Sustainable development efforts worldwide have achieved some success in many sectors, including the built environment.
According to Kate Harris, CEO of ecolabelling nonprofit Good Environmental Choice Australia, several key trends will strengthen the demand for sustainable development over the next 15 years. Harris will be speaking on the topic at the next DesignBuild EXPO in May.
GECA’s mission, Harris said, is to drive sustainable consumption and production by developing ecolabelling standards for materials and products, and sustainable building standards have increased the need for standards.
“We’re really here because of Green Building Councils and companies doing the right thing around building 6 Star Green Star, seeing that as a competitive edge,” she noted.
However, green building certifications have not been widely adopted in the residential market, she said, but that will be changing due to a greater focus on health.
“We’re moving from just being about environment or just being about social supply chain to being very much about health and wellness, like with the WELL Building Standard, and that is leading to more residential entry market of green building,” Harris noted.
“What this talk is really about is, yes, energy matters, but so do materials, so do health and well-being.”
The challenge, though, is often a lack of information that can inform decisions about green building at the residential level. Many of the materials, products and services that are most prevalent in large-scale green builds are not affordable or scalable for residential at this point.
Products for the residential market, Harris said, aren’t necessarily identical to commercial-grade products.
“How can it be affordable, acceptable at your local hardware, but also sustainable?” she asked.
Plus, sustainability, health considerations and safety must be intrinsic.
“It’s not gonna make you sick, and it hasn’t made the person down the supply chain sick,” she said.
Green building standards, fortunately, are helping to drive the development of safer materials and products, which GECA can rate and label.
One major issue, Harris said, is “how to bring that to a residential offering, so a general user and consumer renovating, extending, buying a new house, can actually have that lens and go, ‘What’s the paint, what’s the flooring, what’s the threshold for VOCs?’”
“I think everyone has the right to make an informed choice as to what they put in their home,” Harris said. “It should be available, it should be accessible and affordable, and it can still be beautiful and sustainable across the supply chain, and in the manufacturing process.”
Manufacturers have been reluctant to undertake potentially risky development of new products and materials, but green building standards Harris noted, impact both the supply and demand sides of the built environment. “They want to see that there’s a market first, before they invest in it,” she said.
“The United Nations environmental programs are also driving government mandated public procurement policy,” she added. “If you suddenly have that demand, the government demand, come on board, it undercuts the risk of investment for the manufacturer, and maybe that’s the biggest challenge for them.”
Harris also noted additional trends, including the “circular economy” and sustainable development goals. A circular economy refers to an industrial system with flows of biological nutrients that can safely be used then reenter the biosphere, combined with technical nutrients that circulate in the production system rather than reentering the biosphere.
“I think the circular economy is another trend which is fantastic,” she said. “Some great companies like Brambles are really embedding circular economy deep into their business model.”
The United Nations created 17 transformative sustainable development goals in 2015. Australia ranked 20th in a 2016 report on progress toward those goals.
“Climate change commitments, carbon reductions, are happening here, even if it’s not happening at a federal level with Australia,” Harris said. “The governments at a state level are ensuring that it’s happening.”