Ray Ng

There’s an expanding vocabulary devoted to sustainability and green building that forms the language we use to describe every aspect of our efforts—from community planning and design through product development, construction, performance, and market acceptance.

As an editor, I’m always on the lookout for these new terms that help define our work and refine our ability to communicate about it. Our language reflects our understanding of ourselves and, in this case, of our progress.

The meanings of lexiconic words like green and sustainable are shaped by qualifiers like greenwash, substantiated claims, and credibility, and they subdivide into component terms like raw materials extraction, multiple-attributes, recycled content, embodied energy, carbon footprint, and green chemistry—all of which eventually reunite in LCA, and EPDs.

Our new communities are built on brownfields, greenfields, or, now, even economically stressed and dormant sites called redfields.

Understanding and tracking this language positions each of us not just to better understand our changing industry, but also to actively participate. Through your participation, language becomes a tool of metrics, consensus, and engagement. It allows you to gauge your own position along the sustainability spectrum and chart your own course toward your goals. You are the active ingredient.

If we believe the good-news side of sustainability, then we see innovation all around us. But where does it come from? How does it find us? And how do we know something is truly innovative, in a world where almost everything else is totally awesome?

Don’t wait for answers, or for someone else to sound the all-clear. Whether you’re an architect, builder, or contractor, it’s time to apply my favorite verb: innovate. You don’t need to be a pioneer, and you can set your own pace and comfort level, but we need to accelerate the rate of change in our industry to have a chance at contributing real solutions to the environmental challenges we all face.

Here are the questions I think you should be asking yourselves:

First, “What is our process for adopting new practices? What is our innovation plan?”

Then look deeper.

Do you have someone charged with ongoing internal R&D?

Do you stay current with changes in materials, products, and technologies; building science; and rating systems and code requirements?

How do your current practices compare with the state-of-the-art?

How does that position you for the future and the anticipated pace of change—including adapting to new codes?

Are you collaborating with everyone else involved in your projects to share information and expertise that would pave the way for improved quality and performance?

Can you conduct off-site collaborative research with suppliers and subcontractors that would reduce your risk factor?

Then answer these three questions:

Where are you now?

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

What do you need to do in order to get there?

It will take this kind of focus, planning, and—yes—innovation on a player-by-player, jobsite-by-jobsite, and project-by-project basis to reach our goals as an industry and live up to the promise of all these words.