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Design, construction and the continuing definition of ‘green’

Consider, please, the following news ‘snippets’:

∎  In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama issued “a new goal for America: Let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years.”

∎  As of January 2012, after 20 successful years, Energy Star has increased its standard in the new Version 3 – raising the bar for homes to qualify by linking size to its scoring criteria as well as increasing insulation and building tightness levels. In 2012, 35 percent of all new homes were energy rated with a HERS index (used for Energy Star), more than any previous year.

∎  As of this writing, more than 20 of the largest nationwide homebuilding companies have committed to building only Energy Star qualifying homes – which, theoretically, will use 20 to 30 percent less energy than code built homes.

∎  In addition, cities, regions, and even some states have adopted more stringent building codes to include higher energy performance or other green standards.

∎  The participants in the recent forum around envisioning A Library for the Future for Peterborough concluded that a new library building should be “green” or sustainable.

These are just a few of the recent indicators of the mainstream transition towards the possibility of a sustainable built environment. But in order for “what’s possible” to become reality; to move from noble intent and goals to making truly sustainable buildings, we still need to transform the way we fundamentally think about how we use energy and materials in design and construction. Integrating the design with specified goals, and – equally important ­— attending to the many details during construction.

Regarding the latter, consider the question building scientist Peter Yost ponders: “Why is it that even the cheapest automobile can drive 70 mph through driving rain ­— with nary a drop penetrating to the interior — while so many buildings leak standing still?” The answer, he reports, is all in the “design and details.” And beyond just liquid water leaks, it’s the design and details necessary for also managing water in its gas and solids phases, air quality, comfort, durability, and minimizing energy use.

For an example of transforming how we think about energy use: Energy Star and LEED are two fairly common standards used for building more energy efficient or green buildings. Both of them score energy use of the building design based on how the same building would compare if built to the current minimum building code. In other words, each seeks to create a structure that would use, at a minimum, 20 to 30 percent less energy than an exact same building design would use if built to the current code. Obviously a step in the right direction. But that in itself will take generations of adopting more and more stringent codes to achieve a sustainable built environment or even buildings we can afford to operate in the very near future.

On the other hand, guidelines for building a passive house, or net zero energy building, are based on designing within an energy budget. They start with the goal of making a building so well designed and so well constructed that it requires no more energy than can be generated on site over a year’s time. Truly sustainable buildings will create no waste products, be created with non toxic, recycled or recyclable materials, and be resource efficient by performing well for a hundred years or more.

These are the kinds of goals which inform and lead the design of a building – they form the parameters that define what is actually sustainable, as opposed to defining sustainability or ‘green’ as doing things a little better than we are doing them now. The truth is that while LEED and other programs have served an important role in this transition, and there are some excellent examples of more sustainable practices, there are also LEED certified buildings — and buildings which have won other “green” awards — which may be beautiful and innovative, and scored well on the forms, but which are no more sustainable than conventional practices. So to state, for example, that a community wants to build a green library, it’s important to define what is meant by “green.” Is the goal to get a plaque or create an award winning building? Or to create a building which actually is more sustainable: one that re-uses or recycles demolished materials, requires minimal energy to operate and generates what it needs on site, returns water cleaner after use, uses non toxic, local, and renewable materials and fosters a comfortable building with healthy air quality which will serve the community for the next hundred years or more. They are not mutually exclusive goals. But they are also not one and the same.

To make these things possible, building designs will need to reflect humility and simplicity. Designers will need to work within an integrated and collaborative team of professionals to create buildings with specific goals around what is sustainable – as opposed to grandiose structures which are less wasteful than if built to minimum codes. And construction details will need to be adhered to with greater diligence than ever before.

The premier annual event in New England which serves to educate and inspire this transforming vision of the built environment is happening in the next few weeks. The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA)’s will hold its annual Building Energy Conference March 5-7 in Boston, with considerable focus planned for achieving passive and low energy high performance buildings in addition to clean, renewable energy technologies. Attendance last year was over 4,000 people from 31 states and 14 countries. There’s still time to sign up for this year to go to one or more of the 80 accredited workshops and sessions or visit the tradeshow with 150 exhibitors. Go to www.NESEA.org for more information.

Margaret Dillon promotes high performance buildings through her energy consulting practice Sustainable Energy Education and Demonstration Services (SEEDS). Contact her at mdillon@wildblue.net.

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