Thursday, May 26, 2011

Should issues of worker health and safety fall beneath the purview of LEED?

A recent Cornell graduate, Ann Lui, argued for the human sustainability issues from a health and safety perspective. Her paper perked my interest because she made her case under the LEED principles. Since I am trying to pass my LEED and I am always one who wants to apply cross discipline principles, I am glad she did the ground work for me.

In her white paper, she wrote:

“While LEED attempts to stride forward in questions of occupant health, it stays stagnant in regards to worker safety. . . [It] only makes mention of worker safety in one credit (IEQ credit 3.1) which seems to be an afterthought.”

I think this is a prevalent problem in many professional certifications. Six Sigma has great potential to address sustainability problem, but its body of knowledge focuses on process improvement for mere profit gain. LEED focuses on green design and construction, successfully popularizing the environmental problem and adds incentives economically; it does nothing to shift our focus on equity. This lack of coherent and totality approach gives us yet another silo of earnest professionals who may end up being counterproductive to the sustainability movement.

“Once, green design was regarded as costly effort with no immediate payback, now LEED has become a prestigious certificate which can attract tenants, garner publicity, and even help get discounts from government agencies. It’s no secret that many owners and developers clamor to attain LEED certification whether or not they truly care about sustainability; this has been proven as LEED-rated buildings checked years later for performance frequently do not out perform their non-rated peers, and in some cases, significantly under-perform them.”

I haven’t looked into LEED’s community development path so I can’t say for sure that it is not moving in the right direction. But I agree with Lui that sustainability is more than just buying green, building a fashionable home for the rich. Sustainability is more than about eating a $10 salad and believing that you are making a difference.

“It is, after all, lives at stake. The MGM CityCenter in Las Vegas, an $8.5 billion dollar project constructed in 2008, includes six LEED gold rated buildings.[6] Yet six workers died during construction, a rash of tragic deaths that resulted in union picketing and workers refusing to continue on unsafe job sites.”

Sustainability is about the whole of human race and the many problems we face. Sustainability is a totality of experiences that confront old thinking and build new ones. As we move forward in our discovery of a new sustainable culture, let’s not revert back to a disembodied mentality of profit and gains. Let’s keep ecology, economy, and EQUALITY in mind and build something we can be proud to leave for our kids.

Ann Lui, a recent Cornell University graduate, is a Chicago-based writer and
designer. She is working at an architecture firm and has also written for Architect's Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine POV, and ArchNewsNow.

You can read the full text of Lui's paper here. 

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