, Figure 9). In a time where environment concern is a top priority for many people, a simple switch to green building will greatly reduce the amount of CO2 that we release into the environment. The air quality difference is not just noticeable through the air quality reading, but also to the people working in the building who notice the difference as well (Laing et al., 2014, Table 6).

        Better air quality will add to the benefits felt by the occupants, and as such, the occupants  will be happier and also more productive. Laing et al. (2014) surveyed people who worked in both green buildings and conventional buildings, and found that those in green buildings were 48% more satisfied with their air quality (Table 6). “More satisfied” is defined as, inhabitants that feel more comfortable, either visually or thermally, inside the space they occupy.  Since the employees are more satisfied with their indoor environment, they function better. Data shows that employees  in green buildings scored as much as 33% higher on cognitive test than those who worked in conventional buildings (Allen et al., 2016, Figure 1). Green buildings provide a cleaner, more productive working and living environment, and also lessen the impact that buildings have on our environment.

Many people care about the environmental impacts we have on the world, and it has remained a highly discussed topic for the past decade. A sector that has a huge potential for change is to convert conventional building techniques with new green building techniques. Green buildings have proven time and time again that they have a much more positive impact on the environment. For example, Sun, Tomar, Leighton, and Kneifal (2014) found through their research that green buildings have an average of 14% less of an environmental impact: especially in global warming, acidification, human health, water consumption, and general energy (Figure 2). Converting to green building technologies are an easy first step in the right direction for the construction industry.

The Pixel Building in Australia is a perfect example of a well designed and integrated green building. The building removes 524.6 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year, which is equivalent to taking about 100 cars off the road every year (Wang et al., 2016, Figure 2). The building also makes 25.644 megawatts hours (MWh) of electricity per year, while it only consumes 9.479 MWh. Therefore, every year they put 16.165 MWH back into the local power grid (Wang et al., 2016, Table 6). That’s enough energy to power over 250,000 60 watt light bulbs every hour. The Pixel Building is proactively making our world healthier, and more energy efficient.

It’s been proven time and time again that green buildings are a much better alternative, both for people and the environment, than conventional buildings. But the fact is, conventional buildings are still being constructed at a higher rate than green buildings. While people are open to the idea of  building green, there is a belief that the costs of using green technology is exceedingly higher than they are and that the buildings won’t be able to make up for the cost through savings.

Bottero (2012) found that 62% of consumers believe there is a significant difference in the cost of green buildings compared to conventional buildings. However, Kats (2003) found that on average green buildings have a 2% higher premium than conventional buildings (p.3). This range varied depending on the level of LEED certification with a 0.66% premium for Level 1 Certified up to 6.50% for Level 4 Platinum (Kats, 2003, Figure 1). Bottero (2012) confirms this stating that the average premium is between 1-2% higher than conventional buildings. Since then premium rates have stayed relatively consistent, even reducing to some extent. So where does the public’s idea of green buildings being outrageously expensive stem from? Steinert (2004) quotes expert in sustainable building, Malcom Lewis, “…there tends to be this perception that a green building has to be either ugly or uncomfortable or it won’t last well.” (para. 1). Steinert (2004) goes on to theorize that these misconceptions come from bad experiences with early green building technology (para. 1).

The technologies that are used in green building lead them to be more energy efficient. Although these technologies might have greater  upfront costs, they will save money in the long run. Green buildings make up for their slightly higher premiums through higher energy efficiency and reduced energy intake. Kats (2003) performed a study comparing 60 LEED certified buildings and found them to be 25-30% more energy efficient than conventional buildings (p.4). The influence of these two factors allows for green buildings to pay for themselves within a few years and will save 20% of the construction cost in energy consumption reduction (“Bloomington Gov.” n.d., p.2).

When people hear green building they usually think, how much more did that cost you? While it is true that green buildings will cost more to build, it’s not a significant amount. On average, it will only cost $3.00 to $5.00 dollars per square foot, or about 2% more than a conventional building (“Green Building Cost”, n.a., building section, para 5). Green buildings are worth a small increase of the building cost is because they are much less expensive to run; and will make up for the upfront cost and then some through savings. Dailey (2013) said, “…building would yield savings of over ten times the initial investment” (Where and When You See the Savings section, para 2). A lot of people believe that they won’t see these returns in their investment until 10 or even 15 years down the road, but that’s been proven to be false. Data shows that about half of green buildings will see the return of their initial investment within 5 years (Bottero, 2012, save money section, para 3). When you add in the benefits that green buildings have on health and productivity, that number jumps to a staggering 90% of buildings that saw a return within 5 years (Bottero, 2012, save money section, para 3). These buildings see their paybacks in their energy consumption, water usage, and maintenance and operations. When broken down over 20 years, a green building will see savings of $5.79 per square foot (sq ft) in energy savings, $0.51 per sq ft in water usage, and $8.47 per sq ft in maintenance and operations (Dailey, 2013, Figure 4). For an average 2,000 sq ft home, that would be a savings of just about $30,000 in 20 years. A way to bring the initial cost of green buildings down, is by adding LEED certified members to the design and engineering team, which cuts time for the overall project and saves money (Kats, 2003, p. 3). This brings the cost of the green buildings down because it puts everyone, through the entire process, on the same page in order for them to work as efficiently as possible.

Unfortunately, the construction industry continues to cleave to their notion of building conventional buildings over green buildings due to financial reasons, they very well may want to reconsider. Many homeowners and business owners are now looking towards more sustainable real estate in order to fit in with the times. More and more customers are demanding more sustainable practices, and businesses are definitely listening. With the rise of sustainability comes the task of convincing customers that your business had always been sustainable, which is easily remedied by running your business within a green building. Not only is the actual building an advertisement in itself, but green buildings will also cost the company or homeowner less in the long run.

While evidence of global warming and greenhouse gases have descended upon us, and countless articles have been published stating that our natural gas and oil reserves are nearly depleted, many people are living in denial about how desperately we need to change our living habits. Our government is already aware of the environmental impacts that we accumulate throughout our daily lives, and it is their duty to ensure that we understand what the general public is to do.  

In order to encourage green building over conventional building, new codes and government incentives can force the construction industry to convert to green building. Getting the construction industry to change their ways is a daunting task. An industry that makes its money by building buildings as quickly as possible in order to maximize their profit will be very resistant to this change because new building techniques must be taught. As we see it, the only way the industry can move forward would be to build green buildings.

LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is an organization that judges green buildings based on green building codes. The thing make makes LEED stand out from the rest, is how their system encompasses every part of the building process. LEED works by awarding points to buildings with a maximum 110 points per building (U.S. Green Building Council, 2016, LEED v4 BD+C scorecard section). Then their are 4 different levels of certification that a building can get based on the number of points that they have received. For a  certified building, it must receive  40-49 points, for a silver it must receive 50-59 points, for gold it must receive 60-79 points, and for platinum it must receive 80-110 points (Steward, 2012, certification for commercial buildings section). The categories that points are awarded to are location and transportation (16 points), sustainable site (10 points), water efficiency (11), energy and atmosphere (33 points), materials and resources (13 points), indoor environmental quality (16 points), innovation (6 points), and regional priority (4 points) (U.S. Green Building Council, 2016, LEED v4 BD+C scorecard section). The sections are not weighted equally due to roles of varying importance based on their environmental impacts. Within the points distribution there are some areas that are easier than others to get points (Stewart, 2012, para 1). The 5 easiest things to incorporate into your building are energy efficient lighting systems, insulated and Energy-Star windows, low flow water fixtures and toilets, and lastly, efficient heat pumps and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems (Stewart, 2012, certification for commercial buildings section, para 5). One of the reasons why the LEED system is so common is the 4 different levels of certification, unlike some other the other methods whereas you either qualify or you don’t. The LEED system offers the owners and designers many opportunities for point earnings when it comes to buildings.

Governments around the globe already are implementing ways in which they are encouraging contractors and other construction professionals to build LEED certified buildings. Most notably here in the United States is section 179d from the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act. 179d offers a one time reduction of no more than $1.80 per square foot of the building that incorporates energy efficient technologies such as lighting, efficient building envelopes, or ventilation. These measurements must improve the overall energy consumption by 50% in comparison to the ASHRAE basic building construction standards that every building must pass before being built. Partial reductions of up to $0.60 are giving for a 10% energy efficiency increase in comparison to the basic standards (Freeman, 2016). Green buildings are so important because we are building a more sustainable model for future energy sources while also combating the environmental impacts of conventional buildings.

Expanding upon section 179d of the PATH Act to further convince a more drastic change in the construction industry, we propose that all buildings that meet LEED silver receive a one year tax exemption, those that meet LEED gold receive a two year tax exemption, and those that achieve LEED platinum receive a five year tax exemption for all commercial, industrial, and office buildings. We would also implement a 10% tax increase on conventional office, industrial, or commercial buildings that do not receive a LEED certification. In an additional effort to make the design process more cost effective and efficient, we also propose a requirement for a LEED member be on the design team. This will give first time green builders a stronger sense of direction for what to use as well as what direction to go for the project, which will save time and money.

When people hear tax exemptions, they worry about it will cause an increase in their taxes. In 2009 the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided $16.8 billion dollars for renewable energy and energy efficient programs (Tax Incentives/Rebates). With all of the support from the government, as well as countless other programs dedicated to promoting green building, taxpayers won’t have any reason to worry. Our proposal also puts the tax burden on building owners whose buildings are inefficiently using energy, and are causing significant negative environmental impacts. This allows for general homeowners and renters to see minimal to no tax increase, but and also pushes conventional buildings to convert to use of more green methods and materials.

Money is a huge motivator in the construction industry and to people everywhere. If we give the construction industry tax incentives, we will promote a higher rate of green building construction. Within the US, multiple states already began creating their own motivational incentives towards building more sustainable buildings. For example, in Oregon, they use a tax credit in which to offset the upfront cost of green commercial buildings when businesses show a significant interest of building sustainably. As per the fine print, the buildings must obtain at least a LEED rating of Silver in order to qualify for such tax credits. The Oregon Department of Energy will refund the credit, based on size per square foot of the building, if it meets the above requirements (U.S. Department of Energy, 2005).

In Chatham County, Georgia, an ordinance was passed in which a tax exemption provided a five-year full property county and state tax abatement for commercial buildings that received at least a LEED rating of Gold. The ordinance would also give a reduced abatement for the next five years after the initial exemption (Green Building Incentives, p.8).

While this may seem slightly crazy, to offer so many incentives for building more sustainable office or residential buildings, it is a major factor within the construction industry, and in practice has resulted in a large increase in green building implementation. “Green Technology” has been on the upswing throughout our nation’s history, and now, more than ever, is the perfect time for us to harvest this advancement in technology and use it sustainably, and effectively in our daily lives. Change isn’t an easy feat, if it were, our world would be fitted with thousand upon thousands of green buildings. Unfortunately, forcing people to change also isn’t an easy thing to do, especially when so many audiences are resistant to the change suggested.

In order for our world to reap the myriads of benefits that green buildings have to offer, we need to instill new building codes, and government incentives, to force the construction industry to convert to exclusively building green buildings. Many people falsely stand by the notion that green buildings are extremely expensive, and that our environment isn’t in that much turmoil. This paper has proven that green buildings are not significantly more expensive than conventional buildings, and will actually pay for themselves in the long run. While our environment may not be dying at the rate that would cause extreme change, that doesn’t mean that change isn’t an important part of everyday life. If we all were to take the initiative to build exclusively green buildings, we could lessen our environmental impacts significantly, and live healthier, more productive lives. In using government incentives, we can put the green building movement in motion, and direct the general public and the construction industry in using only sustainable building methods and practices.

Like Tesla, we must be role models onto those that want to see a change in the world that they live in, and by working in, researching, and building green buildings, we can bring about a new interest and love for green buildings. As the Lorax from Dr. Seuss (1971) says, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”  



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  1. Green buildings can be cost-effective and energy efficient. But what really makes them cost-effective is reducing the construction costs of building. And that can be done in several ways. This article is a little bit of an introduction to green building as well as sharing some of the costs and making them affordable for everyone.

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