Insights: Structural Engineers as Sustainable Designers

March 30, 2011

Everywhere we turn these days we see another claim about how “sustainable” or “green” something is, whether it’s a school building, a steel beam, a new car, or an oil company. When it comes to green buildings, what’s a structural engineer to do? Does it even matter what we do? The short answers are: there is plenty we can do, and it matters. For a proper understanding, we need to define some terminology. Ideally, “sustainable” structures are those that can be constructed and operated without significantly depleting non-renewable resources and without significantly impairing the environmental systems needed to support life on earth, thereby ensuring adequate resources and a healthy environment for future generations indefinitely. “Green” buildings are those that come closer to meeting this ideal than the average building. “Environmental performance” measures how well the building meets this goal. When we design, just as we measure economy using dollars and strength using kips, we need to measure environmental performance in order to know whether we are making good design decisions. If we know how to measure it, we can use our own judgment to better sort out the claims about how green something is.

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