Green Building: More Than LEEDing

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By Mark Lundegren

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In many countries today, there is a rapid movement toward green building.

Often, however, this goal is cast somewhat narrowly – as creating buildings that require little or no external energy for their daily use, or fabricating structures with a fairly high degree of autonomy.

While this goal is laudable and has led to a number of important innovations, there are at least two broader, more rigorous, and ultimately more socially beneficial ways to conceive of green building design.

A second, broader conception of green building also considers the amount and nature of resources that go into the initial construction of buildings. In this expanded definition, architects, builders, developers, and regulators seek to: 1) minimize resource use during building construction, 2) reduce reliance on non-sustainable or non-recyclable resources, and 3) build in ways that are either minimally impact or positively enhance land, water, and air quality around buildings and their communities. As you may know, this sense of green building design is increasingly more common – and can be explored at green building.

A third and still more expansive definition of green building further extends the concept to include consideration of the long-term ecological and social impacts of building and development overall. In particular, this view enlarges our analysis to assess the relative effectiveness of building and development patterns both at meeting human needs and promoting human health, including the essential foundation of all natural health that is ecological sustainability.

What Is The Correct Scope For Green Building & Development?

Importantly, and often somewhat unintuitively or inexpeditiously, the natural – or renaturalized – goals of meeting human needs and promoting human health generally lead to a basic rethinking of traditional building design and construction practices, along with community and societal development norms more broadly. This is a complex topic, but let me point out that the aim of serving human needs and promoting overall community and societal health invariably must consider how building and development impact people generally, and how these efforts can serve the greatest number of people.

In this broad, encompassing, and health-conscious sense of green building, it becomes essential that architectural and community development endeavors weigh how specific projects fit with overall community health and social betterment goals, including the ways various development patterns or norms influence people generally and over time. Health-seeking, or fully green, development efforts might for example emphasize higher density development than is common in many development schemes today, and perhaps greater public space and community amenities than is typical in less green or socially-minded development.

In addition, fully green or health-minded design and development will almost invariably deemphasize extravagant building, since such efforts can be shown inherently inefficient, paradoxical or irrational, and health-reducing on a number of fronts. Perhaps most notably, this is because extravagant or luxuriant development typically expends social resources on projects that will: 1) likely make the owners or residents of such buildings only fractionally happier and healthier relative to adequate but more modest designs (often owing to hedonic treadmill effects), 2) encourage others to follow suit based on status or social comparison rather than health or well-being considerations, and 3) reliably result in reduced and less optimal patterns of social investment, and even self-investment, than is possible.

With this important background, I would like to discuss the popular green practice of LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification. LEED is a global green building certification program sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). In their summary materials, the USGBC reports that they are the world’s leading program of this kind. As this suggests, similar certification programs exist in other countries, and in the U.S. as well.

While the LEED program is quite popular today, it faces a number of criticisms – some more incremental or process-focused, and some more fundamental. From a process standpoint, LEED is viewed by some as excessively, and needlessly, bureaucratic. In part, this owes to the LEED program’s initial and current organizational structure, which is both consultative and fairly centralized. The link I’ve included reports LEED certification as a relatively slow and inflexible process, oriented toward large projects, and costing roughly $10,000 in fees and taking over a year, even for small residential projects. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that alternative and simpler certification programs, such as the GreenPoint Rated system, are growing in popularity for residential projects.

But more fundamentally, LEED and other certification programs can be understood as suffering from the limited scope or sense of green building that I described before. While these programs now typically include walkability and similar community factors as assessment criteria, this is typically a small and piecemeal part of the total assessment agenda. Overall, broader ecological and especially societal health concerns from building still can be seen as only an afterthought, and ancillary to the main current focus of these programs, which in my estimation overwhelmingly remains the relative energy performance of buildings after they are constructed.

To highlight this essential point, below are four examples of LEED-certified residential buildings that evidence this shortfall in operational or institutional ideas about green building. As you will see, each building is highly energy-efficient, or relatively autonomous. But each project was also quite expensive and resource-intensive to build. Critically, all appear markedly indifferent to the community and societal health considerations I emphasized above.

In practice and principle, none of these projects provide a rigorous model for green building that can be extended – or used as a standard for building and development generally. In this crucial sense, all of these LEED green buildings are deeply unsuccessful and unsatisfying in an important, today familiar, and still typically overlooked way. All fail to genuinely lead in the now essential task of building healthy and sustainable modern communities, for all people and for our future.

LEED Platinum House by BPC

  • Location: Connecticut, USA
  • Floor area: 400 M2 (est.)
  • Cost/M2: $3000 (est.)
  • Construction cost: $1,200,000 (est.)
  • Household income@2X: $600,000
  • % US median: 1200%
  • AN FASI Score: 3/10
  • Info: CT Platinum BPC

Our first example LEED-certified home is a rustically-styled but fairly high-tech residence. Floor area and construction costs were not provided, so we have estimated these based on the building photos and summary. As we will see with the other homes, we have also calculated the required household income to afford this home, using a 2:1 house cost/gross income ratio, since the above cost estimate does not include land acquisition. As you can see via the info link, this house sits on a large lot, described in the summary as containing 35,000 landscaping plants. While energy-efficient and using some sustainable materials, overall this project is far from a model green home. Notably, this is because the residence is patently unaffordable by households at or near median incomes, uses land in ways that are unsustainable as a rule or that would result in extensive suburban sprawl, and eschews rather than promotes walkable, integrated, and health-promoting human community.

Caterpillar House/Feldman Architecture

  • Location: California, USA
  • Floor area: 260M2
  • Cost/M2: $3000 (est.)
  • Construction cost: $850,000 (est.)
  • Household income@2X: $425,000
  • % US median: 850%
  • AN FASI Score: 5/10
  • Info: Caterpillar/Feldman

Our second example LEED-certified home is a more modern-styled residence, and also one that is smaller and lower-tech than the first. Floor area was provided in the building summary and construction costs were estimated based on the building’s design elements and construction materials, and again do not include land costs (which appear significant in this project). Overall, although this is an innovative, inviting, and energy-efficient residence, it suffers many of the shortcomings of the first example home. It is similarly unaffordable by households at or near median incomes, uses land in ways that are unsustainable when extended as a rule and would result in extensive suburban sprawl, and appears broadly indifferent to the goal of cohesive, supportive, and health-promoting human community.

1491 Neptune by AGB

  • Location: California, USA
  • Floor area: 340M2
  • Cost/M2: $3000 (est.)
  • Construction cost: $1,100,000 (est.)
  • Household income@2X: $550,000
  • % US median: 1100%
  • AN FASI Score: 6/10
  • Info: 1491 Neptune AGB

 

Our third example LEED-certified residence is another modern-styled home, this time in a beach location, and notably with a vegetated roof cover. Floor area was provided in the building summary and construction costs were estimated based on construction materials used, and considering prior building material recycling, but again do not include land costs (which are estimated to significantly exceed construction costs, given the building’s location). Overall, this is a well-constructed and energy-efficient home, and one that has used extensive material reuse and recycling. But it also suffers at least one fundamental shortcoming found in the two examples above – inaffordability by households at or near median incomes. However, unlike the two previous homes, this project is constructed at moderate density and, setting aside its beach location, uses land in ways that are generally sustainable and limit suburban sprawl. Given this, the project is reasonably compatible with the goal of walkable, integrated, and health-promoting human community.

62 Ridgeview Drive by EcoStruction

  • Location: California, USA
  • Floor area: 400M2 (est.)
  • Cost/M2: $3000 (est.)
  • Construction cost: $1,200,000 (est.)
  • Household income@2X: $600,000
  • % US median: 1200%
  • AN FASI Score: 4/10
  • Info: 62 Ridgeview EcoStruction

Our fourth example LEED-certified home is a more traditionally-styled residence on a generous hillside suburban lot above San Francisco. Floor area and construction costs were not provided, so we have estimated these based on the building photos and summary, and again exclude land costs. Though traditional in appearance, we should note that this residence was constructed from  insulated concrete block, using reclaimed polystyrene, and finished inside using earthen plaster and zero-VOC paints. While noteworthy and energy-efficient, overall this project is again far from a model green home – in that it is unaffordable by households at or near median incomes, uses land in ways that are unsustainable as a rule or would result significant suburban sprawl, and overlooks rather than promotes the goals of integrated and health-promoting human community.

As a counterpoint to these less than fully green, or health and socially conscious, LEED homes, I want to include a project that is far more health and socially conscious, or more robustly green, than the other example residences. Importantly – and instructively for architects, builders, developers, and regulators everywhere – this fifth example home was intentionally envisioned and designed as a low to mid-cost prototype and model home, and to be mass-produced and used for moderate-density infill development.

Affordable Vali Homes Prototype

  • Location: Arizona, USA
  • Floor area: 140M2
  • Cost/M2: $1800 (est.)
  • Construction cost: $250,000 (est.)
  • Household income@2X: $125,000
  • % US median: 250%
  • AN FASI Score: 8/10
  • Info: AZ Prototype Vali Homes

 

This fifth example LEED-certified home is again a modern-styled building, and notably one that uses a courtyard design to increase its compactness, while ensuring adequate occupant privacy. Construction costs were not provided, so we have estimated these based on the building photos and summary, and again do not include land costs. Importantly, while the prototype photos show this structure on a fairly generous suburban lot, it is clear that the single-story design could be build at significantly higher densities. As suggested, this example home is not only highly energy-efficient, exceeding LEED standards, it is also relatively affordable, uses more modest and sustainable resource inputs in its construction, and offers a basic design that promotes walkable, integrated, and health-promoting human communities.

I hope this exploration of green building, in theory and practice, has proven helpful and perhaps perspective-altering for you. Too often, designers and others tasked with creating our built environment have too limited a view of their needed goals and impacts – and may approach each building in isolation, rather than seeing the broader patterns and opportunities waiting in all design and development efforts.

In part, this is due to current institutional and economic incentives, which still tend to reinforce traditional or status quo conceptions of building, development, and social functioning more broadly, and thus fail to realize the full potential of green building. And with this last term, you know that I mean buildings and communities that are not only energy-efficient in their operation, but also sustainable in their construction and health promoting in their ultimate and inevitable impacts.

For this critical and broader green development goal  to be realized, we need not only changed incentives, but a general raising of social and health consciousness as well. And fostering this awareness, rather than pursuing technical advances, well may be the most essential task for green building advocates in the years ahead.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

Tell others about ArchaNatura…promote progressive natural design!

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