Sustainable buildings – the way forward

We all know why we have to protect our environment, why we have to take care of it. The proof is there that sustainable development is not something foreign or impossible for us. But, due to human ignorance and the status quo of social, economic and political factors, we do not pay enough attention and do not take necessary measures. The problem is that the majority does not believe in and accept sustainable development. It is therefore the responsibility of those who study and know the truth, to educate these less informed people and to convert the open-minded people to move towards a sustainable future. Those who are willing to learn and change can make this world a better place for present and future generations by creating an ecologically, economically and socially healthy place to live.

“In 1987, the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined sustainability as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.”


A rendering of a “green building”

The real estate sector (property sector) plays a major role in many economies around the world and no difference is also visible in the Sri Lankan economy. But on the other hand, this sector (building, use of materials and construction) is the main contributor to environmental degradation and uses the largest share of natural resources.

Real estate sector

According to the figure given (see graph), the United Nations State of the Environment Report (2017), construction operations, building materials and the construction sector account for 39% of global carbon emissions and, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) (2016), carbon emissions from the building sector are expected to be 56% by 2030, becoming the most influential sector for the environment.

Thus, the real estate sector as a whole must take the necessary steps to achieve sustainability being an ambitious sector by creating sustainable buildings.

What is the meaning of sustainable or green buildings (these two terms can have different meanings for different people in different contexts, but in general the two are used interchangeably)? There is no agreed definition of this. However, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) defines,

“A ‘green’ building is one that, in its design, construction or operation, reduces or eliminates negative impacts and can create positive impacts on our climate and natural environment. Green buildings conserve valuable natural resources and improve our quality of life.

The construction and operation of sustainable buildings is imperative due to the growing threat of climate change and the negative impacts of conventional building operation and construction on the environment. And not limited to these two elements, buildings play an important role related to the social, cultural, health and well-being of all humans. If we further summarize the benefits of sustainable buildings; but not limited to the aspects mentioned here:

Environmental benefits – protection of biodiversity and ecosystems, conservation and restoration of natural resources, improvement of air and water quality, good waste management,

Economic benefits – increase occupant productivity, reduce operating costs, create and grow markets for green products and services, optimize lifecycle economic performance

Social benefits – improved occupant comfort and health, increased aesthetic qualities, improved overall quality of life, protection of traditional knowledge and culture

In highlighting the above benefits, it is understood that some challenges/barriers exist in sustainable building developments and operations, such as the lack of adequate incentives for the promotion of green buildings, the lack of supportive financing schemes (eg. example, bank loans), lack of expertise in the field, lack of environmental awareness of professionals in the real estate sector, higher initial investment and limited financial resources. Additionally, the small market for green buildings and since green rating mechanisms are not popular, results in a less attractive premium and capital value for investors (Wu, et al. 2019). These challenges are neither solid nor immovable. To eliminate or minimize these challenges, we, as top-down and bottom-up individuals and groups in national and international contexts, need to work hand in hand and be more engaged.


Let me give some truths or strategies that can be used in sustainable buildings, but which have not been widely accepted in society,

* Building volume and orientation – taking into account sun orientation and climate when orienting the building, its door, windows, lighting and ventilation locations. Manage natural lighting and natural ventilation and reduce building energy needs

* Implementation of electrical, plumbing, HVAC and other high performance systems

* Exploitation of solar energy

* Purchase of steel, wood and finishing materials such as carpets and furniture from companies that use environmentally friendly manufacturing techniques or recycled materials

* Use native plants to reduce irrigation needs which would also result in less maintenance

* Implement stormwater management strategies such as permeable pavements and retention ponds

* Harvesting rainwater for irrigation

* Implement appropriate waste management systems – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (3R)

* Use more local and regional materials to minimize transport costs

* Emphasize human health, safety and welfare when preparing building design, layout and planning

Thurulia Thulhiriya

The above are some strategies that lead to sustainable buildings. All over the world there are institutions that have certified sustainable buildings such as GBCSL – Green Building Council Sri Lanka, LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design in USA, BREEAM – Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method – UK and Green star – Australian green rating system, they have their own systems, which use different certification criteria, but most of these criteria are similar and expect to create a better place to live for the current and future generation on this Earth.

Generally, the demand for sustainable buildings is increasing worldwide, but most developments can be seen in developed countries such as the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, and Singapore. Meanwhile, with very positive notes, in developing countries like India, China, Sri Lanka, there is a trend for sustainable buildings. According to the Green Building Council of Sri Lanka (GBCSL), there are a number of certified green buildings available in Sri Lanka, for example – THURULIA Factory – Thulhiriya, Kandalama-Dambulla Hotel and HNB-Nittambuwa.

However, in the current context, it seems that the sustainable development of buildings is not advancing fast enough. If we continue with business as usual, ignoring this precious environment, the future of our children and grandchildren will be devastating. We must take the necessary action today without delay, we have examples in the past that we did not accept at first, but later they were accepted by the whole world. For example, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, which discussed the harmful impact of DDT use in agriculture, which later led to the banning of DDT use.

Let me end the writing with these two quotes;

“We shape our buildings, then they shape us” – Winston Churchill

“The future depends on what we do in the present” – Mahatma Gandhi

(The author is Senior Lecturer, Department of Property Management and Valuation, University of Sri Jayewardenepura)

Marjorie N. McClure