Building a case for green buildings in Brazil

Deforestation, drought and economic recession - Brazil faces many challenges. The green buildings sector offers a way for South America’s largest country to ease its energy worries, says Felipe Faria.

As a former lawyer, Felipe Faria knows how to build an argument. 

His job - chief executive of the Green Building Council of Brazil - is to make the case for a greener built environment at a time he describes as one of “political and economic crisis” for Latin America’s largest economy. 

Brazil’s construction industry shrunk fractionally between 2011 and 2015, and is expected to grow modestly until 2020, hampered by a lingering economic recession.

The once-dynamic emerging economy contracted by 3.6 per cent in 2016, after shrinking by 3.8 per cent in 2015.

But despite this challenging socio-economic backdrop, arguing the case for green buildings is relatively easy, says Faria.

Buildings account for over half (51 per cent) of Brazil’s total electricity consumption, and ways to curb energy use are welcome, he says.

“It’s easier for the government to invest in energy efficiency than energy production,” he says. “It’s cheaper and faster.”

“And it’s easier for the construction industry to show the economic benefits of sustainability.”

Ways of saving energy have grown in importance in recent years as Brazil has struggled with a protracted drought that has depleted its main source of energy - hydroelectric power.

Deforestation in the Amazon is believed to have caused the drought.

By removing vast swathes of rainforest, what Faria refers to as “the river in the sky” - humidity that accumulates over the forest in the north and disperses as rain in the south - has been depleted, and so the many dams along the Amazon that provide the majority (70-80 per cent) of Brazil’s power have been unable to reliably meet the country’s growing energy needs.

Green buildings can make annual energy savings equivalent to the energy output of a hydroelectric power plant, says Faria. 

Brazil is the fourth largest market globally for LEED - or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a rating system devised by the United States Green Building Council that certifies buildings in 175 countries - in terms of the number of new projects.

A total of 1,226 buildings in Brazil have registered for LEED certification, and 410 buildings have been certified.

Green buildings use 20-30 per cent less electricity than traditionally constructed buildings, says Faria, who will be making a presentation at the Macau International Environment Co-operation Forum & Exhibition (MIECF) next week.

His organisation has come a long way since its inception in 2007, through the boom period for the construction industry in 2008 to 2013, through the leaner three years that followed, from 2013 to 2016.

The strategic focus has first been on the commercial sector, and Faria claims that almost every new commercial building in Brazil is LEED certified.

The focus has since shifted to new sectors, and GBC Brazil is now finding an appetite for green buildings in retail.

The next target, says Faria, has the biggest potential of them all - the residential market. It also presents the biggest challenge in terms of making a case for green buildings, he says.

In this Q&A interview with Eco-Business, Faria talks about confronting the perception that green buildings are expensive, greening the FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games, and what excites him most about the industry.

Why did you quit your job as a lawyer and choose green buildings as a career?

I graduated with a degree in law, then got a masters in economic and corporate law. When I was at university, I used to work for the Royal Thai Consulate in São Paulo. The ambassador of Thailand was married to a Brazilian, the former CEO of Dupont Latin America. She is the founder of Green Building Council of Brazil. She invited me to help her launch the organisation and take care of legal side of things and help with fundraising. I later became involved in the operational side, and have stayed on ever since.

What is it about the industry that excites you the most?

Technology that enables the verification and measurement of building systems in real time. If for some reason, one system that isn’t working well, this can be quickly identified and the problem rectified. The future of green buildings lies in data, and how we use it.

Asia as a region is challenged by the perception that green buildings solutions are expensive, and so adoption has been relatively slow. Does Brazil face the same challenge?

We also have this problem. The issue is a lack of market knowledge. In the beginning, we spent a lot of energy disseminating information about green buildings, and how to achieve the best outcomes with the right methodologies.

We started to focus on explaining exactly how building costs are affected by green buildings. We showed the difference between building costs and construction costs. What the market needs to have in mind when analysing the cost of a building is its full lifecycle. A building will last for at least 50 years, and only 15 per cent of the cost of the building goes on construction; 85 per cent of costs go on operations and maintenance.

What about the upfront costs of a green building versus a traditional building?

The construction cost of a green building is between 0 to 6 per cent more than a regular building, but even if you increase the upfront cost of construction, you will ultimately be paid back with operational and maintenance savings.

How rapid is the adoption of green buildings in Brazil?

We quantify growth by the uptake of LEED certification, and Brazil is the world’s fourth largest market in terms of number of new projects.

Close to 100% of new commercial buildings in Brazil are certified LEED, or are in the process of being certified. Investors have realised the benefits of green commercial buildings, such as accelerated occupancy, lower insurance premiums and greater liquidity in their investments.

After seeing growth in the commercial sector, we’ve seen movement in the retail market. We are now looking to penetrate the residential market, which is the biggest market opportunity.

However, with the residential marketing the challenges are bigger, as there are more stakeholders involved. We need to open different channels of communication with residential clients in order to create awareness about the benefits of green buildings. 

How is the government showing support for the expansion of the green buildings sector in Brazil?

One example is tax breaks for green development in São Paulo, where real estate is very expensive and parts of the city are susceptible to flooding.

To develop a new site, city hall will approve a certain area of land. If you want to build on a bigger area, you need to pay a special tax. You get a discount on that tax if you can show two things: that the land is developed with sufficient permeability for rainwater, and the area is developed with green cover.

Talk us through GBC Brazil’s involvement with the 2014 FIFA World Cup and Rio Olympics Games.

We worked with the Brazilian Olympic Committee on the preparations for the 2016 Olympics, helping to write the sustainability criteria that would guide the construction of the Olympic facilities. At that time, the Olympic committee had decided that they wanted high standards for green construction.

We also worked with designers of the stadiums for the 2014 Brazil World Cup. We made a connection with Brazilian Development Bank, which was responsible for financing the new stadiums. They made green building certification mandatory for the new stadiums. They wanted to guarantee low operational costs after the World Cup to save money for the different state governments responsible for maintaining the stadiums. It was the first time in World Cup history that the host country had been certified by a green buildings rating tool. 

What’s your view on the strength the sustainability movement in Brazil, and the balance of economic growth with sustainable development? 

To begin with, the concept of sustainability was more about avoiding certain practices and restricting emissions. Now it’s more about seeing sustainability as an opportunity - a business opportunity. 

What are your targets for green buildings in Brazil? 

Our main target is to strongly accelerate energy efficiency projects in existing buildings. One of the main ways to achieve this is to work with finance institutions to better promote financing support energy efficiency in buildings.

We are also creating a new ratings tool for net-zero energy buildings, because we already have some projects that are producing net-zero energy.

Another objective is to boost awareness of the lifecycle of materials and resources, and for manufacturers to be aware of the environmental and social impact of their activities.

Ultimately, our vision is for everyone to be able to live, study or work in a green building.

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