I’d like to think that the devastation inflicted on the East Coast by Hurricane Sandy offers a ray of hope for the country as a whole. In the days and weeks following the superstorm, it began to look like its winds and floods had swept the United States toward a tipping point. At the very end of an arduous political season that avoided discussion of the environment, the conversation finally turned to the way we live, the way we build, and those two dreaded “C” words: climate change. Preparing ourselves, our buildings, and our infrastructure to better handle changing environmental conditions—a strategy known as resilient design—was a hot topic in major media outlets.
On my way to San Francisco for the 2012 Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, I passed the time reading the issue of Bloomberg Businessweek that declared on its cover in big, bold block letters, “IT’S GLOBAL WARMING, STUPID.” At the event, people buzzed with a fresh sense of purpose and, dare I say, excitement. Perhaps this was the moment when green building would finally become a consistent part of mainstream conversation.
In the codes summit held in the opening days of Greenbuild, USGBC senior vice president of global policy and law Roger Platt talked about addressing green building at a more fundamental level that is relevant to most Americans. The next day, USGBC president and CEO Rick Fedrizzi welcomed attendees in the opening plenary by saying, “A calamity like Sandy doesn’t pay attention to social class.” Another plenary speaker, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, proclaimed that “the American dream must irreversibly be a green dream now.”
My experiences at the conference were invigorating—but was it too good to be true? I am afraid that the momentum will not last. For all the talk of Hurricane Sandy being a wake-up call, less than a month later the sense of urgency has been lost—in the news, at least—to conflicts in the Middle East, the impending fiscal cliff, and the state of consumer spending during the holiday season.
Those in the green-building movement, myself included, often wonder what’s next: What lies ahead in terms of technologies, practices, focuses? Perhaps we should be asking, “What now? Where do we go from here?”
In his Greenbuild address, Fedrizzi said, “Now that the campaigns are over, we expect leaders to step up and change the country.” And yet, where is the motivation, now that the ballots are cast? Shortly after Fedrizzi’s speech, California Lt. Gov.Gavin Newsom conceded that while political operatives are excellent at using technology to connect with people and get elected, those voices that build and support campaigns are turned down after the votes are counted.
So, how do we keep green building and climate change from slipping away from the main conversation and back into its silo? A few thoughts:
Speak their language. We must continue to push ourselves into conversations with those not as familiar with the importance of building performance, and doing so requires a different vocabulary. We must learn to talk more about performance data and return on investment which, in turn, requires more commissioning and collection of post-occupancy performance data.
Energy benchmarking legislation that requires the collection and disclosure of energy use is a first step. Then we can expand to, say, occupant health and access to nature. Do such strategies have to be mandated, or can we better involve building occupants to voluntarily improve performance and modify behavior on a long-term basis?
Move the market. Due to the wide acceptance and use of LEED, the changes to LEED v4 have sparked considerable discussion about how far and how fast the green-building movement can push itself, and push product manufacturers. (For a closer look at some of these concerns, see “Materials, Resources, and Contention.") The evolution of LEED, a voluntary program, provides a case study in how voluntary behavior may influence a larger market.
Along these lines, among the many product introductions at Greenbuild was the launch of the Health Product Declaration Open Standard Version 1.0, a free set of reporting tools that aims to provide consistency in information regarding building product contents.
Improving building codes to require better performance is also key and requires green-building professionals to stay in contact with local public officials year-round, not just during election season. If building codes dictate a minimum standard for what can legally be built, raising that baseline offers huge potential for new construction and existing buildings—as well as the many structures that will be rebuilt or rehabilitated in coming years.
Keep talking. Above all, continued conversation and collaboration between architects, builders, contractors, manufacturers, and the like, as well as legislators, building owners, and occupants, is crucial. It may have taken a large-scale natural disaster such as Hurricane Sandy to vault the environment, climate change, and the built environment into the headlines, but it’s up to us to keep it there.