Global Climate action and sustainable development, Housing and planning

What is the best way to balance sustainability and affordability? An interview with the World Green Building Council


Credit: frazaz on iStock

What is the best way to balance sustainability and affordability? 

A truly sustainable building should be affordable, including both upfront and running costs, to ensure social accessibility and equity. Additionally, a sustainable building should:

  • Incorporate energy-efficient features such as insulation, energy-efficient appliances, high-performance windows, water-saving fixtures and efficient water management systems to reduce energy consumption, conserve resources and lower utility bills.
  • Explore affordable housing models such as co-housing to reduce construction costs and make sustainable housing more accessible.
  • Involve the community in the design and planning process to ensure that sustainable housing meets the needs and preferences of residents, increasing its long-term viability.
  • Utilise locally sourced, durable, low-maintenance and sustainable building materials can minimise transportation, repair and maintenance costs and environmental impact.
  • Standardise designs and explore prefabricated construction methods that can improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

What role can local government play?

Policy is essential for systemic change to industries like housing, and local/city governments can often implement policy faster than their national counterparts (see the C40 network for best practice case studies). Councils though, can:

  • Establish policies and regulations that require or incentivise sustainable building practices, such as energy efficiency standards, green building certifications, and sustainable land use planning.
  • Provide financial incentives such as tax credits, grants, and low-interest loans to developers and homeowners who incorporate sustainable features into their housing projects.
  • Collaborate with non-profit organisations, community groups, and private developers to create affordable housing projects that incorporate sustainable design and construction practices.
  • Invest in the development and maintenance of public housing that is energy-efficient and affordable, providing sustainable housing options for low-income residents.
  • Provide training programs for developers, builders, and architects on sustainable construction practices can build capacity and expertise within the local market.
  • Educate residents about the benefits of sustainable living and the long-term cost savings associated with energy-efficient housing can drive demand for these options.
  • Encourage a shift from focusing on upfront construction costs to a life cycle cost analysis that considers long-term energy efficiency, reduced maintenance needs, and overall environmental impact (For further guidance around policy for sustainable buildings, please see the WorldGBC Global Policy Principles).

How do you find the balance between greening existing homes and creating new ones?

This is a different question in different regions. In Europe, for example, a surplus of existing buildings, slow renovation and declining population create a context for encouraging refurbishment. However, on a global scale, the world needs to provide two billion homes over the next 75 years—meaning 96,000 new affordable homes need to be built every day—and of course new construction will be critical for meeting this demand.

From a circularity perspective, some key principles include:

  • Encourage the adaptive reuse of existing buildings for housing purposes rather than demolishing and building new ones—preserving resources and reducing waste.
  • Provide incentives for developers to incorporate green building practices into new construction projects, such as using sustainable materials, energy-efficient design, and renewable energy sources.
  • Attempt to reduce the need for new housing altogether. This could involve promoting densification within existing urban areas, and utilising vacant or underutilised properties.
  • Create a comprehensive inventory of existing housing to assess potential for refurbishment, identify areas with vacant or underutilised properties, and prioritise regeneration projects within existing communities.
  • When new construction is unavoidable, prioritise designs that are adaptable, modular, and utilise materials that can be easily disassembled and reused in future renovations or deconstruction projects (see the WGBC’s Circular Built Environment Playbook for more information)

No one-size-fits-all funding model or approach exists. Different contexts, such as local housing markets, government policies, and community needs, often require tailored solutions. But one of the most accessible and scalable funding models we’ve seen is likely a combination of public funding and private investment, facilitated through public-private partnerships (PPPs). Utilising a combination of public, private, and mixed funding models allows for diversification, leveraging resources and expertise from both sectors. Public subsidies might be crucial for social housing, while private investment can support affordable rental and ownership options.

Do you see the local government role being limited to setting green building standards or is there a more significant partnership possible between developers and local authorities?

A more significant role is possible. Local governments can:

    • Enter into partnership agreements with developers to co-fund or co-develop sustainable housing projects. These agreements can help share the risks and rewards of sustainable development and ensure that projects meet the needs of the local community.
    • Invest in building the capacity of their staff to understand and promote sustainable development.
    • Engage with local communities to gather input and feedback on sustainable housing projects.
    • Identify underused sites for development, prioritise mixed-use developments that promote walkability and reduce reliance on personal vehicles, and plan for infrastructure upgrades in areas earmarked for development and zone specific areas for affordable housing projects.
    • A key message we want to deliver is that sustainable housing doesn’t have to cost more, or where it does, it presents an attractive financial value proposition—see the details in our housing report and also Beyond the Business Case for more information.

What do you think of the perceived trade-off between sustainability and affordability?

Sustainable housing often has a perception of being more expensive and that people will have to settle for worse materials, worse energy efficiency, and so on. There is an argument that the two ideals, sustainability and affordability, can be reconciled in terms of performance and efficiency, which I interpret to mean that a higher up-front cost ends up cheaper in the long term because the house is more durable, energy-efficient, and so on.

There’s a common understanding in sustainable architecture and housing development. While sustainable homes may have a higher upfront cost due to the use of eco-friendly materials, energy-efficient technologies, and green building practices, they often prove to be more affordable in the long run, considering that:

    • Energy-efficiency creates lower utility bills over time.
    • Sustainable materials and construction practices are usually more durable and require less maintenance, resulting in long-term cost savings and reduced need for repairs or replacements.
    • Homes are designed to promote better indoor air quality and overall occupant health, leading to lower healthcare costs and improved productivity—contributing to the overall affordability of the home.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *