Rebuilding the Dominant Paradigm

June 22, 2006

For nearly 4 years, I’ve been writing about the increasing acceptance of sustainable building, providing you with strategies, tactics, and examples of successful applications. Yes, it’s in my job description to be a cheerleader for green building.  Yes, I believe in it the way I believe the sun will rise in the east each day. And, yes, green building has gained measurable traction in the building community. But, after returning recently from New Orleans, I find myself asking, “What will the future look like?” And, I must face up to the harsh reality that if the majority of new American investment and development has its way, it will very much resemble the present. An increasingly sprawling built environment characterized by unhealthful, inefficient, wasteful, and energy-sucking homes and businesses little different than those of today.

The greening of a handful of companies and their efforts to incorporate socially conscious and innovative technologies not withstanding, the majority of new national building and construction still resembles something out of the Dark Ages of the post- World War II era. Given that our built environment accounts for about one- third of our national resource and energy consumption (and a corresponding amount of emissions), one might expect a greater movement toward adoption of design methods and engineering that deliver dramatic cost-efficient improvements. Improvements in occupant/worker health and productivity, decreases in waste, reductions in energy, and, by extension, operational costs, as well as lesser environmental and community service burdens (all at reduced cost), is simply what green buildings do.

But, as a national energy and international environmental crisis approaches, where will we get the fossil fuel to run our economy, and can we afford its cost on our health and the environment if we do? We have yet to make a commitment to basic commonsense policy and activity that could soften (and eventually solve) our problems. We need to make a commitment to use and incorporate new and superior knowledge, materials, and technologies into the design and construction of the places where we live, learn, work, heal, and play. A commitment to stop squandering so much so long taken for granted - energy, clean water, and air; our children’s health and the resilience of the global environment; and a commitment to build a vastly better future simply by doing a better job going forward than we’ve done in the past is needed.

We might not be facing an energy crisis if we made the modest effort to reduce energy consumption that is available by using truly modern energy-efficient design and construction. Green buildings typically deliver between 20- and 40-percent savings on energy demand. Imagine that applied going forward to all the new construction and renovation that’s going to take place anyway. Suddenly, we wouldn’t need more toxic coal-fired power plants or a new generation of nuclear plants. Imagine those energy demands being further offset by on-site generation of solar and wind energy so that, even with a growing economy and population, we’re able to start shutting down some of those same dirty and disease-promoting power plants. It’s imminently feasible, so when does the imagining stop and the doing begin?

Conservation is a dirty word in many circles, including the federal government. We dance around it because we don’t want to portray the infamous Jimmy Carter’s “turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater” image. But, if we elevate the discussion away from imagery, we have to face up to more federal incentive and support for promoting energy use than conserving it. In spite of the limitations imposed on alternative and renewable energy development by the essentially unlimited support for traditional sources, looming economic realities, technology, and the evolution of social consciousness have created a more superior model for development than the one being offered by the old guard, record-profit-making fossil fuel industry. It appears that what’s good for Exxon/Mobil is good for the country.

The new model is green building (and everything that the fossil fuel industry is not) and a commitment to human health and well-being; conservation of water, energy, and natural resources; decentralization of energy generation; environmental protection; zero waste; and genuine civic and community responsibility. Sound too good to be true? It’s not. Three percent of all new U.S. construction last year was certified green, and the results are nothing short of astonishing. Significantly lower operational costs, energy and water use, waste generation, demand for public services, and absenteeism accompanied by higher profits, productivity, real estate values, corporate loyalty, civic pride, and general community prosperity. Maybe we ought to call it smart building.

Foreign economies and infrastructures are evolving at a furious rate - China adds one New York City per year - narrowing the gaps that have long allowed America to enjoy a competitive edge in the world marketplace. The good news is that American companies, civic planners, and communities need not wait for the type of leadership that would restore the advantages of self-sufficiency and innovation that secured a standard of living and productivity once - and largely still - the envy of the world. Anyone who cares to build green (or smart) can and should. It’s an easy, multiple dividend, solid-gold growth industry and an area in which America could achieve global leadership. It’s also the surest way there is to correct the mistakes of the past, improve the present, and invest in a secure and sustainable future that exemplifies the ideals of freedom and independence upon which this nation was founded.

“Made in America”: However diminished, that expression still resonates with a distinction perhaps unparalleled in history. When and if the phrase “Built in America” ever evokes the same degree of awe and wonder because contractors, corporations, and communities embraced the opportunity for reinventing, renewing, and revitalizing our economy through the simple and intelligent expedient of green/smart building, we will have done the biggest part of what we could and should for our children, our planet, and our species.

We have a chance to do this in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. A cataclysmic event last summer called Katrina has created an opportunity of equal proportion. Yet it is threatened by the same mismanagement that added to the catastrophe. It’s a well-worn quote from Albert Einstein that is definitely applicable: “The world that we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far ... creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level of thinking that existed when we created them.”

Please don’t misunderstand - I have not lost one ounce of faith in the value of green building. But, I am frustrated that it’s not growing fast enough, and it’s not because we don’t offer the right materials or affordable means of making it happen, but because old habits are hard to kick. Maybe we’re too pragmatic anymore. I, for one, will not give up one inch of ground that we’ve taken. I will not relent in pushing forward the idea that there is a better idea. What will you do?

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