When Green Building Isn't Helpful

August 20, 2007

In this past weekend’s local newspaper’s Real Estate Section I saw an article with a number of “award winning” homes, including a 5 bedroom, 6,400 square foot house that was touted as the winner of a green building award. The principal basis for its green claim appeared to be that it was an Energy Star home.

A generation ago, that much square footage would have built a comfortable four-plex in which four families would have lived. Today, it is likely that this house will be occupied by a family of four.

To be truly green, the house cannot be thought of as a mere building whose impacts on the world stop three feet out from the face of the outside walls, but must take into consideration the impacts of the resources that will be consumed by dwelling in the house, as well. Life cycle, manner of use, and supporting infrastructure required are also matters that need to be examined.

The Audubon Society built one of the first explicitly green buildings in the country when they built a new headquarters building for themselves in the early 1990s. Rather than building a new structure on a greenfield site surrounded by trees and a lush lawn, they instead chose to renovate an existing 19th century building in downtown New York City. This choice allowed the use of existing infrastructure for building services and transportation, as well as the recycling of an existing structure and the savings of thousands of tons of material.

A new house built out in the exurbs quickly outweighs any green benefits it may have with the miles of roads that are built to reach the house and connect it to the existing grid of roads. The miles of travel required to travel between this house and the stores, workplaces and other places its inhabitants must go to quickly offset any potential benefits of greener construction for the house itself.

Some years ago, ISO 9000 quality management was all the rage in industry, but it only addressed the manufacturing process and following standards and procedures. It did nothing to address the fundamental quality of what was being produced. Within the system, it was completely possible to produce ISO 9000-compliant concrete life-jackets.

We need to encourage more rigorous expectations for terming something green. Lloyd Alter has written a couple of recent articles for TreeHugger touching on this same theme both for houses as well as for new commercial building. It’s a positive sign that more and more people are recognizing the value that green building labels offer. But, along with that, we are also seeing more and more cases like this where things are being little more than greenwashed by promoters who are trying to, as Lloyd so poetically put it, put lipstick on a pig.

Standards and systems such as LEED, Green Globes, Energy Star, and BuildAmerica can be used to improve the construction of a building as compared to a baseline standard, but the baseline is a pretty low standard. It is a tragedy that Energy Star is seen as a badge of distinction rather than being a requirement for all new construction. As Randy Croxton, the architect for the Audubon House renovation said, a building built to code only means that it is meeting the minimum standard. If you did anything less, it would be an illegal building.

The LEED for Homes final release version is reported to have a formula that will penalize “bigfoot” houses that are beyond a certain size by reducing the credit for each improvement, making it harder for such buildings to become LEED certified. A house that is 20% larger than the allowable size would only get 80% credit for each point of improvement within the system. This will help improve the credibility of the LEED-H standard and make it harder for outsize houses to be greenwashed with the LEED system.

Green building needs to be more about a wholesale approach to how the building is built and consideration about all of the impacts that the building has on the environment. It should be less about whether or not some labeling system can be gamed enough for it to earn a particular label.