Pat Barry: We need high standards now
The benefits of 'green' buildings go well beyond energy savings. Better health outcomes, more productivity among workers and our ability to compete on a global stage for talent will all be enhanced if we get this right.
The EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive requires all new buildings to be designed to nearly zero energy standards by the end 2020. For public buildings, it comes into force in 2018.
But the penny has yet to drop in Ireland that we should be targeting this standard today.
A big driver is multinationals. This is in part because of corporate social responsibility, but perhaps the real reason is that companies realise that green buildings create happier, more productive workers.
The measure is backed by evidence. The 2014 World Green Building Council's report, 'Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices', showed a clear link between better buildings and productivity. With salary costs accounting for 90pc of a company's expenses, a potential 8pc to 11pc improvement in productivity from better indoor air quality alone results in a dramatic impact on the bottom line.
The health and education benefits of taking our children out of damp, cold homes is also clear. The Institute of Public Health's report on fuel poverty states that more than one-in-four teenagers living in cold homes are at risk of multiple health problems, compared with one in 20 living in warm homes.
It is probably the HSE's budget which would benefit most if we 'green' our building stock.
We cannot compete in the global competition for talent if we can't offer decent housing. But for that to happen, you need a strategy. Once again, Europe comes to the rescue with the Energy Efficiency Directive.
The idea is to get governments to move on from short-term, ad hoc policy solutions to taking real measures to reduce energy and improve our buildings The directive demands each member state develop a well thought-out renovation strategy to dramatically slash carbon and energy from their building stock, by up to 90pc.
Who is going to invest in the research and innovation if there is no long-term strategy that guarantees continuity of policy and investment?
The Irish Green Building Council (IGBC) will be working in collaboration with Government on the European Horizon 2020 funded 'Build Upon' project over the next 18 months, an ambitious change involving talking with everyone across society to deliver a green strategy by April 2017.
But perhaps the biggest challenge is not the costs, but upskilling our workforce. There are very small margins of error in the creation of high-performing and highly-insulated buildings. Poor quality work can do more harm than good to both the property and health of the occupants.
The rewards for Ireland are clear. Not only will we deliver better buildings at home, the specialist skills represent an opportunity for Irish companies to look for work in other countries which lag behind.
If UN climate change talks in December are successful, it will set a roadmap and create an opportunity to slash energy use in buildings, create thousands of jobs and deliver better health and living conditions for our citizens. What's not to like about that?
* Pat Barry is Executive Director of the IGBC.