Why Aren’t More Commercial Buildings Going Green?

Professor Nicole Biggart presented her research on the topic in her talk “Where Are the Green Buildings?” at a seminar for engineering, sociology and transportation scholars hosted by the UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center in February.

Biggart, who has studied and published on the commercial building industry with Associate Professor Thomas Beamish of the UC Davis Sociology Department, explained that constructing a building requires an interlocking network of players with different timelines and tasks to get the project done. Developers, design firms, construction managers and subcontractors each have decisions to make and deadline to meet in the process. And, most importantly, they all have expectations about the technology and equipment that will be used. This is where industry conventions become critical, Biggart said.

“Everyone involved in a construction project looks for reliability, predictability and established reputations for getting the job done—in other words, they follow conventional practices.” These conventions allow buildings to be completed rapidly and profits realized. “Anything that has the potential to slow the process down, like an unfamiliar technology, is rejected out of hand,” Biggart said.

Buildings are major investments, and part of portfolios that are expected to generate rents for 30 to 50 years. Because developers typically do not occupy the completed building, they do not have a vested interest in whether it is energy efficient. Biggart said the best way to convince the industry to adopt more efficient technologies is through legislation or by lobbying hedge funds to invest in commercial buildings that are energy efficient. “Investor revolt is usually quite effective in getting new standards implemented,” she said.