The Problem with “Green Building” Lists

As a facilities manager with over 20 years experience and a certified Sustainable Facilities Professional (SFP) I have a keen interest current sustainable building practices. A recent blurb from an IFMA electronic newsletter got my attention. The headline claimed to list the top “green building processes” for 2013, so I clicked to read more and here is what the author claims are the top sustainable building practices for 2013. [1]

Here are her top picks:

  1. Codes Implementation
  2. Cloud Management
  3. Green Building Disclosure
  4. High-efficient Buildings
  5. Water Conservation
  6. Environmental and Health Product Declarations
  7. Solar Power
  8. Carbon Reduction
  9. Green Retrofit
  10. Higher Standards

As I was researching each of these “top processes” I ran across a June article that listed the following top “eco-friendly trends in the construction business” for 2013:

  1. Solar Energy
  2. Bamboo Flooring
  3. Recycled materials
  4. Energy efficient processes
  5. Smaller structures
  6. Green roofing
  7. Increased emphasis on the “green” standard
  8. More efficient heating and cooling
  9. Increased use of natural resources
  10. Availability of more eco-friendly options

Any REFM professional with even a brief understanding of sustainability will be scratching their heads like I did after reading these lists. Anyone (think David Letterman) can come up with a Top-10 List of anything and with the right connections get even the most ridiculous lists published (or blog it, like me!).

Before assuming that a “top list” is valid, do a little research first. My analysis of these two lists revealed that these authors are no experts in sustainable buildings and are both quite confused about the subject as few of their items would make my “top ten” list of sustainable building practices for 2013

But before you read my critique below, I’d like you to jot down what you think are the top-ten sustainable building practices for 2013. How does your list compare to the two above? At the end of this article, I provide my own Top-10 sustainable building practices for 2013. And certainly, if you disagree with my assertions, please let me know!

Ready? Here we go!

Solar Energy / Power

This item made it into both lists, so I’ll discuss this one first. In an attempt to justify this item on his list, one of the authors stated that “solar energy panels” are increasingly being installed on the roof. While the trend for PV panels on residential buildings continues to climb (three times more panels were installed in 2012 than in 2009 and Q1-2013 is 33% higher than Q1-2012), I’m not seeing increases on commercial structures. Indeed, a graph produced by GTM Research – SEIA this year shows that “non-residential installations peaked in Q1-2012. In addition, I attended Intersolar North America this past July in San Francisco where over 90% of the companies that had a table at the job fair only installed photovoltaic panels on residential structures, mostly single-family homes. While I applaud the continued increase of PV on U.S. homes, the lack of increase in non-residential buildings is enough leave this off my top-10 list.

Image

There are many reasons why solar PV installations for commercial buildings are not currently rapidly increasing. The top reasons are:

  1. There is no mandate for them from governments or voters, only a few incentives
  2. The ROI is still too high for most commercial tenants (7 years is about the best, after rebates and tax credits). They are also usually too small to attract third-part investors.
  3. The conflicting goals of landlords and tenants – landlords don’t perceive that PV installations add value to their assets and don’t pay for energy (the tenant does). For tenants, the ROI is too long, usually longer than their lease.
  4. There is too much invested in the existing electrical infrastructure by giant utility companies which sees roof-top or dispersed PV as a threat to their world. A recent article in Bloomberg Business Week highlighted this dilemma.

Smaller structures / High-efficient Buildings

This item made both lists as well even though they were given different titles. After reading the single paragraph descriptions by both authors, it’s apparent they are both referring to single-family homes. They both make the argument that smaller homes are more sustainable because they use fewer materials and have less space to heat and cool. OK, I’ll buy that, but both miss critical points about homes.

First, multi-unit dwellings are more sustainable (easier to heat and cool) than single-family homes due to the shared walls and usually constructed better. Second, one should look at the type of construction and the building envelope. A large well-constructed and well-designed home can be much more efficient than a poorly designed and constructed small one. Lastly, one needs to look the larger picture – how are the homes “sited” and how they are connected to the rest of the community – availability of public transit, proximity of work, shopping, etc. Denser, in-fill development that is close to public transit, places of employment, shopping and entertainment are much more sustainable than single family houses in low density suburbs where residents need to rely much more on automobiles for transportation. This is why Manhattan or San Francisco residents on average live more sustainable lives than those in Silicon Valley.

Are we seeing this trend in commercial buildings? Hardly, as more and more old single-story ones are torn down for higher 5+ floor structures, at least in Silicon Valley. This is actually a good sustainable building trend, but only if employees in these new, denser, in-fill developments can easily commute by means other than single-occupant autos. No way this makes my list. Instead, I may add an opposite trend, Larger Structures to a future list if residential densification starts to increase.

Water Conservation

For the past 40 years that I have been in California, we have been seeking and implementing ways to continue to conserve more water. Are the wetter parts of the country catching up? The costs for water keep going up, so why not find ways, such as xeriscaping and low water usage fixtures (both becoming much more common in commercial facilities) to reduce use and waste? So, this one makes my list too.

Availability of more eco-friendly options / Environmental and Health Product Declarations

I agree that this is a popular trend; both list-makers had it on their lists (with different titles) and I include it on my list under Materials and Resource Management. Since there still is a lot of green-washing out there, you really need to do your homework to determine whether a product is truly sustainable and has minimally harmed the environment during the production, transportation, installation, usage and post-usage. Building materials such as paints, finishes, carpets, furniture as well as building materials all appear to be more sustainable than before, but with over 400 eco-labels throughout the world, how do you know?

One place to start is by requesting the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which can tell you about the product’s contents and hazardous materials. Another source is the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN), which is a nonprofit association of third-party environmental performance recognition, certification and labeling organizations. Other reputable eco certified sources are the ISEAL Alliance and Green Seal. When it comes to wood products, look for wood products that have been certified sustainable by the independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) rather than the industry-sponsored Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) which relies on self-certification rather than by third parties.

Bamboo Flooring

I like bamboo flooring – I really do, but is this truly a top-ten item? My experience is that carpet still rules both the home and commercial buildings.

At home, bamboo is just one of many sustainable options for home owners like me who want to avoid carpet. The other options are cork, linoleum (not made from vinyl, but the real stuff made from a concoction of linseed oil, cork dust, tree resins, wood flour, pigments and ground limestone), concrete, rubber, reclaimed hardwood among others.

In the workplace and commercial interiors, I see bamboo more and more, but carpet still rules. With most carpets now made of recyclable materials or natural ones (or a combination of both) it can qualify as a sustainable building material, leaving bamboo flooring off my list.

Energy efficient processes

The author who listed this claims that builders will continue to focus on making “eco-friendly structures” via “environmentally-friendly” processes. Honestly, what the heck does this mean? I would like to know which general contractors or builders are building more sustainably, what exactly are they doing and why.

This is too vague to make my list and I will contact my GC community to find out more. For example, are they using more recyclable materials, materials that can be reused (cradle to cradle) generating less waste, fewer hazardous materials, more items pre-manufactured in a factory or using technology, such as BIM?. The author gives us no clue.

Green Roofing

The author neglects to identify what they mean by Green Roofing – sustainable, non-toxic materials, installation practices that greatly reduce waste, PV installation or a “living roof” with plants? It’s my experience that landlords who lease out spaces in their buildings (rather than owner-occupiers) dominate the commercial building industry and they are slowly moving to sustainable practices, mostly because they need to comply with higher regulation requirements such as Title 24 in California.

For example, I am managing a complex re-roofing project for a client who leases the facility. The original roof is past end-of-life of the 25+ year old building and the owner has decided to replace the roof. They decided to install a CEC Title 24 compliant 60 mil, white thermoplastic single-ply (TPO) membrane, mechanically-fastened over a single layer of 1/4 inch fiberglass wrapped gypsum core board mechanically fastened to the plywood substrate. While the MSDS does not list any of the chemicals that are contained in this product as hazardous, it is a plastic material, rather than an organic or natural one. Its high reflectivity gives it a high Energy Star rating, which should help reduce future building energy costs. This type of roof is quite typical and rarely will a landlord who views a commercial building as an asset to be protected want to risk more exotic types of roofs such a living roof or even one with photovoltaic panels. OK, this one will make my list as Sustainable Roofing.

Increased emphasis on the “green” standard / Codes Implementation

I have no idea why both authors chose to include this item. One refers to something called “Eco-friendly practices” but then fails to define what that means. What is this mythical “green standard” that he alludes to? There is so much green-washing and definitions of sustainable building that one can’t honestly state that a standard exists. LEED is an attempt to promote sustainable construction, but there are many ways to achieve various levels of certification that one can’t say that there is a LEED standard. BREEM is a similar system.

I decided to combine the other author’s Code Implementation trend with the “green standard” item because she asserts that 2013 is the year that “municipalities had made official and enforceable” building codes that include “a new section for green buildings” Is she implying that contractors didn’t follow codes as well before this year or that prior to 2013 none could be considered sustainable practices? Who knows, as she failed to enlighten us with any examples.

In California, we will be implementing significant changes to Title 24 on January 1, 2014 that will greatly the improve energy efficiency of buildings, including lighting for commercial, residential and even parking structures. Parts of this may make my list next year, but not this year.

More efficient heating and cooling

One of the authors leads their paragraph under this section with the ridiculous statement: “Reducing energy consumption has always been a priority in the industry.” It’s not clear whether he is referring to the building construction or HVAC industry. He continues, claiming that the “industry’s” interest in offering more efficient buildings will “result in reducing construction and maintain costs”. Whichever industry he refers to, his statements are just plain false. Neither the construction/building or HVAC industries give a hoot about providing consumers with more efficient systems; they only care about maximizing profits like any good capitalist.

However, the author is on to something because it is true that buildings and the HVAC systems are becoming more efficient, but not because the industry wants to help building occupants. No, we can thank voters and consumers for mandating their governments to implement regulations, such as Title 24 in California, that force building industries (including HVAC and lighting) to innovate and produce more efficient building solutions. This one will make my list under Energy Efficiency.

Increased use of natural resources

I almost agree with this, but I’m not sure how true it is. The problem is that natural resources could mean anything. Oil and petro products are natural resources as are coal and other fossil fuels. Are we using more? Globally yes, but conservation and renewables are actually putting a dent in some, like coal. OK, this is not what the author meant because he claims that stone is what he meant by “natural resources” (I believe that he meant “natural materials”, but once again this poor soul is confused.). In any event, where does the building industry use stone except for counters and floors? It’s no longer an acceptable structural material or used widely for fireplaces where earthquakes and air pollution laws have largely banned them. With the rise of recyclable materials now being used in the building industry, I will keep this one off my list.

Cloud Management (green building automation)

What the author calls “Cloud Management” and “green building automation”, is really nothing more than expanding building automation systems and making them available from the internet. As a facility manager, I love being able to get into my building’s HVAC system remotely and the building automation market continues to grow adding items such as lighting, security and other data from building sensors to the remote FM’s dashboard. But is this really a green or sustainable practice or making more information available in real time to home owners and facility managers? This uncertainty keeps this one off my list.

Green Building Disclosure

The author claims that because of AB-32, we in California are now required to “disclose the actual green building performance to all new tenants and buyers”. Wrong. AB 32 does not pertain to Sustainable Building Performance standards, but authorizes the CACC to implement regulations to reduce California’s carbon footprint.

AB1103 mandates energy benchmarking and energy disclosure for non-residential buildings. AB1103 requires non-residential business owners to input energy consumption and other building data into the Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager System, which generates an energy efficiency rating for the building. I welcome this disclosure, but since it hasn’t been implemented yet (it’s been delayed from 2010 to next year), it’s off my list.

Carbon Reduction

OK, now we are back to initiatives like AB 32 that mandate that we find ways to reduce our carbon footprint. But according to the author who put this item on her list, carbon reduction is happening because of an unspecified “desire for net-zero buildings”. Really??! Since I am very interested in building designs that attempt to achieve net-zero goals, I have heard only a few projects in the U.S. that hope to achieve this goal, but I don’t know of a single landlord, tenant or homeowner that ever told me that net-zero is a goal for them.

So what is driving carbon reduction activities in the building trade? Consumers and voters for bills like AB 32, which was signed into law in 2006 with a goal for achieving 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) cap by the end of 2020. Thus, while some governments have taken steps to reduce its GHGs by mandating higher energy efficiency performance from buildings, I don’t consider this a top 2013 building trend but as a part of the Energy Efficiency trend on my list.

Green Retrofit

What is a Green Retrofit? As I noted with LEED for new construction, owners, investors and occupants of existing buildings can choose a number of ways to make their buildings “greener” via implementing more sustainable practices in the management and maintenance of their facilities as well as choosing more sustainable method when remodeling. I searched for data to support that “green retrofitting” is a top trend for 2013, but the best I could find was a graph from USGBC that shows the rate of increase for LEED projects is actually slowing. In any event, this item is too vague for my list.

Higher Standards

The author who placed this on her list writes, “companies are starting to respect the public” – what does this mean? Companies only care about four things: their customers (current & potential), employees, shareholders and suppliers. Unless “the public” are their customers, companies don’t care about them and whether they desire sustainable products. In my opinion, most of “the public” could care less about sustainable products; in these tough economic times they are generally more concerned about saving money and finding the best deal at places like Walmart, so scratch this one from my list.

So, about one fourth of the 2013 top trends from the two lists made it to my list. How many made yours? As promised, here is my list – do you agree more with mine? In my next article I will explain why each of these deserves to be in a top-10 building trend list.

My List

  1. Energy Efficiency
  2. Water Conservation
  3. Workplace Management
  4. Indoor Environmental Quality
  5. Waste Management
  6. Transportation
  7. Materials and Resources
  8. Sustainable Services
  9. Site Impact & Landscaping
  10. Sustainable Roofing


[1] Note – I hate the term “green” and unless I am quoting someone will substitute it with sustainable, which the United Nations defines and IFMA accepts as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem with “Green Building” Lists

  1. Ed, I really like this post. It really captures how naive the public is about “Green/sustainable” practices. I look forward to reading your next post.
    Cheers,
    Chris LaPlante

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