Green Building: An idea whose time has (finally) come

Anyone attending the Greenbuild 2009 conference and expo at the Phoenix Convention Center (Nov. 11-13) couldn’t help but come away impressed. First, there was the attendance – more than 27,000 people from all across the country, each paying to attend a variety of educational sessions, listen to numerous experts, and view sustainable products at close to 2,000 exhibits. To see a large room packed with General Contractors, eager for tips on how to “green” their job-sites and achieve LEED sustainable certification, was nothing short of inspiring. (A program established in 1998 by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.)

In order to stand a chance against the ever-increasing threat of climate change, we’ve got to move fast – and changing the way our offices, homes, and apartment complexes are built is the most immediate thing to be done. Greater energy efficiency alone could quickly reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs) by 40 percent. For the first time, legislation pending in Congress would establish a national building code, instead of state-by-state. The House version of the bill mandates that building codes need to be 30 percent better than 2004 by 2010, and 50 percent better by 2016. The Senate bill, at the moment at least, is stronger than the House’s. We’re going to need to retrofit every single one of more than 100 million homes and 65 billion square feet of commercial buildings over the next 20 years.

I learned of these things at a session titled: “Has the Change We Need Come to Main Street? How Green Building is Faring in the New Policy Environment.” A new federal Clean Energy Development Administration (CEDA) will contribute financing for retrofits. There will also be tax incentives and builder credits for homes built 50 percent stronger than existing code. The Department of Energy is expanding standards on appliances, and looking for the first time at energy consumption of our TV sets. “Smart grid” projects are moving forward, automation that for example will automatically dim your lights 40% at a given time, and let you know it’s a good time to unplug your computer and run off battery for awhile. HCFC refrigerants in chillers, air conditioning, and piping in grocery stores must be phased out (although it’s not yet known what will replace them).

Have you heard what’s happening to the Empire State Building, which dates back to the 1920s? It’s getting a major overhaul that will reduce its energy use by 38 percent. All 6,500 windows are being rebuilt for efficiency, some 50 a day at a factory on the fifth floor. That means no transportation is involved, and the same glass is being used. The retrofit is expected to save $4.4 million a year in operating costs.

The Obama Administration is “walking the talk.” Executive Order 1314 mandates that all federal agencies must now report and reduce their GHGs. A push is on to leverage federal procurement policy toward hiring of green contractors. The goal is that, by 2020, the federal government will have a zero “carbon footprint.” That’s a huge step.

Policy updates can be found at the U.S. Green Building Council’s website, It’s crucial that climate legislation passes. Even if it doesn’t go as far as many of us believe necessary, the fact is that policy drives innovation. And, if Congress won’t act, the Environmental Protection Agency is prepared to take it on.

Another session brought together top executives from Bank of America, Richard Ellis (largest commercial developer in the world), and Marriott Hotels, among others. They sat on a panel with Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, which has started the nation’s first School of Sustainability. As he pointed out, much of what’s killing us (like synthetic chemicals) has been created at universities, and “we need to stop producing sustainable simpletons and take responsibility.” The university is installing enough solar power to go off the grid entirely; 33 LEED-certified buildings are either complete or in process of being built.

The big corporations, some anyway, are picking up the ball as well. The Ellis company has hired 400 LEED professionals. Marriott is building green prototypes at its Courtyard chain. Each executive, responding to a question about their personal commitment, spoke of things like driving hybrid cars, buying local produce, or taking out half the yard to cut down on water consumption. Small steps perhaps, but I found it encouraging that the “business culture” is showing signs of change. As the university president put it: “We either get this right, or we’re not going to be here.”

One aspect of getting it right is considering the need to integrate our water and energy standards. I had no idea, until I heard Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute speak, that when you run hot water for five minutes, you’ve used the same amount of an energy as an incandescent light-bulb burning for 14 hours. With the big picture, in the push toward using ethanol, nobody at first took into consideration the impact growing corn for biofuels would have on our food and water.

“We are desperately in need of new thinking about water,” Gleick said. A billion people on our planet have no access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion don’t have access to sanitation. That’s more people than lived on earth back in 1945. Now, as temperatures go up, more water is needed to grow the same amount of food. Precipitation patterns and storm frequencies are already changing. In the Midwest, two 1-in-500-year flood events have occurred within seven years. Australia is experiencing an unprecedented drought.

Did you know that, in the U.S., 49 percent of the water we use goes to cool power plants? Thirty-two percent is used for agriculture, 12 percent in residences and commercial buildings, and 7 percent in industry. However, Gleick cited a recent survey by the U.S. Geological Survey showing that it’s wrongly assumed that water and energy use rise exponentially as population and economy grows. In fact, we’ve become much more efficient already, using less water in America today than we did in 1975. Eighty million people have been added to our population without creating additional water demand. Think of flush toilets: not long ago, six gallons of water were used each time and now the standard is down to 1.6 gallons. Yet, at the same time, we still use potable water to flush and water our lawns. Homes are designed with a single set of pipes. We could do so much better with water implementation being built into design, and this would be relatively easy to achieve.

Is there the will to make the necessary changes? The most remarkable session I attended focused on Greensburg, Kansas, an amazing example of people coming together to make a difference. Greensburg is located about 100 miles west of Wichita, and 50 miles from the Oklahoma border. A wheat, corn, and milo growing town “In the middle of everywhere,” as Mayor Bob Dixon put it. Established in 1886 by Cannonball Green, its tourist attraction used to be the largest hand-dug well in the world. Like so many places in rural America, Greensburg was struggling. The kids were leaving after high school, and the population of 1,400 was increasingly elderly.

Then, on May 4, 2007, everything changed. A 17-mile-wide tornado with winds exceeding 200 miles an hour damaged or destroyed more than 90 percent of Greensburg’s structures, including all the public buildings. Eleven citizens were killed. The rest had to disperse, as there was no place for them to live. A week later, a meeting was called under a big tent in what used to be the city center, to see how many might want to try to rebuild. Five hundred people showed up. One choice was to rebuild quickly in the same old way, something a number of people wanted. But, as school superintendent Darin Hedrick said, the town had “been on a slow process toward extinction” – and what was to keep that from happening?

Enter Daniel Wallach, who lived about 50 miles away and, with his wife, had the idea to establish a non-profit: Greensburg Green-town. And that’s the direction they headed, toward becoming the “greenest” community in America. The 800 citizens who wanted to return all said “yes.” Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius (now the Obama Administration’s head of Health and Human Services) got behind it. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, eager for a success story after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, sent teams to facilitate talks with other federal and state agencies. The Department of Energy offered full-time technical support. A sustainable master plan was drawn up by May 2008, including a resolution that all buildings 14,000 square feet and larger had to be certified LEED-platinum, a first in the U.S.

Architectural students from the University of Kansas built an Art Center in Kansas City and trucked it out to Greensburg. The county courthouse, the hospital, the school are all LEED-gold. The John Deere dealership got help from the National Renewable Energy Lab to achieve Platinum status. Townspeople overcame their fear of outsiders telling them what to do, revitalizing the pioneer spirit that created the town in the first place. When Greensburg’s motto changed from “For Future Growth” to “For Future Generations,” Wallach said, “that’s when I knew this was about people and community.”

Greensburg is becoming an educational model, with Silo Eco-homes, LED street lights everywhere, native plantings, a downtown cistern. A community wind farm provides 100 percent renewable energy. The school has natural daylighting, and is a source of pride to the youngsters. All the new homes are 30 to 80 percent more efficient than code. In the process, 200 “green jobs” have been created. Not long ago, said Mayor Dixon, a tour bus showed up from the inner city of Kansas City, with elected officials saying “their tornado is poverty.” They wanted to learn a new way.

The mayor summed it all up like this: “We were called to a higher responsibility, a sense of community that came from losing everything you have. We learned that the only sustainable thing in life is your relationships with each other.”

(You can follow the ongoing story of Greensburg in a series on the Green Planet TV network).