Green Buildings: Good for the Environment, Occupants and the Bottom Line

by Adam Bonislawski
Apr 19, 2016 8:10 AM ET

Green buildings are good for the environment—that is well known. But what benefits do they offer the people who inhabit them?

recent report from the World Green Building Council tackles that matter head-on, looking at the impact of environmentally friendly construction on user productivity and well-being in the retail sector. But the question isn’t a new one. In fact, says Scot Horst, chief product officer at the U.S. Green Building Council, it has its roots in the very beginnings of the green building movement.

That movement, Horst says, began in the 1960s and 1970s as a response to the energy crisis. Initially, efforts focused on sealing buildings thoroughly to reduce heating and cooling demands. It quickly became apparent, however, that such an approach would create unhealthy indoor environments—the so-called “sick building syndrome,” wherein poor ventilation and air quality lead to health issues among building occupants.

“So green building came around and said, instead of building a building from the outside in, let’s flip it around and build it from the inside out,” Horst says. “Let’s start with the people and how the people are going to be using the space, and then build the building around them and be really smart about how you do that.”

Today, he noted, that approach manifests itself in a variety of ways, from the inclusion of architectural elements that increase levels of natural light to the use of paint and other materials with low levels of volatile organic compounds to improve air quality.

These choices aren’t just a matter of user satisfaction, Horst says. If, for instance, green buildings were to increase worker productivity or decrease absenteeism by even small amounts, that could mean a significant boost to a company’s bottom line.

Demonstrating such an effect “is kind of a holy grail from a green building perspective,” he says. However, he adds, “it’s a very difficult thing to study, and it’s very difficult to prove causality.”

As the World Green Building Council report observes, though, one area that offers an excellent opportunity for studying the financial impact of green construction is retail. Retailers, the report authors write, have “data, and lots of it,” and this data, they note, presents “a chance to consider a larger and more compelling set of relationships to make the business case for sustainable buildings.”

One notable example, cited both by the council’s report and Horst, is a major global retailer that explored the effect of natural light versus artificial light on sales. Using a concept store in which one half of the store was naturally lit and the other half was lit artificially, the company found that sales per square foot were significantly higher in the naturally lit half.

The retailer arrived at a similar conclusion following an analysis of sales at 75 stores where locations with low amounts of natural light were retrofitted with skylights. Those retrofitted locations saw significant jumps in sales per square foot. An added bonus? The new skylights also cut down on the stores’ lighting bills.

Making green by going green. What’s not to like about that?