View of a Swiss Bio-Architect
In the last decade, the green building market has boomed in many parts of the world; Asia in particular has experienced the fastest growth rate of 35% per year, and expected to reach 70% by 2013. This high growth rate is due mainly to the fact that in many Asian countries the CO2 reduction will be an enormous future challenge, especially in countries like China where the economy is highly coal-based. In Switzerland, the growth rate of recent years has been modest compared to Asian countries, which is set around 15%.
This modest growth may be because CO2 reduction is far less of a pressing problem in Switzerland than it is in China, or maybe because natural market transitional barriers have prevented a more robust growth; nevertheless, Switzerland has adopted the necessary measures and strategies poised for the green building market’s development. The Minergie (www.minergie.ch), the Swiss building energy standards and codes, is the most widely used and tossed around term to define the concept of green building or sustainable building in Switzerland. Though, the Minergie model focuses primarily on the energy efficiency, and does not truly emphasize other goals of sustainable building yet, such as waste reduction, material efficiency, and operations and maintenance optimization, which are all essential components of the green building design. Sustainable design and construction not only entail the use of methods and materials that are resource efficient throughout the life-cycle of the building but also that they will not compromise the health of the environment or the associated health and well-being of the building’s occupants, construction workers, the general public, or future generations. The green house concept will not only benefit the owner but also the society and the environment since it connotes a balancing of the relationships between environmental, social, and economic health – basically, the same framework of sustainable development. Swiss bioengineer and bioarchitect Luca Giordano will shed some light on the abstruse side of the green building market in Switzerland. Mr Giordano is the owner of Tecnoclima in Lugano and president of the Swiss Italian section of the l’Association Suisse d’Écobiologie de la construction – ASdE” (www.baubio.ch) and vice-president of the Société Suisse pour l’Energie Solaire SSES (http://www.sses.ch/sses.htm).
Up-front costs, the Achilles’ heel of a green building?
The general misconception is that green building’s up-front costs are unaffordable for most of us, a misconceived perception that represents one of the primary barriers for the development of a solid market for green building – an idea that corroborates recent green building’s research studies.
“The reality is that up-front costs are not so high after all; the first costs are estimated to be on average just 1-10% higher than conventional homes. Of course, this depends on sustainable design alternatives being used; some are clearly more expensive than the conventional counterparts, such as the solar hot water heaters or the geothermal heating system that clearly increase the initial costs. Though, these costs can be easily offset by an important cost-related factor too often left out from the cost-assessment analysis – the lifecycle saving costs of green building. The lifecycle saving costs on average are estimated to be more than 10% for new green buildings and 5% for green renovations over conventional buildings. That should be a good incentive considering the increasing costs of energy, materials, and waste disposal in the next years to come. Basically, in ten years the initial costs’ differential can be completely amortized.” Mr Giordano stated. Mr. Giordano gently gives us an example of a green’s house model he has recently developed, which it is also exposed at the Swiss Miniature Park in Lugano as an epitome of green construction in Switzerland. “I have developed this ‘Bio-house’ using a life-cycle assessment (LCA) methodology; for example, wastes are minimized from cradle to grave, energy and water are efficiently managed, energy comes largely from renewable sources – solar and geothermal, the building is radon-resistant, and most materials used to build this house are renewable, non-petroleum based, and non-toxic such as the FSC certified wood walls covered with Zero VOC lime plaster outside and clay plaster inside. CO2 reduction comes in two ways: by using renewable, non petroleum based materials, and by using renewable energy. Basically, the house lives and breathes, just like its owners, in a healthy and efficient way and in perfect harmony with the surrounding natural system.”
Mr. Giordano gently gives us an example of a green’s house model he has recently developed, which it is also exposed at the Swiss Miniature Park in Lugano as an epitome of green construction in Switzerland. “I have developed this ‘Bio-house’ using a life-cycle assessment (LCA) methodology; for example, wastes are minimized from cradle to grave, energy and water are efficiently managed, energy comes largely from renewable sources – solar and geothermal, the building is radon-resistant, and most materials used to build this house are renewable, non-petroleum based, and non-toxic such as the FSC certified wood walls covered with Zero VOC lime plaster outside and clay plaster inside. CO2 reduction comes in two ways: by using renewable, non petroleum based materials, and by using renewable energy. Basically, the house lives and breathes, just like its owners, in a healthy and efficient way and in perfect harmony with the surrounding natural system.” The idea of living in a house that is salubrious and healthy clearly makes the green building an attractive housing solution for most of us. But what about the price of this particular model of green home is it just as attractive as the house’s conception or it will make the health’s benefit somewhat disputable?
“Well, it varies. I say that you should look around 1600-6000CHF per sqm habitable surface, which translate to a total of 320’000-1’200’000CHF for a house of this size, 200 sqm. Though, the values of a green house should not and cannot be all monetized. For example, how can we give a price tag to the health gains, personal or environmental alike? Clearly the green home concept goes beyond the mere monetary value.”
Green building expertise and the market for sustainable products
Another important factor that might discourage one person to build a green home and might further increase its costs is the lack of expertise in sustainable design and the lack of a clear market for sustainable products. Where the heck can she find a Chinese bamboo for her wood floor or wheat straw blocks for her wall, Ikea? Why the architect she just contacted keeps mumbling anytime she mentions the word Green building? “Concerning the availability of green materials, in Switzerland you can find basically anything you want; this should not constitute a disincentive to one’s decision to build a green home. The key is finding the right professionals that can address their costumers to the right places.” Mr. Giordano replied. Research experts on the field of green construction have found the lack of expertise in sustainable design and construction might represent an obstacle to one’s decision to choose green building design over the conventional ones. Many Swiss architects, engineers, and construction firms still use conventional design and traditional linear construction process, and at best, their knowledge on sustainable construction stops at the Minergie level. They might not know how a green team works, where to find appropriate green products, and what is the intrinsic value of a sustainable design, and at worse they might also involuntarily dissuade costumers from pursuing their deepest green interest.
“Well, we cannot blame anyone if the current socio-economic system does not encourage enough professionals to enrich their career by widening their knowledge to cover the green building designs and processes. Our organization Baubio is an excellent platform for professionals and costumers alike interested in green building design. For example, we address customers to the right experts and provide them free coursework if they subscribe to our organization’s publication. We also train architects and engineers interested in green design. So opportunities are out there, no excuses!”
Public sector and private sector, each one plays a key role
The public sector plays an important part in the development of a market for green building, even though there are proponents who believe green building market should stand on its own feet, eventually. For example, the government could provide incentives in the form of subsidies, outright grants, favorable loans, tax credits and rebates, education, training programs, and last but not least, support for related-NGOs.
“I agree, the public sector can truly help boost the demand for green building. In Switzerland each canton has its own regulations and incentives, so I suggest anyone interested in green construction to check the department of environment of their respective canton to see what financial incentives and training programs are available. I also suggest to visit the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (http://www.bfe.admin.ch/index.html?lang=en), and to visit the Alternative Bank of Switzerland (www.abs.ch) that provides low interest loans particularly for green buildings projects.” In US there is a saying: “Ask not, what your country can do for you. Ask what, you can do for your country.” Civil society can play a tremendous part in sustainable building development. The role of the private sector is crucial in educating the public over the benefits of the green building design, in providing consulting and expertise, or like in the case of the Alternative Bank, in providing favorable loans. “We cannot expect always that the government is there for us. Private initiatives are in my opinion essential. I personally try to support as much as I can private entrepreneurs interested in the green building business with free consulting and technical advices. Recently, I have supported the initiative of Abraham Dali, a Swiss resident from Belgium, who decided to develop an informative platform on sustainable development and sustainable building (www.homocivilis.com). The virtual house you’ll see in his webpage, it is my project I’ve donated to him. Each one of us should play an active role in making our country a better livable place, no doubt about it!” Green building is a good and a right accessible to all. The idea of building a green home is sure appealing, not only because of the many inbuilt benefits of the green design but also because it truly changes the values of a person; the decision to build a new house with a green design is not anymore a self-centered decision; it is also, although maybe indirectly, an altruistic act toward the whole of society.