The Legacy Thing

Jan. 4, 2007

When Buildings magazine approached me 4 years ago about doing a monthly e-newsletter, I had two immediate thoughts: 1) “Great ... a vehicle for my voice” and 2) “How am I going to come up with enough material to be interesting month after month?” I figured this gig would last a year. Well, according to my math, this is my 48th attempt at keeping you on the edge of your seats about this wonderful thing called “the greening of our built environment.” Looking back, we’ve covered a wide range of topics, from defining what green building is (and what it isn’t) to discussions about codes, new technologies, old technologies, economics, the inverse square rule for deferred maintenance, Qin Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses, green cleaning, building commissioning (that sparked some controversy!), and “The New Orleans Principles,” to name a few.

That’s a lot of turf (natural grass, not that synthetic stuff). And, as I’ve said countless times, I’m grateful to all of you who have corresponded with me over the past 4 years. It’s gratifying to know there are many people out there as passionate about green building as I am. This brings me to this month’s topic: planting seeds.

No, I’m not turning into Farmer Rick. Coming off of a fantastic Greenbuild Conference in Denver, where many of you accounted for the record-setting, 13,000-plus attendees, I am reminded that we’ve carefully cultivated this industry, and every year we reap a bigger harvest.

We measure the metrics of that harvest in a number of ways. One way is the sheer growth in numbers tracking an ever-increasing engagement with our movement. This shows up in growing USGBC membership numbers, explosive LEED registrations and certifications numbers, and thousands of column inches of print and broadcast minutes of airtime given over to talking about green buildings.

Another way is the strength and breadth of our partnerships, which has blossomed with seeds planted with NGOs in the early days to today’s engagements with some of the industry’s biggest players (ASID, BOMA, AIA, Enterprise Community Partners) and with some of the world’s (Clinton Climate Initiative, McGraw-Hill, Adobe, Autodesk).

And, it’s measured in the real impact our buildings have: better test scores in schools, lower absenteeism, higher productivity, and more-robust retail sales.

So, while I’m left with feelings of enormous accomplishment, overwhelming gratitude, and satisfaction, I can’t help think, “What’s the next frontier?”

For me - for all of us - one of those frontiers needs to be our schools. With more than 60 million students, faculty, administrators, and staff - that’s 20 percent of the U.S. population - spending 72 billion hours per year inside buildings that have poor ventilation, inadequate lighting, terrible acoustics, and antiquated HVAC systems, I’d say we have some work to do. And, with $35 billion in tax dollars set to be spent on new school construction in 2007, we know that the application of green-building techniques can save up to $100,000 a year per school in energy and water costs alone, and that the return on investment could be as high as 20 to 1! Think the taxpayers might be interested?

If you haven’t yet downloaded a copy of Washington, D.C.-based Capital E’s Greening America’s Schools from our website, please take a minute to do that over the holidays. Then, forward it to everyone you know who’s a teacher, a parent, a school board member, or a PTA president. The report shows that if we made green schools a priority, we’d have $20 billion in found money over the next 10 years. That’s enough to create 2,000 new jobs, improve teacher retention, and reduce the amount of dangerous air pollutants that cause respiratory disease. Think about all the kids with asthma who go to school every day and are actually worse for being there! We sit back and wring our hands about the state of our schools, and yet here’s a very practical, very doable, very cost-efficient action we can take. So, why aren’t we? Because people don’t know we can!

That’s part of the reason the USGBC has committed to the following goals and the tremendous amount of education that we need to accomplish to get us there:

  • By 2010, there will be 100,000 certified commercial buildings and 1 million certified homes.
  • We will apply a 10X factor to those numbers by 2020, reaching 1 million certified commercial buildings and 10 million certified homes.

When I say “we,” I’m not just referring to the USGBC, its chapters, and its affiliates. I’m talking about us - you and me. I’m talking about the kind of seed-planting that perpetuates our legacy. We are the type of people who are on this planet to do something, as opposed to being here just for something to do. As Kouzes and Posner point out in their latest book, “A Leader’s Legacy,” as leaders, we have a responsibility to “do something of significance that makes families, communities, organizations, nations, the environment, and the world better places than they are today.”

We have so much momentum, it’s astounding. But, we never learn as much as when we teach others. Teaching and mentoring others are critical to the short- and long-term advancement of green building. Each of you is the most important leader in your organization. While we may not be able to control everything around us, we have 100-percent control over our ability to serve as role models for others. Therefore, we are compelled to act if we are to leave a lasting legacy. Leaving it to the “other guy” won’t cut it.

That’s why the USGBC challenges everyone to commit to participating in actions that will limit energy usage and emissions in our buildings; despite our accomplishments, we’re still only reaching 30 percent of architects. Only one in 25 to 30 building industry professionals has obtained LEED AP status. There’s so much more we can accomplish if we get everyone on the same page.

So, I’m asking each of you - the disciples of green building - to recruit one person in the next year. Tell someone you know who is involved in the built environment value chain all about what we’re doing. Show them the results in indoor environmental quality, tenant health and retention, worker productivity, insurance savings, legal savings, maintenance cost reduction, and the limiting of greenhouse-gas emissions. Use the collection of these 48 newsletters as part of your research (Buildings provides links to the back issues at the bottom of this newsletter).

While I’ll miss the lively interchange this space has provided, I know that if you join me in this challenge, those interchanges will increase tenfold where it matters most - in boardrooms and manufacturing facilities, in corner offices and on construction sites, at industry gatherings and in city halls, in mainstream media, and throughout our wired world as we each take up this challenge and as the seeds we plant begin to bear fruit. My commitment to you is that I’ll continue to do my part, sowing seeds of change in the business and education communities where our work is so critical.

With all of this energy, passion, and effort, I’m confident this will be the legacy we leave: A planet powered by renewable energy, with zero global warming potential, populated with sustainable communities and driven by clean, green innovation.

Because if not us, who?

If not now, when?

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