Green Building: Moving In with Nature

Early Days

The green building movement began long before the term was embraced by the mainstream building industry. It would not be entirely off-base to say that we’ve spent much of our time since humans went upright moving away from green building, at least in the last couple hundred years or so. It’s only been very recently, as the consequences of virtually every human action become more prominent, that we have begun to reconsider the impact of our buildings on the global fabric. Living in a cave is not my family’s idea of nirvana, but you have to admit, caves themselves don’t impact deforestation of the rain forests. Heating them, however… but I digress. The point is that we’ve “improved” shelter to where we are today, living in very large spaces that are constructed from materials – natural and not-so-much – that have enormous consequences in the overall health of the planet and, more specifically, humans. You remember “The Planet.” That’s where we live and are pretty much stuck with as a permanent nest. The green building movement was merely an attempt to frame the conversation of the environmental (global and personal) impact of our buildings and begin to promote another path to comfortable shelter. The tenets of green building have always been around. Putting a name to it came in the early 1990s in Austin, Texas.

As I reminisced for the Thirty-fifth Anniversary of Austin’s Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems: “Life throws a lot of curves, but every once in a while, you’re in the zone and make a connection that’s a game-changer. For me, that connection evolved from a chance meeting with Pliny Fisk III at the [American Solar Energy Society] Passive Solar Conference in Portland in 1987. As manager of the City of Austin’s Energy Star Program I had been aware of Pliny’s and Gail Vittori’s Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (colloquially known as Max’s Pot), but it took a trip to Portland to get us in the same room. Pliny and Gail’s work with building systems was (and still is) intriguing and relevant, and when we were looking for grant proposal ideas in 1989, I called the Center. During that conversation, Gail suggested adding an environmental component to the Austin Energy Star program, a new construction program already having some success in drawing mainstream builders to the table to discuss pushing the energy efficiency envelope. The proposal was accepted, and the Center was engaged to flesh out the details. Months later as we developed the program in a comfortable corner of Max’s Pot, the Austin Eco-Home Program became the Austin Green Builder Program, the first program in the country to bring mainstream awareness to the broad environmental and energy impact of buildings. The program was recognized at the first ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro and became a launch pad for programs around the world. The elements of green building are not new, nor were they in 1989, but the Austin Green Builder Program and those that followed accelerated what is a phenomenal shift in the building industry. Pliny and Gail were at its roots, and they continue to blossom in their endless passion for sensible shelter.”

— Excerpt from the 35th Anniversary of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems

The term “green building” came from a conversation I had with one of the program’s chief developers, Laurence Doxsey. We had originally called the program the “Eco-Home” program, but as the effort became public we were informed that folks from Los Angeles had actually registered that name and asked us to reconsider the title. Later, during one of many informal program development meetings at the Center, I tossed out, “What about green building?” (this conversation was recalled during a video interview with Pliny Fisk III and Gail Vittori). To my knowledge, this is the first time “green” was formally attached to the word “building.” It made sense to our treehugger constituency, but there was resistance early on in the building industry to the term “green,” as it implied “inexperienced” more than a reference to environmental sensitivity. We stuck with it nonetheless.

The name was by no means the greatest hurdle to presenting this concept to an industry that is slow to adopt change in materials, technique or design. That reticence is understandable. A builder is in a risky business, and the margins for error are narrow, especially in a tight market. We had some success with Austin Energy Star in encouraging more energy efficiency features, and there was a direct and immediate benefit for the homeowner in energy cost savings. But though the energy component of green building is overwhelmingly impactful in the big picture, the environmental impact of building was a harder sell. Still, the “softer” benefits could be quantified. Using less toxic materials and finishes related to cleaner indoor air and health; more durable materials reduced landfill impacts, but also required less maintenance and less frequent replacement by the homeowner; water conservation struck a chord, not only cost-wise, but also because of water restrictions in communities experiencing explosive growth and periodic drought conditions. There were and are very common sense reasons to “go green,” particularly if that path leads to a reduction in the human impact on planetary systems.

Technological Wizardry

The energy impact of buildings alone is at least forty percent of the total energy consumption worldwide and more than two-thirds of the electricity use in the United States, so reducing that component is a good place to start. This is where technology has perhaps the most direct application. Modern central heating and cooling systems go back to the 18th and 19th Centuries, but the roots go back even further, to hypocausts in Ancient Greece. Advances in HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) have greatly improved the efficiency (more heated or cooled air per unit of energy) of the machines that keep us comfortable. Sophisticated controls have supplanted the simple thermostats of days past with virtually endless setting options to fit the modern lifestyle. Now wireless technology allows me to adjust the inside temperature in our Colorado home from Italy, or, more practically, from the road returning from a long road trip. A friend, whose penchant for gadgetry exceeds that of most everyone else, operates his home comfort systems with voice-activated controls, recently tied to one of the growing home Artificial Intelligence (AI) accessories. “Computer. Lower the west shades, start the coffee and have Fido bring me my slippers.” I haven’t actually witnessed a canine response to an electronic command, but I have no doubt it’s already happening.

The convenience of voice-activated appliances is finding its way into the average home, and while high-tech operation hasn’t grabbed the typical homeowner if it involves reading an instruction manual, the advance of technology continues. Yet, even the “basic” setback thermostat that adjusts temperatures for various living patterns and times of day confounds many, who end up setting the baffling thing on one temperature anyway. To the extent devices can be “plug and play,” occupants could not care less about how it works, as long as it does; I suppose that has been the case throughout history. One interesting phenomenon related to higher efficiency HVAC – I feel certain someone has put a term to it – is that occupants of a building may use the same amount of energy, or more, because they can bump the temperatures to fit their comfort range of a half degree Fahrenheit. In other words, instead of adjusting their clothing to save monthly on energy bills, they adjust their thermostat to their liking. So, in essence, technological “improvement” doesn’t necessarily save energy, even if it improves the human experience.

K.I.S.S.

Full disclosure, I began my career in energy efficiency and renewable energy with the firm belief that simple is better. Passive solar design fits that narrative. One way to reduce the consumption, and cost, of energy is to build or upgrade a home to a level of “inherent comfort.” This means living in a building that can stay relatively comfortable for extended periods without adding heat or air conditioning. This used to be the only option, but human innovation and invention will not be denied, and as we became smarter and, yes, pickier, our acceptable comfort range went from whatever kept us alive to within a degree of the average temperature in, say, San Diego. One can get a sense for an inherently comfortable home design by looking at what people built two-hundred years ago, before central heat and air conditioning. Houses in New England didn’t look like houses in New Mexico, for a good reason. For one thing, they paid attention to the climate in which they resided, and to where the sun was at any given point in the day.

This sun-location thing has been lost on most folks these days. To wit, back when I made a minimal living as a musician, my waking hours were considerably later than they are these days. Returning from a gig at three in the morning, I became aware of daylight sometime around noon, which was also about the time the Newlywed Game came on. OK, I don’t take any pride in admitting that this was a regular part of my day back then, but one episode stuck with me, and was useful later on when building design was an element of my career. The question posed to the panel was this: “In your neighborhood, does the sun come up in the east, the west, the north or the south?” Remarkably – and I really mean that – one couple got it right, but only after they considered and discussed the location of their bedroom. The other three couples were apparently not from around here. Meaning Earth. The point, of course, is that few actually consider the location of the sun’s path when choosing a home or commercial building location and design, even though that one consideration has a tremendous impact on the cost and comfort of that building and, by the way, is really hard to change once the building is up. Were we to recapture the relationship with Nature and natural systems that our forebearers had out of pure survival, we could drastically reduce the need to suck resources from the planet just to be able to live within a ridiculously narrow band of comfort. Green building encourages this component of buildings, passive design, but it really should be fundamental to all buildings going forward. It isn’t, and is not likely to be anytime soon.

Until we start to realign our building sense (for cities, neighborhoods and structures) to natural phenomena, technology has stepped in to help adjust. I’ve mentioned HVAC; glass (fenestration) technology can minimize the negative effects of windows placed in the very worst places, like a wall of west-facing glass for the view in Las Vegas. LEDs (light-emitting diodes)  have rapidly eclipsed CFLs (compact Fluorescent Lamps), which replaced incandescent bulbs, for most lighting applications. More on the wonders of technology, and the “inherently comfortable home,” in later posts.

 

Green building as part of the industry narrative is now over a quarter of a century old. It has permeated all aspects of the built environment from design to materials, and this was the intention of the developers of the program from the early 1990s. As with any major shift (and I believe green building qualifies) there have been mistakes and lessons, but the trend toward better alignment with natural systems makes practical and ethical sense. Honestly, the industry may have gone that direction out of necessity eventually. We just accelerated it. And “green building” was just the beginning of the conversation.