How Green Building Truly Rebuilds Disaster Struck Communities

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Sierra Club Green Home. Author credit goes to Noelle Hirsch.

Green building is taking the construction industry by storm, and its benefits are perhaps best seen in disaster-related rebuilds. The pros of sustainable and energy-saving construction are easy for most to identify. Reducing energy consumption with efficient building materials, household appliances, and heating and cooling systems benefits the environment and saves the building owner money. Green buildings often last longer, too, meaning they won’t require frequent updates and remodels.

However, most people become initially concerned with green building startup costs. In this sense, disaster zones can be something of a blank slate for developers: When towns or cities need rebuilds, developers often have an easier time incentivizing home and business owners to construct with water and energy efficiency in mind. As a result, the documented success of these redevelopment projects in many ways is spurning the growth of the green movement across the board.

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Solar Habitat homes in the Bay Area (image via Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley)

While most of the structures now standing in the United States lack efficiency, it’s simply because they were constructed in an era that prized grand structures and speed of building over energy conservation and responsible sourcing. Today’s energy landscape is much different than it was even just 20 years ago. Inefficient buildings are one of the biggest hidden costs in our economy, and even small changes can add up to dramatic savings—for both the planet and the pocketbook.

Money savings almost always lead to economic advantages, but the results are particularly noticeable after a disaster. When an F5 tornado leveled most of Greensburg, Kansas in 2007, city officials made a commitment to building back all official structures according to the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. The immediate savings were dramatic, but an even more telling part of the story is that those savings stuck.

“Five years after the violent event, the town is now saving $200,000 in annual energy costs for thirteen buildings,” Green Tech Enterprise reported in August 2012. “Greensburg is now providing measured building performance that proves the benefits of sustainable design.”

Similar green rebuilding initiatives were spearheaded in New Orleans after the wake of Hurricane Katrina; in Haiti after a devastating 2010 earthquake; and in parts of Victoria, Australia after a spate of heavily destructive wildfires. Increasingly, city governments and local officials are incorporating energy-conscious construction into their disaster recovery plans. In the United States, much of the incentive for these programs comes at the urging of the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Instead of reflexively reinstating the choices of the past, why not rebuild today to better position your community for tomorrow?” the Department asks in a resource pamphlet prepared for local government officials. “Reframe that shattered glass as a clean, new window of opportunity. You can choose to make this catastrophe into an opportunity … not just to return to the status quo, but to grow and change,” the Department suggests.

In disaster situations, local governments can often collect federal relief money to help offset the cost of eco-conscious building. Charitable organizations and environmental groups have also traditionally been generous in sponsoring and helping fund green building. However, this is not always the case for those simply looking to remodel or update existing structures in an efficient way. The high startup costs for green building stand as one of the biggest hurdles to construction managers in non-disaster zones.

Nevertheless, just because funding is harder to come by does not mean that it is impossible to procure. A number of state and federal grant programs exist to help incentivize more sustainable building, and tax breaks and other deferred benefits are also available in many places. Researching the options and charting out a plan often takes time, but the benefits can be substantial. By looking at disaster rebuild projects years later, we can see that green building does make a difference. Getting started may be a challenge, but the upfront time and resource investment almost always pays great dividends in the end.

Looking to take advantage of these benefits by greening your own home? Sierra Club Green Home offers a great collection of resources including home renovation helpers, energy audits, and more in our Learn More section.

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