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Green Building: The View from Here
Joel Makower, 18 Nov 06
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GreenBuild 2007, the U.S. Green Building Conference's annual shindig, has just ended in Denver, Colorado, with some 12,000 professionals traversing a jam-packed schedule on everything from daylighting to displaced communities.

With green building on the ascendancy, the conference was a heady, high-energy, target-rich networking opportunity . . . I guess. I don't really know -- I didn't go this year. After seven consecutive weeks of conference travel, my home was plenty green for me.

But I watched Greenbuild from afar, as a consumer of what seemed like an endless stream of green-building press releases. From where I sit -- in my home base, some 1,260-odd miles away from the conference site -- it appeared as if nearly all 12,000 conference attendees were touting some kind of product introduction, opinion poll, trends report, award presentation, partnership formation, organizational launch, or some other press-worthy announcement. And then, of course, there's the steady parade of releases about buildings achieving LEED certification. In a few cases, press releases took pains to alert the media simply that their products were "on display" at the event. Stop the presses!

I'm not complaining, mind you. I'm simply amazed. And a little bleary-eyed from poring over all this editorial handiwork.

Some of it seems worthy of sharing. To wit:

  • Autodesk, which produces the computer-aided design software used by nearly every architect these days, announced a partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council to "make sustainable design easier and more efficient through the use of technology." That represents a strong vote of confidence in the future of green building. As enabling tools become more widely available -- or, better yet, integrated into professionals' existing toolkits -- green practices are destined to become habits instead of hassles.

  • Another promising USGBC partnership involves Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit group that offers financial products and services that support affordable housing and community development. The USGBC-Enterprise collaboration will develop training programs to enable affordable housing developers to incorporate green building into their developments, and to create ways for them to participate in USGBC programs by cutting the costs of LEED certification and verification.

    This, too, is an encouraging trend. Affordable housing groups increasingly are adopting green-building techniques, constructing quality houses that are cheaper to build, cheaper to live in, with fewer environmental impacts. Moreover, given that Habitat for Humanity, to name one such group, is among the top-20 largest builders in the U.S., this will help move the needle on environmental home building overall.

  • McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry announced the latest batch of Cradle-to-Cradle certifications, recognizing products that achieve "environmentally-intelligent design." According to the MBDC Web site:

    This means using environmentally safe and healthy materials; design for material reutilization, such as recycling or composting; the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency; efficient use of water, and maximum water quality associated with production; and instituting strategies for social responsibility.

    Among this year's newest C2C awardees is Steelcase, for its Answer workstation system, along with PolyVision, a Steelcase subsidiary, for its whiteboards made of "e3 environmental ceramicsteel," which contains no heavy metals, VOCs, or other toxic materials. Another C2C recipient is Icestone, a durable surface for countertops and floors made from 100% recycled glass.

    And then there's the Vinyl Institute, which made a full-court-press this year to promote the "energy-saving, environmental and health benefits" of vinyl as a building product. The vinyl folks' efforts to make vinyl "green" is one of the more contentious issues in the green-building world. Many environmental activists opposed the use of vinyl products in LEED projects, noting that the production of PVC releases dioxin, a highly toxic persistent organic pollutant. The cult documentary (and 2002 Sundance Film Festival winner) Blue Vinyl focused on vinyl's environmental evils.

    A few years ago, when the U.S. Green Building Council proposed to award LEED credits for buildings that eliminate the use of vinyl altogether, the industry went on the offensive -- not merely to kill the proposal but to make the case that vinyl has strong environmental attributes. The ensuing debate nearly brought down the USGBC but, in the end, the vinyl industry prevailed. A USGBC task force found that "the available evidence does not support a conclusion that PVC is consistently worse than alternative materials on a life cycle environmental and health basis."

    Hardly a ringing endorsement, of course, but that hasn't stopped the vinyl industry from claiming greatness -- or, rather, greenness. A few snippits from its recent press releases:

    Heightened interest in vinyl as a preferred material for "green" buildings was one of the most significant developments at the three-day GreenBuild International Conference & Expo in Denver, according to industry officials. . . .

    "We were amazed at the traffic at our booth," said Vinyl Institute president Tim Burns. "More than ever before, architects, designers and builders came by to tell us of their increased interest in vinyl as a key factor in sustainability." . . .

    Architects and designers are increasingly finding that vinyl's infinite flexibility, durability, and well-established, energy-saving qualities represent one of the most effective ways of meeting the evolving standards for green buildings, noted Vinyl Institute president Tim Burns.

    And so it goes. The green-building industry is coming of age. And with that maturity comes growth, profitability -- and big, well-heeled players seeking to stake their claim. In doing so, they often find that there's enormous profit potential to be had by shaping the rules in their favor, never mind that doing so all but thwarts the environmental and social benefits intended in the first place.

    We've seen it in organics. We're seeing it in green buildings. We'll soon, I predict, be seeing even more of it as companies seek to claim "climate neutral" status.

    There's nothing wrong with big, well-heeled players coming in to these spaces, of course. We need their market clout and political standing to help make sustainability a standard operating procedure. But we need integrity, ethics, and responsibility. We need standards of excellence. And we need vigilance.

    That's the lesson I learned at this year's Greenbuild, even from more than a thousand miles away.

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    "there's enormous profit potential to be had by shaping the rules in their favor, never mind that doing so all but thwarts the environmental and social benefits intended in the first place."

    Joel, you wonder why we're not all enthusiastic supporters of laizssez-faire capitalism?

    Posted by: JN2 on 18 Nov 06

    I believe there's no such thing as laissez-faire capitalism, any more than there's such a thing as a state-planned economy. There's only Political Economy, a necessary fusion of markets and rules. Things get wacky when either gets out of balance. I think what JN2 and Joel are worried about is a perverse reinforcing-feedback loop: a "success-to-the-successful" cycle in which earnings within markets enable players to jigger the rules, allowing them more gains, allowing them to jigger the rules further, etc.

    There are 2 reinforcing loops at play in Green Building just now. One is a good thing: the success of early green buildings is driving demand for more green buildings, with an associated rise in Green Building skills. The other is worrisome, but can be countered by strong regulating feedback. The most important has to be a disconnect between market clout and rule-making clout. So far, the USGBC has (mostly) resisted attempts to corrupt its processes. Only participation and vigilance will ensure that they'll continue to do so.

    Posted by: David Foley on 18 Nov 06

    To augment your "remote" take on the yearly gathering of green building all-stars, the in-person experience was frenetic and inspiring. I would add that the USGBC seems to adapting nicely to the times. Let’s not miss these important announcements, aimed at improving results:

    All LEED-NC and CI certifications will now automatically be registered, for free, as LEED-EB projects. This should encourage more connections between design intent and operational performance, and it appears that the USGBC is actually interested in tracking real results. Here, here. In fact, the USGBC finally signed on with carbon targets. Following work done by Architecture 2030, AIA, and EPA, the USGBC wants to integrate 50 percent fossil fuel reductions in all LEED projects. The particulars of the proposal are unclear thus far, but there are plans for a member ballot in December.

    And LEED is raising the bar with another financial incentive—all projects that achieve a Platinum rating will be rebated the certification fee. In addition to promoting quality, the USGBC is also looking at volume with their Portfolio pilot program. They hope to work more effectively with large corporations and institutions for widespread and comprehensive impact, as some pilot participants tout millions of square footage. This can be especially useful for retailers that build essentially the same store over and over again.

    Posted by: Jared Silliker on 19 Nov 06

    The link to the conference schedule no longer points to the 2006 schedule or conf info. The site has already transformed into a call for participation in the 2007 version.

    Too bad--registration in next year's conf may have been compelling if we could have seen what happened, who participated, links to more info from the just-completed event.

    Posted by: Judi C. on 19 Nov 06

    Another key announcement that was made at the Denver conference was regarding USBGC's partnership with the Clinton Climate Initiative (see below).

    Also, you can see the Greenbuild 2006 site at, with many details from this year's conference.

    USGBC has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) to engage the largest cities in the world through the Large Cities Climate Leadership Group and provide them with the tools to become leaders in energy efficiency and green building strategies, which will result in the reduction of carbon emissions. USGBC will provide technical assistance and expertise in green building practices, engaging the World Green Building Council (WGBC), and mobilizing leading green building experts from around the globe with the goal of increasing the inventory of green buildings around the world.

    Ira Magaziner, chairman of the Clinton Climate Initiative spoke in more detail about the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI). As major cities produce 25% of greenhouse gases, CCI is engaging the 40 largest cities worldwide to reduce CO2 emissions by 70-80% in 10 years. CCI will focus on providing technical assistance and bargaining power to the participating cities, all with area populations of 3 million or more, employing the same model it has used to lower the price of AIDS medicine for poorer countries. The three key deliverable are:

    1) Improving green purchasing power by organizing a purchasing consortium for all cities.

    2) Mobilizing and deploying technical expertise in all the participating cities.

    3) Implementing common measurement tools in the areas of buildings, power and water; and transportation.

    Posted by: Jenny Thomas on 20 Nov 06

    Along with the greenwash of the Vinyl Institute there is the industry driven work of the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI). When the market moves industry will do it's best to shape that change. Rather than support a rigorous and verifiable certification regime, SFI promotes a non certification that does little or nothing to move industry practice toward sustainability or environmental best practices. If we want real change we must demand real change.

    The National Association of Home Builders also has a "low impact" green program called Green Building Initiative. Endless waves of green wash.

    I suggest that the "amazing traffic" touted by the shill at the Vinyl booth was more likely the "traffic of amazement" that they would show up at a green trade fair.

    The energy at Green Build was powerful and heartening: ideas whose time has come.

    Posted by: Jeffrey Swainhart on 20 Nov 06

    Great post altogether...I just wish this were not a forum for reprinting trade association press releases.

    Posted by: anonymous on 25 Nov 06

    Here is the comment Bill Walsh left regarding the same post over at Makower's blog ( Walsh is Founder & National Coordinator of Healthy Building Network: Advocating for Environmental Health and Justice where we work, live, and play ( and his comments bear repeating. (Other comments left on Makower's blog are likewise interesting.)

    I enjoyed "The View from Here" observations of GreenBuild but must correct one glaring inaccuracy. The US Green Building Council has not made a final determination about vinyl. Your posting quotes a draft document that has the words "Do Not Quote" printed, if memory serves, on every page. More to the point, this draft has almost certainly changed in response to the hundreds of pages of thoughtful comments submitted by not only environmentalists, but academics and experts in the field of life cycle assessment. According to the USGBC we can expect the final report soon.

    For the time being, the final word on vinyl building materials is to "AVOID" see, Australia's analog to the LEED program, Green Star, offers 2 credits for vinyl reduction in green buildings. Here in US, the Green Guide for Health Care, also cites vinyl reduction as a means of obtaining health-based green building credits.

    Companies as diverse as Kaiser-Permanente Health Care to Firestone Building Products (membrane roofs) have phased-out PVC as part of their move toward sustainability.

    The president of the Vinyl Institute might have detected "heightened interest" in vinyl while safely insulated from reality in his exhibition booth. Had he wandered the cavernous exhibition hall however, he would have seen that companies which manufacture both vinyl and non vinyl products -- flooring for example -- kept their vinyl line under wraps at GreenBuild.

    I understand that the nature of the of the original post was to use the Vinyl Institute’s press release, and others coming out of GreenBuild, to make a point distinct from their content. But you had to be there to see the real sign of the times posted on vendor booths up and down the convention aisles: "PVC Free," "Contains No PVC, " and perhaps the most hopeful "Not Just PVC Free" are selling points to the green building market.

    Posted by: Bill Walsh

    Posted by: anonymous on 25 Nov 06



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