There are plenty of companies and individuals that are cashing in on the green building market proliferation, but how is a designer, contractor, or home buyer supposed to decipher the information and separate greenwashing from legitimacy? Unquestionably, there is no shortage of information on the subject – right or wrong. Unfortunately, there are very few adequate resources that have mainstream appeal and effectively represent the sustainability movement from the various perspectives of all of the individuals that need to be involved.
I came up with this long list of rhetorical questions. My intention is to illustrate the disconnect that seems to be prevalent among industry professionals, design clients, the media, and the general public regarding sustainable building.
- How do you convey to a homeowner or design client that there is more to “green” building than Energy Star appliances, tankless water heaters, caulking, and solar panels; or that installing mechanical crawlspace ventilators and power attic fans or over-sizing HVAC equipment may not be the best idea from a building science perspective?
- How should industry professionals market their services and attempt to gain credibility in the sustainable building movement when very few individuals understand sustainability or recognize applicable professional credentials?
- How do you persuade buyers in a primarily developer driven market of new homes with initially impressive finishes and features, low initial costs, and a minimal focus on sustainability that it is worth the increased first cost to incorporate green building features that will provide improved health and comfort, decreased operations and maintenance costs, higher property appreciation, and a lower environmental impact?
- How do you convince realtors, buyers, and the general public that planned developments and sustainably built and traditionally detailed homes will create a sense of place and provide inherent value that is not seen in the abundant, convoluted developments of “starter castles” and “McMansions” that have defined urban sprawl, speculation, and affluence in recent years?
- How do you explain to a seasoned, and generally successful, builder that you have designed a home that will require them to implement advanced framing techniques, or Optimum Value Engineering, when they are unfamiliar with the concept and conventional wisdom tells them that more is better and that they should do it the way that it has always been done?
- How do we prove that smart, sustainable buildings must begin with site selection and building orientation and passive solar technologies?
- How do we expect designers, contractors, and homeowners to make informed decisions regarding green building techniques when there are so many conflicting details, competing opinions, and product misrepresentations?
- How do you convince a design firm, and the architects that have made it successful, that the future of residential design and construction will involve detailing projects in a new way, educating clients and contractors about new techniques and products, and paying what seems to be an exurbanite amount on continuing education and membership fees?
- How do we expect clients to evaluate and embrace certification programs – LEED, EarthCraft, NAHB Green Building Program, Energy Star, Builder’s Challenge, Green Advantage – when marketing is inadequate, multiple programs are diluting the process, many industry professionals are not properly educated, and government incentives incessantly change?
Finding the Right Answers
Presenting ideas that range from construction techniques and cost analysis to certification programs and the psychology of buying may collectively transform perceptions of the built environment and encourage individuals to be more proactive.
A comprehensive guide of best practices – a collaboration of all involved sectors – that provides information on environmental impact and global resource depletion, macro and micro effects of green building practices, implications of low-quality construction, sustainable planning and development, technical building science, standardized graphic detailing, design considerations, cost analysis, and marketing methodology that transcends design and construction and provides an all-inclusive portrayal is crucial.
While many of the techniques and philosophies that define the green building movement have been prevalent for years, or even centuries, they have been repressed and are often misunderstood; rectifying misrepresentations, clearing up conflicting information, and making the inherent benefits easily understandable would be very beneficial. By educating the public and fueling a client-driven movement, sustainable building will have a much greater reach.
Radical Changes Needed for “green” to go Mainstream
It is very important to understand the evolution of green building awareness, acceptance, and implementation and embrace the “every little bit helps” philosophy – if one homeowner lives in a zero-emission home and his/her neighbor has simply installed CFLs (Compact Flourescent Lightbulbs), they are both to be commended. However, to alleviate the global energy and climate conditions, to gain widespread acceptance, and to truly reshape our built environment a collaboration of all industry professionals is imperative; the way that homes are designed, built, and marketed must change radically in order for “green” to go mainstream. It is also important to note that sustainable design has to involve more than building techniques and product placement; a focus on community and smart design and preservation of historic structures and ideals must also have a place in the movement.
In a perfect world, architectural designers, engineers, preservation planners, town planners, contractors, tradespeople, product suppliers, codes officials, educators, realtors – and the list goes on – would be able to reference the same materials and share the common goal of transforming the building industry. In actuality, this may require significant time and training and the eventual inclusion of many green building practices into building codes and law, but getting closer to widespread understanding and acceptance is crucial.
Opening Up Discussion
My hope is that this posting will be successful in opening a dialog among industry experts and everyone interested in green building that will highlight publications, case studies, training opportunities, and other reference materials that are currently available. Optimistically, this may also raise awareness of the need for more comprehensive materials that convey the necessary interrelationship of green building, architectural design, historic preservation, urban design, marketing, construction, and sustainability, in general, that may help everyone understand how all of these individual entities may collectively transform the way that we all think about our homes.
This is written from my perspective as a residential architectural project designer, but the overriding theme applies across the board. Now is the time to take advantage of the depressed, and arguably recovering, market to positively shape our built environment and lessen our environmental impact.
Jed Peterson is a project designer at Allard Ward Architects, LLC in Nashville, TN. He is a LEED AP, Green Advantage Certified Practitioner, EarthCraft House Builder Training Attendee, and Associate AIA member.