Debating LEED? Bring It

To start this post, I’m going to trot out that old chestnut of a story of my mom, the depression-era, Mennonite-raised, single working mother of at least three children, who taught me something about thrift. I assure you that when she required us to rinse out and re-use our Ziploc bags, it had nothing to do with saving the planet. It had everything to do with saving a buck, as they were in short supply. She also re-used stuff, perhaps to a fault, as our cupboards overflowed with washed and re-purposed margarine tubs. Even in the ‘70s, an era more notable for its excesses, she recycled religiously—down to the newspapers. I know this because it was my chore to return everything to the recycling center, and lugging those papers was annoying—almost as bad as crushing all those aluminum cans.

It is clear that I adopted at least some semblance of her ethics. She could never have afforded PV on her roof top, or an electric car in the garage, but I’m relatively certain that if she were alive today, she would be approving of my choices in these things, not to mention my obsessive rinsing and re-use of re-sealable plastic bags. Today I’m proud that our curbside recycle bin always contains much more than our waste receptacle.

I told somebody once about the bags, and I got a bit of a testy response asking me why I used plastic at all. It was a good question. My answer was that sometimes it was a very practical solution to a pressing need. I’m not old enough to remember what people did before plastic. I’m of the plastic generation. This exchange pointed out a trend that I believe is something of an issue in the whole resource-sensitivity movement. I had explained to somebody one of my “greener” habits, and I was being called out for not being “green” enough. Oh boy. My belief is that at least I was doing something—not as much as some people, but more than many.

This consideration, I think, is a key to opening up the dialogue about the necessity/worthiness of extraordinary measures in the pursuit of higher product performance and resource sensitivity. (Please bear with me as I take great pains to avoid the word “sustainable,” as I feel reluctant to do so without at least another page’s worth of explanation about what I mean when I use the word.) My bumper sticker for what I believe about this is “I’d rather have most people be somewhat engaged and growing than to require everyone who participates to be all in.” Being condemned for my wanton behaviors by my greenest friends is no more pleasant than being laughed at by my more, um . . . right-leaning friends for my tree-hugging tendencies.

It makes sense to me to try to be as resourceful as possible. Of course, like my mom, I like to save a few pennies here and there, but there are other motivators, as well. I don’t use fertilizers and pesticides in my yard because I’m concerned about the ocean, but I still have a patch of grass which uses more water than I “should.” I compost as much as my green waste as I can because I’m loathe to send it to a landfill. I drive an electric car more to reduce my dependence on foreign oil and point-of-use emissions than to reduce my carbon footprint, though it may do that in the process (depending on whom you talk to.) Today, I feel joy as I drive past my local filling station and the price of regular is $ 4.43, and I’m “filling up” in my own garage for about $ 1.50 a day. “Aha!” some people will snear, “you’re just pushing your fossil fuel use up the supply chain to those filthy coal-burning power plants!” Point taken. However, in California, at least part of my power (that isn’t being produced from the PV on my roof) is coming from clean sources like hydro and wind, and cleaner sources like natural gas (which is also a domestic natural resource, I might add.) For goodness’ sake, I use an “organic” dry cleaner! (Though I demur to using a “solar” clothes dryer, even though my mom did.)


I guess what I’m saying is that there’s lots of room in the middle for some pretty responsible behaviors without being “all in.” And what’s good for me may be good for the building industry as we transition to ever more resource-sensitive buildings. There’s no longer any room for anybody to do nothing, of course. But the press is also full of stories of highly performance-engineered buildings that actually perform worse than non-highly engineered buildings. Oops. (This discussion will have to wait for a later post.) On the other hand, these super-saver buildings are tremendous laboratories that ultimately teach us how to conserve our resources and save a dollar. The next guy along can select the most effective cost- and resource-saving measures to employ in the next project, and continue the long process of moving the ball down the field.

And that’s a decent motive.