Do green buildings really matter? (Hint: far more than you might think)

We expect green buildings to operate more efficiently and conserve energy, to be kinder to the environment than traditional buildings and provide a healthier place to live and work. However, when the climate and health benefits are translated into dollars saved — as a study conducted by Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health has done — it presents a powerful argument for why green buildings should be considered as an integral element in your city's smart city vision and planning. — Doug Peeples


The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health green building study yielded some surprising numbers. Not only do green-certified buildings provide more than $7 billion in energy savings, they also contribute almost $6 billion in health and climate benefits.

That dollar figure is from a 16-year study of certified green buildings, referred to as HEALTHfx, in Brazil, China, Germany, India, Turkey and the U.S. Overall, researchers found that for every dollar in energy cost savings, an additional $0.77 was saved in health and climate benefits. And the numbers are even more impressive in China and India where climate and health benefits far surpassed energy savings in dollar amounts.

Here is a breakdown of how the value of estimated benefits from green buildings were assigned:

  • Health benefits of $4.4 billion were attributed to fewer deaths, hospital visits, asthma attacks, respiratory symptoms and lost days of work or school
  • Climate benefits of $1.4 billion were attributed to reductions in carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide

"The energy savings of green buildings come with a massive public health benefit through associated reductions in air pollutants emitted. We developed the Co-benefits of the Built Environment (CoBe) calculator in this study as a tool that people can use for understanding the health impacts of building portfolios, investments and building strategies. The decisions we make today with regard to buildings will determine our current and future health," explained Dr. Joseph Allen, assistant professor of Exposure Assessment Science and director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Chan School of Public Health.

The HEALTHfx study is closely related to a 2015 study, Cognitive Effects of Green Buildings (CogFx), led by the Chan School of Public Health to compare human cognitive functions (how well your brain works) in environments with high ventilation and low amounts of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds — which are considered hazardous to human health — and in traditional building settings.

The CogFx study, conducted in a laboratory-like environment, found cognitive function test scores were 61% higher in green buildings and 101% higher in "enhanced green building conditions" when the ventilation was increased. A similar follow-up cognitive function study conducted with participants in 10 office buildings throughout the U.S. also yielded higher test scores in green-certified buildings.

A third study is scheduled to begin in 2018 which will closely monitor both the buildings and the people working inside them.

Referring to the HEALTHfx study, John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer for United Technologies (which provided the study's primary support), said "Green buildings are designed to save energy and water while promoting healthy indoor environments. Now we know the reduced environmental impact of building green is amplified with quantifiable benefits to public health and climate resilience. With this new human context, we can accelerate the green building movement globally from this groundbreaking research."

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.