In Good Company

06/30/2006 | By Jim Widmer

After last month’s column (“Rebuilding the Dominant Paradigm”), I got an e-mail from a reader chiding me for “going negative.” His take was that he’d prefer to read about ways to implement green building tactics rather than hear people like me whine that green building isn’t catching on fast enough. Fair enough ... I did a good bit of whining last month. So, let’s get back to accentuating the positive.

In case you missed it, I was interviewed by Charles Lockwood, an environmental and real estate consultant, for the June 2006 issue of Urban Land.  One of the questions he asked was, “What are the remaining challenges to green in the United States?” My response: The biggest challenge we face is education. Overcoming misconceptions, ignorance, and misunderstanding is the bane of any “new” technology. There is a period of time for trial and acceptance to develop. When we’re talking about something with a life-cycle as long as a building’s, the trial and acceptance period is much longer than the equivalent period for the newest MP3 player, PDA, or video game.

But, I like what another interviewee, best-selling author, and New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, had to say on the subject of education in the very same issue of Urban Land. Mr. Friedman has written on many things during his career, mostly focused on East-vs.-West geopolitics. Lately, he’s taken up the green cause; he sees it as the primary means for reducing our dependency on foreign oil. He was asked a similar question: “What can we do to make green building development the rule and not the exception in the United States?” Part of his answer focused on education. “... If I could wave my magic wand, I’d have every single architecture student attend at least 1 year’s worth of courses on sustainable design and energy-conserving design so that it is embedded in every architect. Then, the first question they ask is, how do I design energy and mass out of whatever you’re asking me to build: a garage, a house, a high-rise, an apartment block? If every architect thought that way, then I think you’d have a really scalable, energy-saving solution. When you design energy and mass out of a building from Day One, then you are doing the greatest thing you can do for the environment.” He later added, “every public official and regulator” to the list of those who should attend “green school” in order to “bring the hammer of public policy to this.”

I’ve talked in the past about reaching the tipping point, and that we’re headed that way. One of the primary motivators for going green today is the rising cost of energy. In some ways, the high cost of a barrel of oil has helped us to sell green building on its bottom line impact and its environmental benefits. Decision-makers are making smarter choices because they realize that, as Mr. Friedman says, “This is not your grandfather’s energy crisis.” Unlike the energy crises of 1973 and 1979, which were more political in nature, the inflationary prices we’re experiencing at the pump and at home have as much to do with the modernization of China and India - where large numbers of the populations are moving away from low-impact energy lifestyles to higher ones - as they do political backlash to the war on terror or our commitment to Iraq.

Another reader, a risk manager for a school district in California with 15,000 students in 20 locations, wrote to say that there are sizeable disincentives to be an early mover in construction of public buildings: “The risks of being an early mover are high for an agency such as ours. Many green technologies may be well-proven but, because they are not widely used, the probability that a given application will be poorly designed or installed is high. Given the nature of funding (state or local bonds approved by special ballot measure) and that our facilities do not generate cash flow, there is no money down the road to correct errors or replace systems that do not work as expected. However, there is ample punishment for those whose design choices are later found [to be lacking] and for those unlucky enough to have to tell a school board (or the voters) that they need to cough up more money to correct a problem.”

“On reflection,” the reader adds, “most of the indoor air quality complaints I have dealt with in 20 years stem from poor application of building technologies which, at the time of construction, were innovative and efficiency-enhancing.

“Our state legislature is considering creation of an incentive-funding program to promote green building techniques in schools. But, the amounts involved are small, especially in light of the inevitable paperwork burden, added oversight and resulting time delays. I expect the money may go unclaimed.”

He offers some solutions, such as eliminating a patchwork of lobbyist-driven subsidies for various energy alternatives, enabling more sensible costing of options.  Full-costing of energy generation sources and conservation equipment over its life-cycle (including a sinking fund for eventual disposal or recycling) would go even further to promote rational comparisons. Low fees for extraction of minerals from federal land could be considered among those subsidies. Finally, we could create investment incentives to conserve resources using the tool government uses best: taxation. Enact a tax on petroleum or, most broadly, on off-site energy sources; this will increase annually for a long period of time. Investors, designers, and policy-makers would have greater certainty in projecting future cost savings. The present value of a given conservation effort would go up, without the distortions of legislative support for any particular solution. Owners would have an opportunity to recover investments in existing facilities.

Friedman says it best: “For me, it’s always one simple question [of] scale. When you get massive numbers of architects designing only green designs, and their clients demanding only green building designs, and corporations and their employees demanding to work only in green buildings, and consumers demanding only green cars and products, then it scales. Then, the best of our system - which is all of this free-market experimentation - will just take over.”

And, to back it up, his new mantra is, “Green is the new red, white, and blue. To name something is to own it. Right now, the opponents have owned the word green. I want to retake it from them and redefine it in geopolitical, geostrategic, patriotic terms. Then it scales.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Related Coverage