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The Future of Sustainable Building

This article was written by Patrick Rollens in October 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

By 2030, about half of the buildings in America will have been built after 2000. This statistic, courtesy of Professor Arthur C. Nelson's report for the Brookings Institution, means that over the next 25 years, we will be responsible for re-creating half the volume of our built environment.

The report has been around since 2004, but Nelson re-examined his own findings last year to see if the housing market's downturn impacted the forecast. The sheer volume was essentially unchanged, and the mainstreaming of the green movement that's occurred in the last two years presents a colossal challenge--and a magnificent opportunity--for the burgeoning sustainable building industry.

Nelson's report states that the country will need about 427 billion square feet of space (up from 2000's total volume of just 300 billion). Moreover, only a small portion of this space can be acquired by renovating existing real estate. We're already well on our way; the U.S. Green Building Council estimates that we're developing about twice times as fast as the associated population growth. Every new building built between now and 2030 should be seen as an opportunity to push the envelope and transform our structured world. From the report:

About 82 billion of that [new volume] will be from replacement of existing space and 131 million will be new space. Thus, 50 percent of that 427 billion will have to be constructed between now and then.
Most of the space built between 2000 and 2030 will be residential space. The largest component of this space will be homes. Over 100 billion square feet of new residential space will be needed by 2030. However, percentage-wise, the commercial and industrial sectors will have the most new space with over 60 percent of the space in 2030 less than 30 years old.
Recent trends indicate that demand is increasing for more compact, walkable, and high quality living, entertainment, and work environments. The challenge for leaders is to create the right market, land use, and other regulatory climates to accommodate new growth in more sustainable ways.

Consider, then, architecture's place in this future. Every quirky blueprint idea, every design doodled on a cocktail napkin, every out-of-the-box concept -- they're all fair game in light of our supreme need for residential and commercial space in the coming decades. Here we stand, fewer than 10 years into the mainstream U.S. green movement, and we're faced with a monumental opportunity. Worldchangers will be needed by the boatload to realize these new cities of the future.

Though published in 2004, Nelson's report recently came to the forefront again during a recent conversation with a colleague here in Chicago. My friend was describing the Dutch green building movement, and he mentioned something interesting: in the Netherlands, designers found that it was not financially feasible to tear down and replace existing buildings that were taller than 20 stories. Beyond that ceiling, demolition was not an option, and the architects were tasked with imagining how the building might be renovated and made to endure into the 21st century.

Without a doubt, this is the future of sustainable building. Few things make as much sense as taking a building constructed 20 years ago and refitting it with green techniques and materials, thereby creating a sustainable environment to live, work and play. With this practice as a benchmark, skylines of the future will no longer grow--they will evolve. Renovation efforts will drive the demand for green building materials, which will in turn drive down the associated costs. And with 131 billion square feet of new space needed for our urban future, it's time to get started.

Remaking the Built Environment by 2030 is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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