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Sustainable AIA: 2031--Making “Green” Normal

Reframing the Sustainability Discussion on What's Good, Better, and Less Bad.

By Bill Worthen

Director, AIA Resource Architect for Sustainability

Over the last year and a half, I have been interviewed and asked to provide comments on a variety of sustainability subject matter and its relevance to the design and practice of architecture. Recently, one such request seemed particularly representative of the challenges ahead related to materials, toxins, and the need to reframe the thinking of business as usual (BAU).

A reporter asked me to comment on “green” doors. What makes a green door different from a normal door?--and a variety of other seemingly innocuous questions. Do you know? If the goal of the green building movement is to make sustainable, high-performance design and construction normal, it’s time to reframe this discussion with industry, the media, and the green building community itself.

From an end-user point of view, there is nothing different, nor should there be anything different, about the form, function, and use of a door and a “green” door. They are both doors. A door is a door. Green or not, doors serve the purpose of a door. They can have equal fire ratings, equal performance, they can use the same hardware, and, if used like a door, the average building occupant, appraiser, homeowner, or facility manager shouldn't be able to tell the difference between a door and a green door.

What makes a green door different from a BAU typical door on the market today are the glues and adhesives that hold the door together, the materials used to make the core, the recycled content of the materials, and the source of any woods used in the substrates and veneers. A green door does much less potential harm and damage to human health and the occupants of the building, and should come from more sustainably managed resources than a BAU door today.

As I was responding to this journalist’s request about what makes a green door special it occurred to me: Why aren't typical doors called “bad doors” instead of accepted as normal? After all, “normal doors” (or any other product) use volatile organic compounds and materials harvested in ways that continue to destroy the potential for our children to have anywhere near the same rich and diverse resources and environment you and I enjoy today. Why does the industry then call the green version (the version of a door we should all want on every project) something special?

My point: If green building materials are to be accepted as the new normal, than architects, engineers, and all advocates of high-performance, best-value, toxin-free design and construction need to start reframing the discussion of green materials to make green the norm. This is what we want produced by our industries, in sustainable ways that still allow for large-scale use and adoption. It is only through large-scale production that cost barriers will drop, making green the normal cost and the “bad” door option not only the inferior option, but the more expensive one.

The reporter should have asked me: Why does the door industry continue to produce carcinogen-based doors? Doors made with harmful off-gassing glues, adhesives, paints? Doors made from woods and veneers that are either illegally logged or at least not sustainably harvested? And in almost every instance I have seen, companies continue to offer these bad products at a cheaper price than their green counterparts—and keep telling us it’s all OK.

Instead of green products having green labels, why can't the nongreen products be labeled as being more harmful, or (like cigarettes), as being notably more dangerous to human health and damaging to the supply chains we depend on for all our resources than the greener products currently available?

And this is not just true for doors. Paint, carpet, plywood, composite wood products, veneers, construction lumber, PVC-based products, fireproofing, lacquers, sealers, flooring, wall paper, laminate, insulation, furniture, and even the sprinkler pipe used to water your lawn all have greener alternatives on the market. These greener options are just that, alternatives—not the norm. And they’re certainly not the cheapest, first-cost conscious material option contractors ask for when they propose value-engineering changes.

So how do we get there?

The first step in moving forward from today’s BAU construction practices is to acknowledge how we got here. From 2001 to 2010—the first ten years of the green building movement—the market became aware of green building by distinguishing itself from BAU by doing better-than-code projects with third-party ratings. These rating were aspiration, optional, and very clear market differentiators for clients, architects, tenants, and the general public. A LEED plaque means something. And the green building movement capitalized on this very successfully, as just 10 short years after the first LEED v2.0 certified project, we have CALGreen and the forthcoming International Green Construction Code (IGCC).

Despite all the successes of the green building movement (owed in large part to the effective marketing efforts of the USGBC and the family of LEED rating systems), to date there are only 23,009 LEED-certified buildings, totaling just over 1.5 billion square feet of construction. To put those numbers into perspective: Between 2001 and 2030 more than 186 billion square feet of commercial and residential space will be built new across the United States, according to a Brookings Institution study. We have a long way to go.

Building sustainably has a long way to go to become normal.

If green is to become normal, then we need the adoption of green building codes. The next 10 years of the green building movement represents the true heavy lifting to make what was third-party, aspirational, one-off green buildings (no matter how many buildings per month get certified) the standard practice of every licensed architect and engineer, as required by the forthcoming green building codes. The majority of that work will not be in the hands of the USGBC or even in the hands of the LEED APs out there. You see, while previously optional or elective, green building requirements are about to become part and parcel of any local, state, or model building code or ordinance. It's no longer “green.” It's the code, making things that we now call “green” doors or “green” paint, the new baseline for all construction, defining a new normal for the entire AEC industry.

What can you do?

What can you do to help reframe the discussion, making high-performance design and construction normal? Quite a lot.

The first step is to take the time to understand what makes something we now call a “green” material different from its BAU counterpart. Then, start asking your material reps for much more detail on the what, where, and how of the sources of their building products, seen on every typical job. It’s not simple. And it's not always clear what makes one product less bad than another. But what anyone with training in design understands is that there is no one right answer. There are always trade-offs and choices, and it should be the role of the architect working with every member of a project team to combine their skill sets to determine the best, most-sustainable, cost-effective options for our clients.

Make sure you understand the risks and changes to your design team work flow that designing this way can require. Be sure to alter your project schedule to so you can allow for more collaborative design time. A great first step is to examine the AIA’s contract document D-503, the new AIA Guide for Sustainable Projects.

The second thing you can do is to stop using the word “green” or “sustainable” when you are asked about a green building code. Both these words carry with them charged opinions in political and policy circles. Instead, use terms like high performance and best value to reframe the discussion on high-performance (green) building codes as what they really are: better uses of client’s resources and your design skills to make every building to be the best value and best environment for its occupants in the short- (first cost) and long-term (life of the building).

The third thing you can do is get educated on how architects can use the building sciences to improve, enhance, and manage the costs and energy consumption of our work. If we take the time rethink the design process, stand up for the time it takes to do good design, and are empowered with the knowledge to effectively select and manage project teams with all the needed skills (not just the lowest fees) to do the work, then perhaps our clients will stop shopping between architecture firms like sales at the mall for shoes.

Sustainable design shows the value of design in ways architects are just beginning to understand. As hard as it may be to do, we need to say “no” to clients who threaten to leave when we won't compromise on the fees, time, or skills needed to do our work well. We need to show our clients that we can be cost-effective complex problem solvers who understand that time, money, and schedules are important. But we also need to show that there are also more complex issues of design, such as performance, value, and health. That is what will demonstrate the value of good design. To do this, we demonstrate by our actions that we are the builders of communities--not commodities. That we are that we are designing for people--not projects. And that architects are more than just a necessary evil needed to stamp permit sets. We must also stop talking about our work and design processes with words that only have meaning to ourselves.

We all want design to matter, and we can make it matter by reframing the normal and “green” dialog around clearly negative notions of “cheap” and “unhealthy,” verses “quality,” “healthy,” and “durable.” This might just stop clients from treating the work of architects like a fast-food commodity to be selected from an illuminated menu while they wait in line. When green is normal to every architect, what and how we design will matter because buildings will truly integrate performance, durability, and beauty. They will not be just a form with functions and material qualities decided by others.

 
 

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