Economy and Environment

With claims that environmental regulations, green building, and other protect-the-earth measures could strangle the economy, many corporations, developers, and investors feel they face the challenge of sacrificing one for the other. Others believe there’s a middle ground that could satisfy both factions. What’s in the cards for our future?

Can economic growth occur alongside increasing concerns about the welfare of the environment—energy needs, sustainability, green building, water quality—or does one trump the other?

John Bickham
Center for the Environment
Purdue University

Answer: We have the creativity, knowledge, and resources for both the environment and the economy to win—now, we need the will.

Working in the environmental area, it is easy to become pessimistic because of terrible calamities befalling us. But I tend to be an optimist. People are extremely clever and very entrepreneurial and our society is resilient. No environmental issue—energy, deforestation, overpopulation, or any grand challenge—is technically impossible to address. For every environmental issue I can think of, we at least have the technical capability to solve it.

The question is, “Do we have the will?” I hope we do. It will come with time and struggle.

Today, we are faced with tremendous environmental challenges: climate change, our relationship to energy and oil consumption, an extinction event that the earth hasn’t seen in 65M years. This can be depressing.

Yet, we’ve achieved some successes, such as banning chlorofluorocarbons to save the ozone layer. While today’s problems may be more challenging, they are not substantially different. If we apply that same sense of urgency to today’s issues, we can make it happen.

I’m optimistic we will solve these problems. We can have sustainable energy. Green technology allows us to lower our carbon footprint. We can design buildings that use less energy, develop new technology to more efficiently turn sunlight to electricity, and run cars off of light. Solutions are not dependent on substantial, new scientific discoveries. They are engineering problems, and I think of a lot of these solutions will be found right here at Purdue.

Any objection that solutions would cost too much is a red herring. It’s a matter of how you want to allocate your resources, a matter of doing things differently. And what’s more expensive—$4 for a gallon of gasoline or research that leads to a 58-mile-per-gallon car? It seems to me that future high-energy costs are inevitable. Investing today in programs that will lead to alternative energy, environmental sustainability, and energy conservation makes good economic sense.

Courtney France
BS Construction and Engineering Management, 2002
Chief Executive Officer
France Sustainable Solutions

Answer: Absolutely the two can successfully co-exist. In fact, environmental efforts are going to be catalysts to economic growth.

I see environmental concerns taking the lead in many different markets, especially in the building industry. Companies are looking for office spaces that fit their corporate social-responsibility commitments to their shareholders. More than 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies have joined the Carbon Disclosure Project, all seeking to reduce their carbon footprints. Attention to the environment is creating new industry sectors and a demand for specialized trades and designers or engineers with advanced technology degrees. It’s a huge driver for the economy.

Most clients I deal with are beyond the question of cost. People who focus on costs first are late to the game. The more educated, advanced owners know sustainability may cost more in the initial development project budget. The savvy owners are asking, “What can I sell this building for? How quickly? What premiums can I command in rental rates?” They’re looking at reduced insurance rates, tax incentives, and development density bonuses—all offsetting those first costs. They’re investing in something that has a payback, and the return can be very, very short.

Today, the question is no longer, “How much does it cost?” The question now is, “What is the payback or return on investment?” In places like Chicago, where expedited permitting is available for green buildings, the question I pose is, “What is the cost of not going green in a city like Chicago?”

Buildings are huge energy consumers, representing some 39 percent of our country’s energy use. Not only do we want to curb that, studies show that green buildings offer other benefits. Retailers with day-lit stores are achieving higher sales, green hospitals report quicker recovery times for patients, and schools find students perform better on math and reading tests with more daylight in their classrooms. 

Sustainability and environmental best practices for design and construction are the next step in the building development industry. Without it, there even may be a stall in economic growth.

Deanna McMillan
Director of Internships  
Division of Construction Engineering and Management
Purdue University

Answer: It’s possible to avoid the trump, with planning and cooperation.

When it comes to construction, new methodologies and preplanning techniques are emerging that will help reduce building costs and increase the rate of return on investments, so you don’t have to choose between protecting the environment or constructing your building.

Upfront design and good planning are key. By training students to use modeling systems, we can simulate what it will take to execute the project and look for ways to improve construction methods, saving time and money, reducing waste and protecting the environment—all without changing the original intent of the project or building. And all of this can be done up front.

The focus on both a wise economic investment and the environment should be established as success criteria from the start of the project—at demolition, if it’s needed, during excavation and throughout site preparation. An implosion can be attentive to environmental impacts. For example, there are ways to reuse concrete and other materials to avoid or curb landfill waste. And construction methods can be used that avoid over-use of water or air pollution. If you’re doing a lot of grinding, for instance, you might use bubble containment to filter the dust. 

While green materials can be more costly, materials with higher recycled contents offer considerable benefit. They’re available in drywall, floorings, and ceiling tiles. Even paving materials can be specified to utilize materials with higher recycled content. That’s one aspect. Another is reusing existing materials.

No, neither the economy nor the environment trump the other. But added assurance comes through innovative methods and an early partnership between design professionals, contractors, and the owner.

–Kathy Mayer