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concrete Return to the Building Green Index

February 18, 2010

Could poorly performing projects kill green building?

  • Owners and architects are less likely to use green-rating tools if upfront costs aren’t offset by operational savings.
    Green Building Initiative

    The green building marketplace originally began as a small movement in the architecture and environment communities, but it is now widely accepted within all areas of the building community.

    Green building is now being looked at not only as a way to improve our built environment, but also to help jump-start our economy. You can’t listen to politician talk about the economy without hearing about “green jobs.” This has led to an explosion of interest in green building, and sustainability in general.

    The increased interest is undoubtedly a good thing as green-building rating systems, such as LEED from the U.S. Green Building Council or Green Globes from the Green Building Initiative, are now widely accepted and growing in popularity.

    Government entities are trying to find ways to increase green building through market-based incentives or outright mandates. And now consumers are starting to use factors such as energy efficiency, on-site recycling and other sustainability measures when deciding whether to purchase, rent or even visit a building.

    Yet the increased interest has generated increased scrutiny. Are these green buildings ultimately performing? And at what cost are these measures being implemented?

    Performance slippage

    There have been countless stories of “green” buildings not actually performing in an environmentally friendly and efficient manner. In fact, this happens so frequently that a new phrase has entered the English language just to describe it: performance slippage. This term is most often used to describe a building that achieved a rating from a credible system (i.e., LEED or Green Globes), however once in operation did not actually see any differences in performance in areas such as energy efficiency and water usage.

    The issue of performance slippage threatens to derail the green building movement before it has had a chance to get started. Building owners or architects are much less likely to continue using a green rating tool if they are not making up for the increased costs (which can vary wildly depending on the rating tool used and the level of “greenness” desired) in operational savings. Fixing this problem is the most important issue facing the future of green building, and the marketplace is already taking steps to remedy the problems associated with performance slippage.

    The green building community has started to shift its focus from building design to management and operations. A building can contain the most energy-efficient and sustainable products available, but if the manager and tenants do not have environmental policies and procedures in place, the building will not realize the desired environmental performance.

    Strong environmental management plans can ensure performance in areas such as energy efficiency and water usage. However, to truly reduce the long-term environmental impact of a building, a thorough and in-depth life-cycle assessment, or LCA, of the products and resources used in the building must be performed.

    Life-cycle assessments

    LCA can be thought of as a scientific way to measure the overall environmental impact of a material or product. LCA considers materials over the course of their entire lives and takes into account a range of environmental impacts, including embodied energy, solid waste, air and water pollution, and global warming potential. What’s important to note about LCA is that it attempts to factor in all environmental costs of a given material, including transportation, durability and recyclability.

    There are numerous LCA tools currently available for use in the U.S. The Green Building Initiative, for example, helped develop an LCA tool for use with the Green Globes rating system, called the EcoCalculator. This software tool provides instant LCA results for more than 400 common building assemblies in low- and high-rise categories, including exterior walls, roofs, intermediate floors, interior walls, windows, and columns and beams.

    Incorporating LCA into the decision-making process when deciding what material or products to put into a building is a major shift for the green building industry. However, it is not the only significant change currently facing the industry.

    Putting practice to code

    As green building has become more prevalent, the market is beginning to shift from scorecard-style rating tools to consensus-based standards and even to building codes.

    For the past three years, the Green Building Initiative has been engaged in establishing Green Globes as the first and only official American national standard for commercial green building. This designation comes through an organization called the American National Standards Institute, following their guidelines for establishing a consensus standard. The Green Globes standard, likely to be released in late spring, will offer some of the most advanced technologies in green building, including a robust LCA section and the first-ever water consumption calculator.

    Another significant development recently happened in California when the Building Standards Commission approved a new statewide green-building standards code, commonly known as Calgreen. The program sets mandates in areas such as water reduction, recycling and the use of low-pollutant emitting materials (including paints and carpets), and will be incorporated into the state building code. The mandatory provisions of Calgreen will be inspected and verified by local and, in some cases, state building code departments.

    Calgreen represents the first attempt to codify green building practices in the U.S. Whether or not these measures will ultimately be effective remains to be seen, however this code does represent a significant step forward for green building in general. Its passage was generally well-received by members of the building community in California and if nothing else it will prove to be a great test case for the rest of the country.

    The green building movement has come a long way in a relatively short time, however it is apparent we still have a long ways to go. Keys to the future success of this industry include ensuring that buildings are actually performing in an efficient and sustainable manner, that LCA is used to the greatest extent possible, and that the standards and codes used to define a green building are developed in a consensus-based and public manner. Considering the future of the environment and the economy may be at stake, we’d better make sure we get it right.

    Mark Rossolo is the vice president of operations for the Green Building Initiative, a nonprofit based in Portland.

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