Want to save the planet? Quit using language like “save the planet” and talk about individual health instead. That’s the gist of the recently issued Living Standard report commissioned by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).
Twenty-five years after the birth of LEED green building standards, the USGBC hired ClearPath Strategies, a global public opinion research company, to measure how the public sees green building. The resulting report shows a public relations problem: Even though building construction and operations account for nearly 40 percent of final global energy use and carbon dioxide emissions, most people don’t make the link between buildings and their environmental impact. This disconnect could be seen as bad news both for the design profession and for the planet. It could also be seen as an invitation to the building industry to take on a much bigger role in building a sustainable future — even if that’s not a word we use to describe it.
The Living Standard report illustrates how survey respondents ranked different concerns (health care and immigration, high; environment, middle) and potential solutions (recycling and water conservation, high; green building, way low). That survey also measured what kind of language made people feel more willing to take action. In the words of the report, “There is a real gap between the conceptual enormity of the problem and how people seek to address it in their daily lives.” Planetary health? Far too big a concept. Individual health? That’s something everyone can get behind.
The USGBC has long been concerned with public perception of green building, and rightly so. Before LEED (the now-standard acronym stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), there were few resources for people who were curious about the energy consumption, materials sourcing, or health impacts of buildings. Gail Vittori, a founding member of the USGBC and current member of the GBCI, describes how LEED and similar programs helped to develop not just a vocabulary but a way of thinking. “The value of a tool like LEED is that, as it started to have market penetration, you literally had hundreds if not thousands of teams of people sitting around a table saying, ‘What’s the VOC content in the paint?’ We take it for granted now, but in the beginning, you’d have to carve out two hours of time to get on the phone with Sherwin Williams to find someone who could begin to answer your question. How is it today that I can go into Home Depot and every single can of paint will not only tell me what the VOC content is, but most of them will be compliant with a very low VOC content? That’s market transformation.” As co-founder, with Pliny Fisk III, of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (CMPBS), Vittori works with clients to integrate sustainable strategies into large-scale building projects. She notes that she and Fisk now rarely use the words “sustainable” and “green.” “Cleaning up the jargon is what this is about. The point is that you can talk about concepts in a way that doesn’t immediately create this chasm of, ‘Oh, you’re on the inside of that topic,’ or ‘You’re on the outside of that topic.’ We all have buildings as part of our lives.”
Market transformation, while necessary, tends to be slow. Meanwhile, research suggests that we have a six-to-10-year window to make changes to avoid irreversible environmental damage. Within that time frame, the U.S. and other wealthy countries will need to get their emissions down to zero, and for that to happen, whatever we design and build now has to be a part of that reduction. In the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg, “Everything needs to change, and it has to start today.”
So where to start? LEED provides a metric for building performance, as do local building programs like the Austin Energy Green Building Program. The 2030 Palette from the Architecture 2030 Challenge, which calls for buildings and major renovations to be carbon-neutral by 2030, offers “swatches” of possible design strategies and materials. A few miles down the road from CMPBS, architect Lauren Stanley, AIA, is developing a materials palette for a new house that she and husband Lars Stanley, FAIA, plan to build following the guidelines of the Living Building Challenge (LBC). Like LEED, LBC provides a metric for building performance, but while LEED requires an improvement over existing energy standards, LBC pushes for net-zero or net-positive resource consumption. LBC also requires that all materials used in the project be tracked to their source — easy enough for materials like plywood, thanks in large part to previous LEED-driven research, but more difficult for, say, a smoke detector. “It’s going to be a pain in the ass,” Lauren Stanley says, “but we see it as being for the public good.” By doing the research on their own house, the Stanleys will contribute to a database of similar information that can be drawn on by future designers (they are currently planning to work with Integrated Eco Strategy, a consulting firm based in Massachusetts, and their materials database, called Red2Green). That knowledge also makes them a valuable resource to developers like Catellus, who hired Stanley Studio to design the John Gaines Swim Center at the Mueller Development. The solar panels, rainwater collection, green roof, and salvaged bus-stop structures at the community garden were all ideas that the Stanleys presented to Carl Paulsen, the project manager for Catellus. “He saw the advantage,” Lauren Stanley says. “You don’t have to wait for your client to ask for a green building. You can do the research and present three options, and they can all be green options.” Vittori sees LEED and other standards as contributing to the overall ecosystem of information. “There’s a floor, but there’s no ceiling.”
Nor is green building all about the standards. What it’s really about, says Pliny Fisk, is problem-solving. For instance, Fisk is currently working with FEMA and the Department of Defense to develop a bio-based shipping pallet that can serve as the infrastructure for emergency relief efforts. Collaboration and knowledge sharing are central to Fisk’s work, but, he says: “There’s not a forum. How do I present this stuff? Where do I compare what’s going on out there? We want to offer some other windows for people to healthily compete in, and to discuss things off the record.” Fisk and Vittori recently started the Austin Green Awards program to highlight — Vittori suggests the term — “boldly pragmatic” projects in central Texas. Whatever words we use to talk about it, the message is loud: Imagine the future you want to live in, and build it now.
Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin.