5 Green Building Trend Predictions for 2018

Communities, health advocates and, especially, market forces are driving new developments in sustainable construction. Here are five trends we may see in 2018.

Material transparency

More and more companies are demanding healthy buildings for their employees. With research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health revealing direct connections between indoor air quality and productivity, that pressure is likely to accelerate.

It’s never been easy to figure out which products threaten occupants’ health. Among the challenges: Manufacturers don’t want to share their secrets, there’s not always agreement on which chemicals are hazardous, and everyone — architecture firms, certification agencies, trade groups —seems to have a different database of products that meet their safety requirements (and often those databases conflict with each other).

Now, organizing tools are bringing more sense to the effort. The Health Product Declaration Collaborative is a nonprofit that encourages manufactures to submit open-source declarations so products can be compared using a single specification standard, the HPD Open Standard. Per the HPDC website, “It is incorporated as a reporting tool in many leading certification programs, such as LEED v4 and WELL, and is also the foundation for industry harmonization efforts to establish a single method that can simplify reporting — and also improve the accuracy, consistency and reliability — of information about building products and health.”

Perhaps more significantly, a longtime project of the Healthy Building Network (HBN) got a huge boost in 2017 when Google partnered with HBN to create a robust web-based tool. Called Portico, it’s designed “to simplify the analysis, selection and specification of building products that meet health and transparency objectives.”

In 2018, you can expect the Big Data revolution to have a real impact in this area. It will become easier for owners and architects to compare the hazards of products and materials — and more awkward for manufacturers to withhold the information their customers want.

Sustainable communities

An explosion in certified green buildings over the last two decades has led sustainable-infrastructure advocates to the next frontier: How can neighborhoods, campuses, business districts and even whole cities track and enhance their sustainability?

Green district certifications have ramped up slowly over the decade since the U.S. Green Building Council unveiled LEED-Neighborhood Development. Now, new district certification platforms such as EcoDistricts and the Living Community Challenge (LCC) are on the scene. They bring more-ambitious goals, such as net zero energy, and are oriented toward a wider variety of communities. While LEED-Neighborhood Development is tailored to serve mixed-use projects by private developers, EcoDistricts and LCC are attracting interest from communities with multiple owners. Another platform, called 2030 Districts, caters to commercial districts.

This fall, Star Communities, North America’s most popular full-city certification program, began to move under the LEED umbrella. The marketing power of the USGBC is likely to give Star a much higher profile.

How will the push for green districts impact actual projects? Expect neighborhoods, campuses and cities to encourage the kinds of improvements that make sense for whole areas rather than just for single buildings. Think neighborhood solar farms, pedestrian-friendly streets and high-efficiency campus chilled-water systems.

Planning for resilience

Three giant hurricanes and an unprecedented constellation of forest fires hit millions of Americans right where they lived in 2017. It was a reminder that dense development, natural disasters and a changing climate require better planning and major upgrades in the built environment.

While an infrastructure bill at the federal level seems unlikely in 2018, local governments aren’t standing still. Aided by a massive Rockefeller Foundation program, 100 “resilient cities” across the world are taking a purposeful approach to identifying and planning for the long-term risks they face from flooding, fires, healthcare shortages, aging populations and more.

Houston isn’t one of those 100 cities, but planners there have responded to the mess left by Hurricane Harvey by addressing resilience. A master plan in the works before Harvey took on new importance after the storm hit. Among other things, it calls for better building codes and more greenways along low-lying bayous.

In Puerto Rico, there’s potential for even more fundamental change. The territory’s governor, Tesla’s Elon Musk and the U.S. Energy Department’s point man on restoring the island’s power all are pushing for a major portion of Puerto Rico’s electric needs to be supplied in the future by solar-powered microgrids.

As voters at the local level approve more and more money for infrastructure projects, the growing emphasis on resilience may give projects that prepare communities for future challenges a funding edge.

One other sign resilience is on the ascendance: The U.S. Green Building Council announced this year that it’s adopting RELi, a certification platform for resiliency in projects that until now has gotten little attention.

Net-zero buildings

Once upon a time, running a modern building on just the clean energy it produced was considered a pipedream. Over the last couple of years, however, the net-zero movement has gained steam.

According to the New Buildings Institute, 332 net-zero buildings were complete or under construction in North America by the fall of 2016. That’s a five-fold increase in just four years. “Ultra-high efficiency buildings” — those that don’t quite meet the definition of net zero — are showing similar jumps.

Better and less expensive solar panels are one key to net zero’s viability, but there are others. HVAC systems and building materials have improved, architects and engineers are more experienced at designing for high efficiency, and energy modeling has gotten dramatically better.

Now that net zero buildings exist in every part of the country, builders and engineers can make the case to more owners that they’ll benefit from lower operating costs (as well as the PR boost that comes along with being an early adopter).

The net-zero goal may not yet be realistic for certain high-energy buildings, such as data centers. So far, specific categories of buildings — including K-12 schools, warehouses and supergreen houses — are jumping on the net-zero bandwagon in the biggest numbers. And more and more colleges are aiming to be energy efficient.

Solar suppression

One downward trend might be solar installations. Although the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected that solar power generation will continue growing in 2018, political factors may cloud those sunny predictions. The tax bill currently moving through Congress contains provisions that would scale back tax breaks for wind and solar power. Also, President Trump is expected to decide early in the new year whether to place special tariffs on imported solar panels.

In an April complaint to the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), two American solar cell makers accused China and other countries of unfair competition. They say foreign manufacturers have been flooding the market with cheap photovoltaic cells and panels.

The much larger U.S. solar installation industry opposes the tariffs, as do a lot contractors, building owners and clean energy advocates. They fear the tariffs would jack up expenses to the point where they could virtually halt America’s clean energy transition. According to one industry study, more than 80,000 American workers could lose their jobs.

In September, the ITC agreed with the two manufacturers — to an extent. The commission sent to the White House a recommendation for special tariffs on imported cells, but those tariffs would be much lower than what the companies had asked for. Now the president has the final say.

 

Ken Edelstein is editor of the Kendeda Living Building Chronicle, which covers green design and construction in the Southeast.