by Yetsuh Frank, Managing Director, Strategy & Programs, Building Energy Exchange
Originally published in Building Energy Exchange Quarterly Report (Q3 2021)
Thought leadership within the green building community has largely been a story of incremental increases in complexity–a continual reappraisal of the boundaries of our concerns. In the very early years many green building advocates focused on individual homes by developing various types of low impact bubbles- from insulated yurts to earthships, most of which simply ignored the concept of community. Many of these advocates came out of the conservation movement that dominated early environmental protest in this country and implicit in this focus on remote houses was the idea that cities were the real source of environmental degradation. But an off-the-grid existence is not a viable option at scale so the question becomes how best to organize our communities. And it turns out that–in contrast with low-density, car-dependent suburbs–cities, configured and managed effectively, are a solution to climate change, land conservation, water efficiency, health, equity, and just about every other metric of import.
When I entered architecture school in the early 90s the old focus on remote lodges had produced a belief in passive systems, placing (misplacing?) our hopes on the ability of things like thermal mass and natural ventilation to fully replace mechanical systems. Those of us that focused on the environmental impact of buildings were disconnected from one another and tended to focus on our favorite subjects, whether that was exterior solar shading or wastewater. The introduction of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) was instrumental to changing this paradigm. LEED required us to focus on not just our pet issues but all the major aspects of a given building–from water and energy to materials and waste. And basically any building could be the focus of environmental improvements, not just the homesteads of hermits. Critically, we were asked to measure the use of resources and no longer just rely on our instincts, or–a favorite among architects–diagrams of magic ventilation arrows. As IBM’s Dr. W. E. Deming put it in another context, “In God we trust; All others bring data.” But perhaps most importantly, LEED connected us with one another. If much of the time since has been spent arguing with each other about the efficacy or importance of this or that component of LEED there is no denying that it revealed a tribe to itself and gave us something approaching a common language.
“If much of the time since has been spent arguing with each other about the efficacy or importance of this or that component of LEED there is no denying that it revealed a tribe to itself and gave us something approaching a common language.
Possibly the greatest ongoing challenge for LEED has been incorporating our ever-increasing understanding of building impacts. The first big item on this list was climate change. It is easy to forget that in 1998 when LEED was first rolled out to the public climate change was not the highest priority among mainstream environmentalists. Lower energy use in buildings was more often argued for on the basis that it would improve local air pollution, limit ozone depleting materials, and reduce our dependence on “foreign oil.” As our understanding of the primacy of climate change impacts grew the entire point structure of LEED credits was revamped. Early in the new century we also began to better understand that where buildings were located was often more important than how they performed. A 2007 article in Environmental Building News laid out the transportation energy intensity of buildings, connecting the dots between an office park in the suburbs and the people who drive to and from it across its entire lifecycle. The location, all by itself, has an energy intensity attached to it, even if the building itself uses no energy at all. (A 2018 update of this seminal EBN report can be found here.) This also led to significant changes in the LEED rating system (with more points allocated for buildings in urban locations and access to public transportation) and certainly impacted the USGBC’s decision to develop the LEED for Neighborhood Development standard in 2010. Many of us would argue that these measures didn’t go far enough, or weren’t integrated with each other well enough. I would argue, for instance, that an individual building in a location that doesn’t meet the pre-requisites of the LEED-ND standard, shouldn’t be eligible for LEED-Platinum status.
On the energy front, it has long been clear that LEED certification was no guarantee of deep energy efficiency. Many LEED buildings performed well. Many did not. LEED probably deserves some criticism on this front, but many of the problems stem from preexisting barriers to high performance in the real estate sector. The split incentives between the owners of office buildings and their tenants, comes to mind. As well as the way in which our energy codes allow designers to trade performance in one area with another without any requirement to stay beneath an absolute threshold.
“The increased adoption of building performance standards, and laws that regulate carbon emissions like New York City’s Local Law 97, are further evidence of a growing emphasis on actual rather than estimated performance.
This blind spot within LEED has led to the stunning growth of performance standards like Passive House that virtually guarantee dramatic (and measured) reductions in heating and cooling energy in residential buildings. The increased adoption of building performance standards, and laws that regulate carbon emissions like New York City’s Local Law 97, are further evidence of a growing emphasis on actual rather than estimated performance.
More recently (but long before the Covid-19 pandemic) we have seen an increased emphasis on the public health impacts of the design of buildings and communities. Aspects of LEED always included nods to individual health impacts, but an improved understanding of how the built environment impacts the health outcomes of whole populations has transformed our sense of both what is possible, and what is effective. The 2010 publication of New York City’s Active Design Guidelines were critical to this trend because it was one of the first projects that connected a vast sea of public health research to design measures that had been shown to statistically and meaningfully improve the health of communities. This focus on the public health of a community rather than just the individual health outcomes of one building’s occupants has reshaped the industry. In turn, the Covid-19 pandemic has further amplified the role of buildings in supporting health and provided us with a new conundrum- with many balancing the need for more fresh air against the additional energy use this requires.
And what’s next? Even as we embrace the idea of measuring the carbon emissions (rather than the energy used) of our buildings, we also need to incorporate the embodied carbon of the materials we use to build and renovate them. There hasn’t been much regulation in this space but it is definitely coming and will add yet one more facet to the ever increasing complexity of what constitutes a green building.