True Green

The construction universe is buzzing with green. Shorthand for environmentally conscious, resource sensitive, minimally polluting, and most of all energy efficient building and buildings, "green" is a well intentioned effort that reflects an unprecedented degree of sensitivity to, understanding of, and respect for the the natural environment. It's as if Americans, who for centuries were plodding across the landscape in heavy boots trampling everything in their path, suddenly looked around and saw that landscape was quickly becoming barren and realized it was time to take off the boots and lighten their steps. Human power to denude, blindly, while serving our own interests demonstrates both the extraordinarily powerful place in the evolutionary realm that we occupy and the counter power that nature, in its own plodding march, holds with its unalterable laws of equilibrium. The notion that we could in fact use up our planet has become real enough. It is the subject of much study and has found a resonant place in popular culture through films like Wall-E. That we've recognized the importance of environmental consciousness before a full blown crisis is a grand demonstration of the human capacity to harness thought in the service of survival.

Nowhere is the opportunity for environmental gain higher than in the stupendously resource intensive construction sector. Buildings are demonstrably inefficient and yet this quantifiability is the key to the solutions to the problem. If you know where the draft is coming from, you can plug the hole. Architects, with their intimate knowledge of products, methods, and systems necessarily have a duty to lead the charge towards a more balanced built environment. But each of the many players in the realm; owners, developers, regulators, lenders, product manufacturers, contractors, and end users share the responsibility.

The green atmosphere is, however, an unnecessarily foggy one. While many of the key solutions are simple, they are lost in the mists of both the status quo and corporate frenzy. America's building culture, formed in a time of apparently unlimited resources and inexpensive energy has led to a culture of waste. These luxuries led to a laissez-faire approach to building and an attitude of expectation that set the standards for both houses and commercial buildings well above the threshold of sustainability. It has taken only about a decade for this imbalance to become apparent. Yet entrenched thinking and fixed modes of construction (from material supply to construction methodology to building operation) have combined into formidable resistance to recognizably critical change. Add to this the typical owner's expectations of cost per unit of volume which leads to exceptionally large inefficient spaces. The barrier against change is reinforced by an information overload that drowns both the problems and real solutions in a sea of hype and marketing obfuscation.

In the next post we will look at the basic problems and some simple solutions home and building owners can learn from.