Standing at two ends of the sustainability spectrum, inoperable windows (picture most any large skyscraper in any town) and efficient lighting seem to represent opposite ends of the conversation vis-a-vis sustainable practices. Efficient lights demonstrate the steps we have taken to illuminate interior spaces that ostensibly would be dark otherwise. However, natural light is a free, inexhaustible resource. What are ways buildings can be greener?
Choosing natural light over energy-efficient lighting
True, the sun doesn’t always shine. Buildings may need to be lit up at night or other times of darkness. However, the fact that light bulbs have become more efficient belies the fact that they are terribly inefficient. Natural light is the optimal choice when it comes to lighting a space. For schools and office complexes, the prime time for occupancy is during daylight hours. Innovations like daylighting tubes can bring natural light into interior spaces that otherwise may not have the benefit of “natural” illumination. Even though lighting may be efficient, it doesn’t mean it’s the most sustainable option.
The problem with inoperable windows
Inoperable windows are another problem. Recently, I had the opportunity to tour a number of LEED certified projects as part of the workshop I led, “Buildings as Teaching Tools.” Many facilities earned silver certification (or higher), but they had inoperable windows. These buildings were designed to minimize energy use, but they had to shut out the natural world to completely control and maintain balance inside. Large mechanical systems regulate airflow, temperature, etc. Opening a window can upset the delicate balance. Where does that leave individuals who want some fresh air while they sit in their office?
Green features are good but there is usually room for improvement
Just because a building has “green” features (LEED certified mechanical systems that maintain an “optimal” indoor air environment and highly efficient lighting) doesn’t mean they’ll perform that way. Leaving efficient lights on all the time negates their goal. True, sensors and timers help alleviate the issue, but it’s not enough. Being unable to open a window because it may upset the building’s balance is not ideal.
Ways buildings can be greener
Yes, these systems have numerous advantages over older, less efficient ones that fail to take indoor air quality into account. However, there’s got to be a happy medium. LEED certification is a goal, but there is often more to do to optimize efficiencies. There can be a balance between an overly mechanized, sterile office space and one more integrated with the natural world. It is worth repeating that efficiency (by itself) is not the key to sustainability.