From Fad to Phenomenon: Growing Green Design

Several prominent building organizations are trying to encourage green building and design–but is green building already a big focus for today’s builders? Or are the promotional efforts not even close to enough?

The current level of green design chatter is more than we had a year ago, that’s for sure. And it’s what the industry wanted: Just look at the reaction to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) LEED for Homes  guidelines.

In early December, the USGBC released the final version of its green housing design framework, opening up a whole new sustainable world. For years, LEED procedures have served as the benchmark for large commercial projects and city green building initiatives–but housing was left in the dark. It seemed the  residential industry just needed a little push, a little attention paid to its needs–and then green design would be the biggest thing to hit building since the hammer.

Turns out, the USGBC’s efforts were all it took, because housing developments all over the country–which were planned long before the final guidelines came out–have seemed eager to become certified since LEED for Homes’ official debut (in a way, retro-certified).

California builder Olson Homes’ all-solar, multi-family Depot Walk in Orange, Calif. became California’s first attached, new home community to earn LEED Certification (Silver) from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in late December. Last week, the New York Daily News reported that the Verdesian, a 26-story New York rental building, became the first multi-family, residential high-rise in the U.S. to receive Platinum LEED status. The Albanese Organization, who developed the Verdesian, also created the nation’s first-ever green residential high-rise complex five years ago, The Solaire, which is also in New York.

What does it say about the industry that two large projects, designed with green principles in mind, sought LEED certification once it was available? Are they looking for street cred? Excited about the new system? Throwing support to the new guidelines? Hoping the certification will offer new marketing opportunities to woo renters and buyers?

Sustainable Structure

Developers aren’t the only ones buying in to green building–and they aren’t the only ones who seem unsure about how to encourage it.

True sustainability starts with a building’s design, which many U.S. cities have realized in the past year, prompting 92 with a population of more than 50,000 to put citywide green building programs in place. An additional 36 cities are working on programs.

In 1997, just two cities had green planning initiatives, according to a recent American Institute of Architects (AIA) survey.

Of the current 92 city green building programs, architects were directly involved in creating at least 14 of the plans–which the AIA maybe considers too low because this week it announced a new green building education campaign called "Walk the Walk," designed to promote sustainability to consumers, business owners and architects (basically everybody).

In addition to industry promotion and marketing campaigns, the Walk the Walk campaign includes GreenStep, an informational series detailing the benefits of sustainable design, which will debut on the AIA’s site at the end of January.

Other than that, the Walk the Walk campaign details seem somewhat vague–the press release just seems to imply the AIA still feels there is a strong need to get the word out there about green design. But to who? And how?

Big Changes; Wider Scope

Kudos to the buildings like the Verdesian who planned their design based on LEED for Homes’ pilot program guidelines or using other green principles strong enough to garner LEED certification after it was released.

And much thanks to the AIA for continuing to offer a solid online sustainability resource–with examples, tips, programs and more–on what could just be a standard association Web site.

But we’re not done yet. PR is great; but let’s really focus on getting people building–and not just talking–green.

Where are the federal incentives to build green, which would encourage developers concerned about the extra upfront costs of using specific materials and design? Last year, home builders were eligible for a $2,000 tax credit for each new energy efficient home that achieved 50 percent energy savings for heating and cooling over the 2004 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).

Homeowners could deduct up to $500 for adding insulation, replacement windows and certain high efficiency heating and cooling equipment.

But the federal consumer tax credit expired at the end of 2007 and wasn’t renewed by Congress, so consumers only can report the credits on their taxes through April. Next year, you’re out of luck.

And where are the special architect and builder certification programs that properly prepare industry professionals to tackle–or suggest–green building projects? Some schools, like UCDavis in California, have added green design certification programs to educate professionals about the architecture, civil engineering, landscape architecture, environmental and land use planning and construction management knowledge sustainable building requires.

UCDavis’ class is in its extension, or part-time, program, which allows working professionals to participate and is designed for planners, architects, developers, contractors, landscape architects and interior designers.

It’s a great start; we need more. How else can the industry promote and encourage green building? Post your thoughts below.