Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Trash is the New Green-by Lauren Campbell-Kong

Green building has been a growing industry for the past ten years and many companies and organizations recognize the long term benefits, ranging from environmental to health to financial benefits. Business buildings also have one of the largest environmental impacts on our planet, destroying green space and creating heat island effects where they are built. They account for 70% of electricity use in the United States, 40% of all energy use and generate 39% of all GHG emissions.[1]



Modern green building and construction has its roots in the USGBC, founded in 1998; in 2003 the council launched Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Today, LEED is at the epicenter of green building. It is widely accepted along the west coast of the United States where it made a huge impact in the construction industry.

We also saw other green building organizations and accreditations pop up in this area, some of which claim to be more rigorous than LEED. Some of the other organizations include: BREEM, Green Globes, and the Living Green Challenge started by the Cascadia Green Building Council.

Demographics on green building show that there is a high concentration of green buildings in the northwest region of the United States; there is also a more acceptance in the area in implementing green building designs.[2] This area has also seen a surge in new green building certifications, like the Living Green Challenge.

Currently the federal government requires all new federal buildings to be built to LEED standard, but according to a recent article, this might be changing. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has been researching other green building certification schemes including the afore-mentioned Living Green Challenge and Green Globes.

Green Globes, originating from the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), was created in 2000 and is operated by the Green Building Initiative here in the United States. It has recently been under scrutiny regarding its relationship with the lumber industry; some think that they aren’t tough enough with their requirements for wood use during green building. This offers us one of the many challenges facing green building initiatives: whose standard is the right one to follow? Who has the environment’s best interest at heart? Are the green standards being passed down the entire building process?

In addition to some of the problems associated with green building, such as a high upfront costs and the long term planning required to achieve “greenness,” there have been issues with project planning due to the difficulty in acquisition of green building materials.[3] Issues in the supply chain have been observed, especially on a global scale, and finding green suppliers is at the top of the list. The manufacturing and supply segments of the building chain have seen the largest changes in their operations than the other segments (contractor, subcontractor, designer). Going green in these sectors most often requires an overhaul in the way an organization obtains, tests, and profits from a resource and material. This suggests that green manufacturing is difficult to come by, and pricy when one does; yet it also demonstrates the necessity for such manufacturing to exist.

Contractors and subcontractors are hit hardest with the upfront financial costs and the delays that can be associated with green building.[4] Because they have to deal with the financial aspect from the bottom of the supply chain (manufacturing and supply) as well as the top (client), in addition to funding the necessary green building education needed to work in the green building industry, they take on the most burdens. Multiplied by the highly efficient time management needed for green building construction, contractors and sub-contractors don’t necessarily benefit financially from building green.

The long-term return on investment can sometimes jade the process of green building, leaving the question of ‘how effective is green building?’ looming, like a large elephant in a small room.

Catherine Mohr speaking during a TED conference about how ‘green’ is green building?

In her presentation she argues that green building doesn’t necessarily provide the energy savings and environmental impact relief that they claim. She considers operating energy use while building a green home and presents the amount of energy it took to tear down the ‘non-energy efficient’ home to start brand new. Even though materials were reused, rain water collection systems were installed, and FSC certified lumber was used, among other green construction materials, she found that it would still take her 4 years to gain back the energy that was used to tear down the old house; the same amount of energy she uses to drive each year. She ends her presentation stating that she used more energy flying to the Ted Talk than what she will be saving on her home; leaving the audience with the idea that some crucial behavioral changes can lend itself to a more positive environmental impact than green building.

While I can agree with her statement, behavioral changes are a necessity, her conclusion disturbs me. Yes, it did take a lot of energy use to build a green home, but what Mohr fails to address in her energy discussion are some key elements in addressing our environmental impact such as carbon emissions.

According to the EPA, residential homes account for 40% of an individual’s carbon footprint (much more than most individual’s driving) and 20% of our nation’s greenhouse gases come from residential homes (far more than an airplane ride) and while energy use is important in addressing our environmental problems, the sustainability movement takes a much more holistic approach to our livelihood; especially when we, as individuals, are given the opportunity to build a green home, not because the industry says it’s cool and all the rage, but because we want to.

It is amazing what human ingenuity can produce when we are given free reign over our homes.

Take for example, the House of Trash in Philo, Ohio. It is made entirely of trash and is one of the greenest buildings in the country. This home isn’t a LEED certified home, it isn’t a Green Globe initiative, it isn’t a Living Green Challenge; it is a couple of people, living in the Midwest, who want to make their impact on this planet a little smaller. They reused barn wood, tires, and plastic and glass bottles in the process. The energy that was put into creating and maintaining this home is human energy and they have diverted thousands of pounds of trash from a landfill and used it to their advantage; because they used post-consumed materials, they obviously did not have the supply chain issues that have been witnessed in the green building industry.

There was no demolition of a home, no expensive HVAC system installed, no wind turbines; just hard work and several pounds of trash. The ingenuity of Annie and Jay Warmke is a statement to the green building initiative and the green washing of the corporate industry. As a certified LEED GA, I can say that I appreciate what the USGBC has done for our construction industry, but as an environmentalist I must applaud the Warmke’s for using their creativity to produce a home that puts the green building industry to shame.





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[1] J. Cidell, Building Green: The emerging geography of LEED certified buildings and professionals, (2009). See also The Professional Geographer, 61,(2). p. 200-15, USGBC, (2011).

[2] Id.

[3] P. X. W. Zou, & P. Couani, Managing Risks in Green Building Supply Chain Architectural Engineering and Design Management, 8. p. 143-158 (2012).

[4] Id. 

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