Green: Where Are We Headed?

Have you ever seen an idea reach the momentum phase so quickly, and then become completely tedious? Seriously, everywhere you look it’s nag, nag, nag, about being “green.” Here’s what’s true about the sustainability movement: there are two camps at the moment, passionately yearning to join forces with one another.

Have you ever seen an idea reach the momentum phase so quickly, and then become completely tedious? Seriously, everywhere you look it’s nag, nag, nag, about being “green.” Here’s what’s true about the sustainability movement: there are two camps at the moment, passionately yearning to join forces with one another. In my opinion, we are reaching a nexus in the development industry where the two trajectories intersect. That is, a common ground will be found between the visionary evangelists and the well-funded capitalists. In very short order, everyone will be asking from their own perspective, “What’s in it for me?”Even six months ago, this was a murky matrix to dissect. However, recently the meteoric rise of oil prices has created the seed of a paradigm-shift in public transportation. Since late June 2008, for instance, the ridership on Southern California’s Metrolink has continued to set daily records. As a Metrolink rider, I can attest that the patrons standing in the aisles on the way home all have the same discussion topic on their lips: the cost of gasoline. Now, it just makes sense for many more people to take the train and/or bus to their place of work. The entire conversation has changed.The green universe operates on a system of “carrots” and “sticks.” Up until very recently, LEED (and its rapidly emerging counterparts, such as “Build It Green” and “Greenpoints”) have been the “carrot,” rewarding diligent and visionary builders with a nifty plaque to place in the lobby, and the bragging rights in promotional publicity that their project is “green.”Rabidly on the heels of these enlightened ground-breakers are the local municipalities such as Los Angeles (and in California, the state with its seminal AB-32 greenhouse gas reduction law), which are rapidly enacting legislation that will require projects to demonstrate just how environmentally sensitive they are in order to obtain a building permit. Carrot and stick—they just work together to move everyone forward.So, in the real world, where we all operate, we are left to answer the question, “Well, what is in it for me?” The first basic premise of “sustainability,” of course, is that we will leave things better for our children and their children than we found them. The second is that we will conserve resources and, as a result, save money and our environment along the way. That mentality, I believe, will progressively inform the “high-performance” building movement evolving in today’s development industry. In short, we want to use less of the things that cost us money. You know what they are: gasoline (duh!), electricity, water, and even trash removal. These commodity items, as it were, form more than half of the framework on which LEED (which, by the way, stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is based. If it costs you money, we as designers want to find ways to use less of it by being more efficient in our designs, and therefore building owners pay less.Energy efficiency is a LEED cornerstone. To earn points (and, therefore, status and recognition), a project has to demonstrate how it uses less energy than its comparable peers. An energy-efficient building will benefit its tenants as well as the owner, if the savings can be translated into lower rents. This is an “Aha!” moment. Until very recently, these savings have gone unrealized by the tenants due to the structure of the rental agreement, particularly with commercial properties.So, back to LEED. The first premise is that we reduce our consumption of commodities. As designers, we seek to find every way possible to do that, while closely guarding the overall aesthetic value of the community. Tighter building envelopes (draft control), automated lighting controls, and more efficient lighting and appliances have all become no-brainers at this point because they clearly contribute to the bottom line.It’s the same with water, a precious commodity here in the semi-arid region of Southern California. First off, we don’t want to waste it, especially as the price steadily increases. Second, though, we want to conserve it—not flush it down the drain if it’s not simultaneously providing a useful service. What a wonderful invention is the dual-flush toilet! Now we can conserve water and maintain a fresh bowl—everybody wins.We also want to reduce our waste. For construction debris, there are penalties for sending too much detritus to the landfill. Therefore, our builders strive to control the flow of waste from construction sites. Managing to do so can reduce the ultimate cost of the structure on at least two counts: more efficient use of materials to begin with, and less waste to be hauled off (at a cost) than otherwise would be the case.We also think very hard about putting less, well, stuff into our buildings. (You may have seen this as an “indoor air quality” item.) While it is more difficult to quantify the deferred costs, there is clearly an association between indoor air quality and the health of the building’s inhabitants. Nobody wants to live in a “sick” building, because we all end up paying for it in the end, through the pricey treatment of diseases that may have some origin in second-rate indoor environments.And what about the aggressive approach to clean power generation? This is an awesome topic for consideration, given what’s happening in the global energy markets. When you consider that General Motors is essentially hitching its wagon to the success of its Volt plug-in hybrid automobile (PHEV, in insider terms—”plug-in hybrid electric vehicle”), which is due for release in 2010, won’t it be the responsibility of multifamily developers to provide outlets at each parking space for residents to juice up their jalopies? And, if that electricity were to be generated on site, say through a combination of wind and photo-voltaic power, wouldn’t that contribute to the sustainable bottom line?Energy isn’t getting any cheaper, and it most likely never will, and ditto with water, which isn’t getting any more plentiful. As long as public utilities control the generation and distribution of these necessary resources, these commodities will continue to rise in price. The sustainable bottom line is that we figure out who ultimately pays the price for these necessities, and we find a way to reduce that price—through conservation, generation, and re-use. Isn’t that the basic operating premise of LEED?Daniel P. Gehman, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, is a Principal at TCA (Thomas P. Cox: Architects) and oversees his own design studio at the firm.