Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Portland - The Green Building Initiative

It seems that almost every city has some non-profit or government group promoting "green" building. They are generally organized to provide a product library of "green" materials and to offer classes and workshops on cutting edge "green" building techniques. Of course, they are always housed in a spectacular "green" building utilizing the most advanced "green" building materials and techniques. By the time I got to Portland, I finally decided it was time to interview someone at one of these "green" organizations.

I managed to hunt down Mark Rossolo, the outreach director at the Green Building Initiative, a national non-profit operating out of Portland. I learned a lot about GBI, their mission and their perspective. They're not the local shop that I assumed they were, instead, this small group operating out of rented space is the mothership for green building groups around the country. If our current building regime ever manages to pick back up, GBI will play an instrumental roll in defining "best practice," the fuzzy set of standards that mainstream builders use to justify their work. First a synopsis...

On the residential end of the spectrum, the GBI promotes the National Association of Home Builders' NAHBGreen program for new residential construction. Since it's somewhat beyond the perview of GBI, I won't go into it. On the commercial end of things though, GBI has imported the Canadian Standard, Green Globes, into the US. In addition, they have a free Life Cycle Analysis calculator. The Green Globes rating system is similar to the United States Green Building Council's LEED rating system, though there are some significant differences.

Both standards were modeled after the British BREEAM system so they are the same on substantive issues, however, the devil is in the details. LEED certification requires a lot of paperwork and is seen as a fairly bureaucratic process. Most observers saw it only as a matter of time before other, less intensive, groups jumped into the "green" building certification game. Green Globes relies on an online system which developers pay for on a project basis. There's no paperwork to fill out and no LEED consultants to hire. Green Globes is very much the poor man's LEED. Their mission is to move certain "green" building practices into the mainstream.

Neither Green Globes nor LEED are particularly geographically specific, though LEED gives points for bringing in a LEED accredited professional, which are typically local. This is one of the biggest holes in the "green" building movement. You get points for local materials, but none for locally appropriate materials, points for energy efficient design but none for locally energy efficient design. LEED already used a wide brush to paint the green building movement and Green Globes uses an even wider one, with their fully automated process.

Moreover, Green Globes does very little to address planning and its effect on energy consumption. These rating systems seem to look at the energy consumption pie of the US and see that building takes up over a third of it. What they don't seem to connect is that the transportation third of the pie is a direct result of the way we plan our built environment.

These programs have great potential to make buildings incrementally more efficient, but offer little answer for the social, environmental and economic problems that our country faces. Even worse, they risk creating a perception of "greenness" in the public's mind in places where's it's not deserved. Building a net zero energy house in the suburbs that does little to address the transportation piece of the pie--or the consumption part either--means that you're locking in unsustainable behavior for years to come.

I'm certainly not claiming that these organizations aren't part of the solution, but living in a "green" building and driving a Prius does not make for a sustainable lifestyle. We need to change more than our buildings, we need to change how we interact with them and how they force us to interact with one another.

Until these "green" building programs take the emphasis off of the building construction aspect and begin to consider the outside effects that buildings have, they'll be doing as much harm as good.

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