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Building the future

  • Story Highlights
  • Climate change debate heightens interest in green build projects
  • Green building materials and technology costs falling
  • New legislation driving green architecture trend
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By Michelle Jana Chan
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- As the climate change debate rages, smart businesses are quietly studying its effects on our future lifestyle. High on the agenda is building more sustainable spaces for us to live and work in.

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Jubliee Wharf in Cornwall, England. A ZEDfactory project using wind turbines and solar thermal energy.

According to the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), buildings account for more than a third of carbon emissions in the U.S. and consume 70 percent of the electricity load. By 2015, they estimate 15 million new buildings will have gone up in the United States.

The problem extends beyond the U.S.'s borders. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, China is building the equivalent of Japan's entire building area every three years. The statistics and increased public awareness are having an effect, according to the building industry.

"Business has definitely picked up in the last six months," says Bill Dunster, founder of British company ZEDfactory, which specializes in low energy, low-environmental-impact buildings. "I attribute that to the acceleration of the melting polar ice caps; that's something people can relate to. (Al Gore's) "Inconvenient Truth" documentary is a major element. People feel it is just not that clever to have a conspicuous carbon footprint anymore."

The "green build" movement has been around since the 1970s but it is increasingly gaining momentum . "Green buildings are making giant strides now because of public debate and new technology," says Herbert Girardet, urban ecologist and author of '"Surviving the Century - Facing Climate Chaos and other Global Challenges." "Everyone may want to live a modern lifestyle but we know we cannot continue wrecking the planet. We need to build houses that don't need an outside energy supply."

Dunster's practice ZEDfactory has been pioneering in its architectural design and community planning, notably the Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED), near Wallington, England. It is the UK's largest carbon-neutral eco-community and the first of its kind in this country. Energy requirements have been significantly less than that of conventional communities, as well as mains water consumption and residents' car mileage.

"You can create zero-heating, zero-cooling concepts for most climactic regions of the world," Dunster says. "Reduced electricity demand can now be met with LED lighting induction hobs, bio-gas cooking, solar panels on the roof or a big, community-scale turbine."

It is more affordable, too. Dunster says that someone in the UK could now spend £25,000 ($52,000) to convert their house to a zero-carbon home. The whole industry is benefiting from lower prices of materials and technology. "As demand has increased," he says, "factories in the Far East have gone into mass production on products like solar panels. That is really working in our favor."

The IUCN, or World Conservation Union, is hoping to set an example of sustainable construction with plans for its new headquarters in Gland, Switzerland. And they're keeping costs low. The budget for their new headquarters is the same as what they spent two decades ago on their current offices, says Alison Rowles-Anobile, IUCN's Director of Global Operations. "Not only will there be savings with future energy bills," she says, "but the building costs are unchanged, twenty years on."

Designs for the IUCN offices will use a minimum of materials and aims to have 85 percent of its energy consumption from renewable energy sources, primarily solar and geothermal. Balconies and adjustable blinds will help avoid overheating in summer and allow passive solar gain in winter, while taking advantage of natural light throughout the space.

They aim to achieve MINERGIE-P and MINERGIE-ECO awards, a highly-regarded Swiss rating for low energy consumption, green construction and design. It also hopes to be the first building in Europe with a platinum certification from LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a rating system measured by the United States Green Building Council.

Scot Horst, Chair of the LEED Steering Committee, says they have noticed a tremendous interest in their ratings system. "Our numbers are growing exponentially in terms of membership and projects registering to use the LEED ratings system. I put that down to greater awareness of climate change but also greater awareness that you don't have to spend as much money as many people imagine. The costs can be the same for a regular building and it will function much better."

That has caused a change in their market, too, Horst says. "A few years ago, interest was from non-profits and government. Now it's mostly private companies. We've gone past the granola-crunching perception of green build."

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Bringing down the costs may be one of the catalysts for the green build movement but Girardet says legislation will be the biggest driver. "Once policy comes into the picture, new standards will be set. In the UK, every new building has to be carbon neutral by 2016. In Germany, the government (under former Chancellor Schroeder), brought in a very effective legislation to boost green architecture. Climate change and fuel prices are forcing the government to take action. The movement has been a ripple for twenty years but now with the backdrop of the climate change discussion, we can talk about a wave. And I believe a tsunami of change is coming."

Horst hails the green build wave as a new architectural movement. "This movement is not characterized by an aesthetic but characterized by a concern for the environment," he says. "Everyone is allowed to follow their own aesthetic desires as long as it fits within the principles of sustainable design."

"I don't think that a green building has a certain look," agrees Dominik Arioli of Zurich-based AGPS Architecture, who is leading the IUCN headquarters project. "Of course, you might see photovoltaic cells on the roof but the energy could equally be brought in from a solar plant in southern Spain. From the outside, you might not see any difference."

With costs coming down, a smarter image and legislation pushing through, the future of our towns and cities may be taking on a different form. Yet on the outside, they may not look different at all. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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