Are Green Buildings just Houses Painted Green? An Austrian-American (Sustain)ability Test

bridges vol. 11, September 2006 / Green Buildings Focus
by Georg Reichard


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If you had asked someone a decade ago, "Can you imagine living in a green building?" the answer would probably have been, "You mean my house painted green? Nah, it's not really one of my favorite colors . . ."

Unfortunately it's impossible to think of an equally ambiguous question in German to compare public awareness of ecological concepts with that of Austria ten years ago. "Oekohaus" might just be mistaken for the house of a person with a particular "political agenda." Perhaps if you asked people what they think of "Nachhaltigkeit" in Austria or "sustainability" in the US, some might be at a loss. However, if you asked if they would like to live in a "Low-Energy House" the results would be quite different from ten years ago.

This ambiguity forces us to consider the multitude of meanings bundled under the wide umbrella of "Green Building." Energy efficiency is often considered a significant part of sustainable building concepts - indisputably important, but not the only indicator of an ecologically valuable building. In Europe, people tend to point their fingers across the Atlantic when discussing energy efficiency and squandering resources. European houses in general are more efficient in terms of energy used for heating and cooling. However, this is more an economic than an ecologically-driven development. Energy is more expensive for European consumers, so it makes sense to invest in more efficiency. When it comes to sustainability this competitive edge can quickly diminish. Here we have to look at the life cycle costs of materials we use to achieve this goal - for example, the embedded energy needed for production and demolition of extruded foam insulation panels.

With that in mind, I want to discuss the idea of Green Buildings against the background of academic education, public incentives, mass production, and the general public awareness of sustainability for buildings.

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