Are Green Building Rating Tools Failing Nature?

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Thursday, June 23rd, 2016
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There are a range of green building rating tools available in Australia and around the world, from BREEAM in Europe, LEED in the US, and Green Star and NABERS in Australia and New Zealand, through to the Living Building Challenge that can be applied anywhere.

While these tools have been evolving and are refined in response to industry driven imperatives, as well as government and climate council policies, they have been focussed primarily on the built form side of the sustainability equation, and have left nature as a secondary consideration. Although the land use and ecology criterion is present, in my experience it seldom results in meaningful increases in biodiversity value from projects.

By failing nature, are these tools also failing people?

Concepts like biophilia and nature deficit disorder reinforce the importance of integrating nature systems into our built environment. The greening of cities is gradually becoming a more widely known imperative. However, building codes, standards, and the rating tools that measure them have been slow to include expressly requirements for natural systems.

This is changing as climate change and urbanisation are gradually increasing our awareness of the importance of natural process in our built environments. Global sustainability is just as dependent on maintaining species diversity as on mitigating carbon emissions—a major aim of green buildings.

Nature provides a wide range of free ecological services critical to civilisation. More idealised is the call by Martin Dixon, the author of a recent United Nations report on global biodiversity for “a sea-change in human thinking and attitudes towards nature.” Dixon says nature should be seen “not as something to be vanquished, conquered, but rather something to be cherished and lived within,” adding that in the future, “communities should be paid for conserving nature rather than using it.”

Through its Innovation Challenge initiative, the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) has sought to bridge this gap.

The GBCA is bringing a connection-to-nature component of the Green Star Occupant Engagement Innovation Challenge that will enable individual buildings to be rewarded according to the extent that they incorporate features of the natural world into their internal spaces, their facades, roofs, and where applicable, their surrounds.

Peter Fisher, adjunct professor of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University has been working with the GBCA to develop a template for ‘naturising’ buildings. This concept involves an express attempt at including natural elements such as podium plantings, internal greenery, green roofs, walls and facades into projects such that natural process is integrated into the built form.

This template will allow a much a more systematic approach to the retrofits and new construction design especially in terms of achieving quantifiable levels of benefit as well as providing incentive to developers, property owner and tenants.

Green Star currently has no systematic means for comparing one building with another in terms of their connection to nature, in contrast with the existing rating tools where comparisons can be made in terms of energy efficiency, water conservation and so on.

Recent RMIT research seeks to provide Green Star with a metric built upon a more exacting valuation of benefits deriving from internal or external views to nature, featuring landscaping, green walls, atriums, indoor plants and water features, roof gardens, as well as ways of colouring interiors, walls, and ceilings and other natural features.

It provides an opportunity to round out the environmental credentials of structures utilising elements of the natural world, making their occupants more aware of life forms other than their own, as well as their dependency on them for free ecological services and their place in the richness of our own lives and that of the planet.

As Fisher says, “the approach inherently recognises that there are different categories of buildings in terms of their function and occupants, airports for instance being entirely different from offices. It further recognises a need to integrate design with support for urban wildlife.”

The Green Star ‘Occupant Engagement’ Innovation Challenge offers the following instructions:

“To claim this Innovation Challenge your project must incorporate connections from your built environment project to the natural environment. These connections can include internal or external views to nature, water or landscaping, green walls, atriums, indoor plants and water features, roof gardens and other natural features (including e-media such as images of wildlife and landscapes). This feedback may include reporting of measurable improvements in building occupant productivity and ‘wellness’ such as: less absenteeism, increased staff retention and decreased need for retraining, improved patient recovery or student achievements and more. Various categories of spaces are acceptable ranging from conventional offices to other places of congregation such as commercial and public venues.”

Fisher believes a key design consideration for new or retrofitted commercial and public buildings therefore should be to reduce the buffering from the natural world by making visual linkages with items like trees, birds, and/or other species, even extending to the neighbourhood scale. Denied views, occupants often adapt by surrounding themselves with potted plants, images of nature, and nature-focused screen savers.

There’s a string of direct benefits to people deriving from making that contact such as wellness, stress reduction and learning dividends as Richard Forman, a professor of landscape ecology at Harvard University, notes.

”Outside the window a phoebe was bringing food to her nest under the eaves,” he said. “I had positioned myself next to the window in the small lecture room as I always try to do at meetings—when I am fortunate enough to be in a meeting facility with windows. Being able to glance out the window from time to time helps me relax and, I think, even focus on the topic at hand—as counterintuitive as that might at first sound.”

 

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Nature and natural processes must become ubiquitous in our cities if we are to have a sustainable planet.

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