The Green Thumb: Dial ‘S' for Sustainability - Part One
January 29, 2008
What’s in a name you might ask? More than you think when the topic of discussion is Sustainability. Terms such as “building green,” “environmentally preferable/responsible,” etc., are synonymous with sustainable construction. But when we dig a little deeper, we discover there is a significant difference between the often-used terms “green” and “sustainable” when referring to the built environment.
A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAMEIn general, “green” is a term that refers to environmental impact and, more often than not, is used as a marketing device, whereas “sustainable” includes environmental impact as well as social equity. As such, “sustainable” has a higher value than “green” in the marketplace, though the two terms are used interchangeably. Sustainability can be defined in more pragmatic terms. It includes, without compromise to future generations, the long-term evaluation of every decision made. From a building product point-of-view, this will include considerations focusing on raw material content/composition, handling, manufacture and transport, after-installation impacts, life-cycle, and performance. Characteristics of performance include fire-resistance, acoustics, and indoor environmental quality.
In other words, sustainability, in its purest form, should be an evaluation of each and every material used in a building and the benefit-to-burden ratio for making that choice.
One way sustainability is being improved in a significant way is by the way architects design buildings. Rather than the old fashioned stereotype of a prima donna architect locked away in an ivory tower and the engineers, contractors, vendors/suppliers, etc. “doing their own thing” when called upon by their master, the concept of Integrated Design has taken root.
In the past, consulting engineers (structural, mechanical, electrical, etc.) were brought in by architects at the late stages of design. With integration, the mechanical engineer is being asked in the schematic (earliest) design phase rather than the design development phase (more typical in the past) where it would be best, for example, to locate a mechanical equipment room. That’s a major change in the way buildings are designed. A lighting consultant may be asked to review a specification and discover an excessive illumination (foot-candle) requirement, thereby saving money and reducing heat-gain (which directly affects the sizing of mechanical equipment). The days of designing in a vacuum whereby we build a “box” and then–after the fact–decide what to put in it, are swiftly drawing to a close.
TRUTH IN ADVERTISINGGlobal truth-in-advertising laws require that lifecycle be considered when a building product is labeled “sustainable” (or, for that matter: “green” or “environmentally friendly”). For example, to imply that a product is “low-VOC” (Volatile Organic Compounds) without considering its life-cycle and other relevant aspects is misleading and could be interpreted as unlawful.
Governing agencies such as the EPA provide consensus definitions and standards for Life Cycle Assessment. The EPA’s Tool for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and Other Environmental Impacts provides such a guideline.
Unfortunately, government is not yet as efficient as the free market where adopting sustainability issues is concerned. Environmental legislation at the federal and state levels is extremely difficult to get passed. It is when non-profit groups and for-profit corporations join forces that things get moving in a capitalist society like ours. Government, standing on the sidelines most typically, gets involved after consensus is achieved. Thus, this market-based approach has been most effective where sustainability is concerned.
Groups like the USGBC and its LEED “green building” rating/certification program have helped tremendously in mainstreaming sustainability. Others, such as Market Transformation to Sustainability are prime examples of this trend. Besides including social equity considerations, the MTS standard (covering life-cycle) for environmental impact includes: Raw material extraction, transportation, usage, impact on a building, reuse and reclamation.
According to the American Institute of Architects, in the United States buildings consume:
• 17 % of water
• 33 % of energy
• 40 % of raw materials
• 66 % of electricity (worldwide)
• 40 % of landfill waste
• 10 % of particulate emissions
With the built environment having such a significant impact, architects, through sustainable design, can and do have a tremendous responsibility to help Mother Earth. Conservation, recycling and long-term performance are key issues in building sustainable structures.
Designs that reduce Embodied Energy, promote durability, select materials to conserve valuable/limited resources, avoid conversion of wetlands and green fields to building sites and allow renewable energy sources such as sun, wind and water to be exploited make perfect sense. Using passive strategies for mechanical heating and cooling and the use of natural light–to improve mood and reduce energy costs–makes sustainable design most effective at providing contaminant-free, clean and healthy buildings to work, live and play in. Increased productivity, greater job satisfaction, better employee retention, decreased absenteeism, not to mention enhancing a corporate image, are just a few of the many benefits derived from sustainable design.