Thursday, April 4, 2013

Why We Don't Build Green

There seems to be a natural inclination towards green building practices yet traditional building methodologies continue to dominate in the United States today.  Green building is about reducing waste in the construction and operation of the building, proper site selection with respect to local ecology along with enhancing the health and quality of life of the occupants.  All seemingly good design goals but still usually prioritized lower than ROI calculations by developers.  The World Green Building Council released a report recently addressing ROI in that it is also superior in structures built with sustainability in mind.  Maybe this will be helpful in continuing the trend towards better building, but I think addressing a few of the reasons why we haven't adopted green building so far will be even more helpful in spurring change.

I've written before about how we are cursed with abundance here in the US.  My point was that we don't have to innovate on the energy front because we have significant traditional energy resources that feed an energy generation infrastructure that still works (albeit typically near the end of its design life).  Dan Burris in Flash Foresight makes a similar observation about how developing nations have the ability to skip the incremental technology gains that we've had to slog through and just adopt the latest and greatest stuff.  I still think this situation is the primary reason (i.e. we don't have to change) we don't see more growth in green building or in clean energy system development.

Here are a few of my observations about why green building continues to languish in the margins:

Construction professionals have years of experience building and designing in a particular way.  Without formal training, many are unwilling or unable to do things differently and formal training is costly in time and money.  Often local building code is too restrictive and government bureaucracy too slow to meet the speed of change.  Since building construction is a such a collaborative process involving so many people like architects, engineers, code officials, product manufacturers, skilled trade workers, building management companies, and the owners/occupants, any new techniques that would be innovative enough to make a significant impact in terms of sustainability are usually too complicated to pass through the gauntlet of these disparate stakeholders.  The end result is that we seldom bother with innovation and build buildings the way we always have.

Another problem is that green buildings seldom seem any different than a non-green one.  The key stakeholders may not see much reason to go through the effort without an end result that wows them or their clients.  Incremental enhancements in air quality, lighting, or energy savings often goes unnoticed.  No one can see where building materials were sourced without explicitly stating this with signage.  Local environmental amelioration is also hard to tell without educational efforts.  To encourage more green building people have to see and feel that they are getting something more for the struggle.

A third big reason that green building is held back in the US is the stagnant building market as a whole.  In parts of the world where any significant building activity is occurring, green building principles are at least considered if not completely implemented.  Developers here feel lucky to get any projects going so pushing the envelope with respect to innovative design or cost constraints is dead on the drawing board.  Developers typically give the customer what they want anyways and lowest cost is what almost all the customers want. Without an external force mandating better design features and building products, the US market will continue to see green building as merely an academic exercise for a small group of idealists with deep pockets.

Timing is key to getting good ideas off the ground.  Green building is a great idea.  The speed of technological change across industries we are seeing means that we can't afford to adopt innovation in a merely incremental way though.  We need to develop an ability to discard old practices before they are obsolete.  If we don't, our building practices and construction professional talent pool will fall behind other parts of the world and we won't be the innovative nation that got us to the point where we are today.

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