I Invented Green Building

As I’m sure readers are sputtering in protest, I hasten to say this title is absurd, but perhaps it got your attention. Neither I nor anyone else “invented” green buiding. While it appears accurate that I did, indeed, coin the term “green building” in the early 1990s, the essence of green building is as old as the the existence of life on the planet, or close. As for the term, it came about during the development of an environmental rating system in Austin, where we had already been running a moderately successful energy rating program for new homes since 1984, called Austin Energy Star. This was, I might add, before the Environmental Protection Agency “appropriated” the [non-copyrighted] name “Energy Star” for its energy rating program.  

We had initiated, along with Pliny Fisk III and Gail Vittori of Max’s Pot (the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems), a rating system originally called the Eco-Home Program. It was an icon-based rating that covered a wide range of building-related topics, a comprehensive list designed to simplify a complex concept, and be palatable to an industry that moves notoriously slow in the realm of fundamental change. It followed the strategy of Energy Star to seek improvement using education and marketing to homebuyers, with the goal of pushing builders through market pressure. We were just testing the waters with Eco-Home when we received a call from Los Angeles alerting us that “Eco-Home” was already a program. It escapes me whether or not the name was registered, but we were asked to find another name for our new program. Returning from lunch with my colleague Lawrence Doxsey one afternoon, I offered the name “green building” as an option to “Eco-Home,” and then proposed it to Pliny and Gail during a program development meeting. That name stuck, in spite of the concern that “green” in the construction industry implied inexperience, not environmental awareness. Nevertheless, the new rating program was thenceforth called the Austin Green Builder Program. It was modified later to be the Austin Green Building program to cover the built environment in general. Austin Green Builder was the recipient of an award presented at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 before we even had a track record of ratings, based presumably on the mere idea of rating building with an environmental scale. 

“Green building” has, of course, been around for millennia. Much more out of practical necessity than environmental awareness, shelters have been built from local materials, biodegradable, and toxin-free (allegedly). The animal kingdom learned early on how to create shelter from the elements and predators from materials close at hand. Humans followed suit, and until relatively modern times used local materials harvested from the region within which they dwelled. There were exceptions along the way, of course, as those of considerable means began to import various enhancements from faraway lands. But, for the most part, the general population stuck with what was locally available and functional.

There are plenty of examples of green building prior to putting a name to it. The passive solar industry was, and continues to be, a green building activity. Ideally, the design of a building is matched with the climate where it sits, and capitalizes on solar exposure, weather patterns, and the like that are very specific to the building site. Before “passive solar” was a thing, structures were designed and built to maintain a certain degree of comfort in a specific region. Buildings in the humid regions of the world were open to breezes and had high ceilings. Mud homes on the hot plains of North America were dug into the ground to take advantage of cooler ground temperatures. In the southwest, native peoples understood well the position of the sun — as well as the benefits of thermal mass — when the cliff dwellings were built. Similar examples of climate-appropriate, inherently comfortable building characteristics abound.

Of course the natural world predates human understanding of shelter design. Take the example of termites in Africa. Structures built by these creatures can cool themselves through the porous nature of the structure itself, and the use of cooler ground temperatures. This is the ultimate “green building,” made exclusively from local materials, providing shelter and comfort, and eventually returning to the earth with virtually no impact. Zimbabwean architect Mick Pearce used this concept to design a “self-cooling” building in Harare, employing Biomimicry, the practice of finding solutions to human design challenges by mimicking Nature. The term “biomimicry” was popularized by Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

The bottom line is that green building is the polar opposite of a “new” concept, but launching a palatable version of it into the mainstream building industry created a shift that accelerated the introduction of more sustainable practices, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Final note: If anyone can find a documented earlier application of the term “green building” I am happy to give credit where credit is due. 

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