Green Building in San Francisco

This is an excerpt from the full paper, Green Buildings and Communities, written by James T. Caldwell, Ph.D. To view the entire paper in PDF format, please click here.

Green Building : The Problem and Opportunity

The design and construction of buildings are critical to our energy future and to the
quality of human life. The average North American spends 90% of the time indoors, 5% in
vehicles, and only 5% outdoors. We construct buildings to improve our relationships to family,
work, community and place, yet they often do the opposite. The built environment uses 40% of
the energy we use and modern so-called energy-efficient, sealed buildings often waste energy,
reduce ventilation rates and promote asthma (which has doubled in North America since the
1980s). We exercise less in daily life and use more fossil fuels getting to and from work. Our
most serious life challenges today (air and water quality, degraded soils, failing agriculture, the
loss of species and habitats, wars over resources, and lost opportunities for our children to thrive)
have created a planetary emergency. Green building design and construction means purposefully
recreating our built environment as a set of facilities for thriving communities and regenerative

Animals, plants algae, bacteria and fungi adapt to changing ecosystems by moving, dying
or evolving; humans have the capacity to creatively adapt our organizations, tools, built
environments, and cultures to survive and thrive in the face of adversity. Built environments are
not living organisms, yet they are living systems within living neighborhoods, cities, and ecoregions.
They are workspaces for humans, animals, plants, fungi, algae and bacteria to creatively
interact. Built communities can survive and thrive when they create holistic designs that
transcend short-term economics, encourage innovation and maintain healthy (mutually
supportive) interactions with the rest of nature.

Benefits of Green Building

The benefits of holistic design could include (1) lower net construction costs for builders
and developers; (2) a net zero or negative energy and emissions footprints; and (3) lower
operating costs, healthcare costs and life-cycle costs for owners, operators and occupants. We
have been conditioned to expect such benefits to cost more. Additional benefits with zero or
negative cost include improved lighting, air quality, social ambiance, transportation, health,
worker productivity and educational opportunities. These can produce lower taxes, healthcare
and insurance costs for citizens and businesses. For example, if Chinese urban planners and
builders were to adopt a neighborhood development model like the EcoBlock for 25% of the
currently planned 4,000 plus Superblock residential neighborhoods over the next year, they could
avoid building thirteen drinking-water plants, eleven wastewater treatment plants, and eight
county landfills—resulting in a nine billion dollar construction cost reduction and even greater
saving by reducing energy, emission, waste management, and healthcare costs for families,
businesses, and public services each year.


When Chinese, American, and international innovators work together to build and
improve EcoBlocks, Eco-cities and Eco-regions, we will become continually more integrated
with natural development. As human communities learn to be responsible and regenerative, we
can thrive and develop without depleting our ecosystems.

As a scientist, I do not see this as a utopian situation. There will always be problems to
solve and improvements to make. However, once we adopt this holistic perspective on buildings
as facilities for individual and community development, in partnership with nature, we can more
easily build alliances across specialized professions, trades, and cultural diversity to avoid the
planetary emergency and severe challenges.

We can educate ourselves to creatively and continually improve our quality of life. Our
education systems can transcend the incomplete understanding of green buildings and green
living held by current building owners and buyers. We can even utilize our buildings and
infrastructures as interactive teaching tools with immediate experiential benefits as well as
promote long term economic benefits. We can develop buildings and neighborhoods that
generate their own power and convert their own wastes into resources while reducing the need
for expensive and wasteful public utilities that use fossil fuels and cause pollution. Modern
internet capabilities, smart meters, smart phones, smart appliances, and interactive educational
media can enable buildings and utilities to participate in the education process, teaching us, with
location based services, to save energy and convert waste into resources while facilitating
feedback from users and operators.

As a result of this green building forum we can see that green construction and urban
planning can deliver more benefits than simple energy and emissions reductions. They can save
money in construction, public utilities, and health care. The key will be to use science,
technology, collaborative education and creative innovation in a unified strategy focused on
supporting regenerative communities in partnership with nature.