There are two lingering impressions of sustainable design and construction—also known as green building—which need to be better understood. The first is that green building is an expensive undertaking. The second is that green building is driven by concerns about the degrading effect buildings have on the environment.

When faced with the prospect of building green, the usual response from an owner is, “Does the impact my building places on the environment justify the added cost of green design and construction?” For some, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Many people have deep convictions about the state of our environment. They see green building as an opportunity to limit our effect on the environment through prudent and innovative use of resources and policies.

However, most building owners—whether they are speculative developers, landlords, institutions or public entities—are capitalists of the Adam Smith ilk; they are concerned first with the thrifty economics of their project and not with the promotion of society or the environment. That’s not a criticism. It’s just the economic system that Smith—the father of modern economics— handed down. The fact is that most building owners are focused on the bottom line, and the price of protecting the environment had better be negligible, or even profitable, if they are going to go green.

And that has become the case—green building does not necessarily add expenses to a new-build project. Green building has always been differentiated from conventional construction, but only recently have sustainable approaches been carefully evaluated in an “apples-to-apples” comparison to traditional methods.

Studies reveal that building green does not in itself drive up capital costs, and many green buildings have been constructed at a price no higher than conventionally built structures. Increases in capital costs have been nominal, falling within a range from less than 1 percent to about 3 percent. This small increase was due largely to added design time, new modeling costs and additional construction time that occurred after the project was underway and an owner decided to add sustainability.

Of course, green building could cost as much as an owner would care to pay. An owner could be very “exotic” with green products, and an owner could choose to pursue some higher level of “greenness” via a certification method (e.g., LEED®). However, the reality is this that basic green design and construction does not translate into higher costs.

So what drives one to go green in the first place? A common description of green building focuses on environmental impact. The city of Arlington, Virginia, provides one such definition: “Green building is a loosely defined collection of land-use, building design and construction strategies that reduce the environmental impacts that buildings have on their surroundings.” This perspective and the ongoing perception that green building must be performed for the sake of the environment is, I believe, outmoded and for good reason.

First, to make a genuine difference in the environment, we cannot green-build several facilities; we must green-build thousands. Yes, every great endeavor starts small and every little bit helps, but one needs better incentives to go green than “because every little bit helps.”

Second, environmental issues and all things “green” have become politically charged. Anyone interested in good stewardship or use of money tends to be motivated against political invectives, rather than stimulated by them.

Third, once an issue becomes political, the polemics tend to be based on competing pillars of virtue. Environmentalism and the greening of America has been in such a place that building owners are expected to go green because it’s the “right” thing to do. While value judgments are clearly important business tactics, no one—least of all owners of potentially expensive buildings—reacts well to moral imperatives thrust upon them.

Again, we are drawn to Adam Smith. He not only taught us that capitalists should be concerned solely with their own economic incentives but also that in doing so they are “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” and that “by pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” As we look to the owner’s bottom line interests, green building indeed becomes an enticing tactic—one that advances the cause of the environmentalist, even if unknowingly.

This is the single most compelling and well-documented motivation for building green: Sustainable design and construction provides ongoing, long-term financial benefits that conventional, to-code buildings cannot. This includes water savings, reduced waste and the costs associated with its disposal, lower operations and maintenance costs and numerous other reductions/savings. Nothing, however, quite compares to energy savings. A 2006 study in Massachusetts, for example, determined that on average, green buildings use 30 percent less energy than conventional buildings, and this is consistent among green buildings across the nation.

In the end, the predominantly negative perceptions about green building are no longer relevant, and the author of that fact is good old-fashioned capitalist economics. There are several other important economic reasons to build green: greater occupant productivity, attractiveness to potential tenants, increased building value, corporate and government incentives and too many more to go into detail here.

So, if green building processes can stand beside traditional building processes as an alternative but equal design/construction tactic and green building provides more attractive long-term life-cycle costs, why wouldn’t a green approach be viable? In sustainable design and construction, there is every economic reason to consider its use. And by the way, it’s good for the environment as well. IBI