There are many ways to approach sustainable construction. Designers and builders today are faced with a dizzying amount of certifications, labels and contradictory methodologies of what exactly is “green.” There are those, like John Tooley, senior building science consultant with Advanced Energy, Raleigh, N.C., who believe that important considerations, like performance, comfort and durability, often are lost in the flurry of so-called green products and technology.

Tooley began his career as a builder and in recent years has done a great deal of work performing building forensics around the U.S., focusing on finding the balance between energy efficiency and occupant comfort. Eco-structure had the opportunity to chat with Tooley about his building-performance views and the culture shift he hopes to see in the construction industry.

What is your definition of a green building?
JT: Certainly there is a segment of the construction industry that is trying to do green buildings. Everybody is trying to jump on the green train, but I’m telling people that changing out all the light bulbs in the building to fluorescents or LEDs does not make the building sustainable or green. You can’t take green products and build a structure that consumes large amounts of energy and isn’t comfortable and call that sustainable. If it doesn’t perform, you can’t call it sustainable. Even if you have the recipe for green construction, unless you have a sustainable process, you won’t wind up with the end result you’re after. [The construction industry] knows how to build a sustainable building, but the other side of the equation is whether we can achieve it through a sustainable process that is repeatable, defect free and actually performs.

What types of considerations are involved in that process?
Part of it is taking complex processes and simplifying them. Reject things that are very complicated to get people to do and choose things that lend themselves to simplicity. When choosing products, ask yourself whether people can actually install them correctly and consistently. There are lots of complex products out there for which the odds of correct installation are extremely low. In a culture of prevention, simplicity wins out over complexity. There is a clear vision that work is a process, all defects are caused and causes can be prevented.

That vision includes a zero-defect mentality. Would you tell a brain surgeon that a 2 percent margin of error is OK? Of course not. Prevention must be part of the language. It also is important to have a blame-free workplace. The construction industry is very blame oriented when something goes wrong. It’s not about asking why something happened and learning what’s wrong with our process to prevent it from happening again; it’s about who did it. A sustainable process needs to be blame free so you actually end up with prevention.

Of course, you can throw out all of that thinking and just put in bamboo floors, use low- or no-VOC paint, or capture the rainwater from the roof. Yet if the building consumes a lot of energy and is uncomfortable, is that really a sustainable structure? The answer I come up with is “no.”

How does occupant comfort factor in?
That is a huge complaint all over the U.S. To define comfort, I’m talking about a building where every single room is within 3 F [1.7 C] of the thermostat’s set point. You should be able to hang a thermometer in the center of each room and it would be within 3 F [1.7 C] of the set point. I just examined some houses in Detroit that were 15 F [8.3 C] from the set point.

Now think about that. If the temperature is 15 F [8.3 C] from the set point, what is the occupant going to do? He is going to turn the thermostat up or down, which consumes energy. That means the local utility is generating more electricity for that building. Comfort is a big indicator of how a building actually is performing. If you don’t have comfort, it means more energy is being used.

Why is durability important to sustainability?
Durability of buildings is another major issue. One of the greatest threats to durability comes from water intrusion. During the past decade or so, every time we have a building boom, large building failures happen three to five years later because that’s how long it takes for water to get into a wall and really cause deterioration, wood rot, blackening of gypsum board or things like that.

For all insurance companies, their largest claims are from water entry. Poor moisture management can lead to durability issues related to fungi, mold, corrosion and material degradation. If a building doesn’t last, it can’t be sustainable. It can’t be green if it wasn’t built right to begin with.

What do you suggest to make the construction industry more successful at building sustainably?
If a company has a sustainable process, they can produce a building over and over again without having any problem with performance. This company would be prevention oriented; they would try to prevent defects rather than detect them after the fact. That’s a reverse of how things are usually done in the construction industry. You can’t get quality by inspection because it’s too late. It’s after the fact. That doesn’t mean inspection is bad, it just means that if the end result you’re expecting is quality, you’re not going to get it from inspection. Quality comes from process.

Based in Raleigh, N.C., Advanced Energy is a nonprofit organization that helps utilities, as well as residential and industrial customers, incorporate new energy-related technologies. Its building-science group works to make the spaces in which we live, work and learn healthy, safe, durable, comfortable, affordable and environmentally sensitive. To learn more,