The Inertia of Green Building

By Aaron Hersum

According to Newton’s First Law, an object will remain at rest or in its current motion unless acted upon by an external force. Listening to Grey Lee, Executive Director of the USGBC MA chapter, speak about how LEED certification is advancing sustainability in our built environment, I couldn’t help but think of the inertia of the sustainability movement as a whole. Green buildings are stellar examples of that inertia, and a strong force of positive change.

As someone not well versed with sustainability in the built environment, I thoroughly enjoyed what felt like a more corporeal subject than other topics in sustainability. Sitting in a building, I did not need much imagination to apply topics such as advocacy for PACE financing legislation and the Living Building Challenge to palpable surroundings.

The feasibility of creating sustainable energy supplies, production processes, etc. is an argument I often come across when promoting sustainability to critics. In these conversations, I always seek tangible examples with which to strengthen my argument, and the night’s speakers provided many from which to choose. One of my favorite’s came from Shawn Hesse, from emersion Design and owner of a syllabary of certifications. Shawn utilized the Bullit Center in Seattle, Washington to address objections to green construction, such as cost and logistical viability.

Bullitt

(Photo credit: Ben Benschneider)

The Bullit Center is the world’s first certified “Living Building.” To be considered a Living Building, a structure must, among other requirements, have a net zero or positive energy footprint, produce food for people, and be available for tours to promote further creation of living buildings. An overwhelming success, the Bullit Center overcame doubts to its viability, and currently operates at maximum occupancy, with high satisfaction ratings from workers in the building.

The Center is innovative in a number of ways. For example, to achieve a zero net energy footprint and derive its energy entirely from sources within the structure, the Bullit Center was designed to function at a much lower energy demand level. This design not only allowed the Center to fit all the necessary solar panels on its roof, but also significantly decreased the cost of operating the building.

Another powerful example of the significance of “greening” our built environment came from a recently published study by the Harvard School of Public Health. The study measured the cognitive function of workers in areas such as crisis response and strategy development while placed in buildings with average levels of indoor pollutants and CO2, and levels commensurate with “green” and “green+” standards. The Harvard study showed that, “cognitive performance scores for the participants who worked in the green+ environments were, on average, double those of participants who worked in conventional environments.” They discovered the largest improvements in crisis response (97% higher scores in green conditions and 131% higher in green+); strategy (183% and 288% higher); information usage (172% and 299% higher).[1]

The study provides tangible, factual evidence to strengthen the economic argument for sustainable buildings. In a corporate climate driven by the bottom line, increased worker effectiveness is a powerful tool with which we can chisel green and living buildings into corporate social responsibility.

Newton’s First Law states that an object will remain at rest or in its current motion unless acted upon by an external force. Well, it’s time to change our current motion. To do so requires us to get back to the fundamental aspect of sustainability- our relationships to each other, and to nature. As we rethink our approach to some of the largest and most lasting investments we make, in our infrastructure and buildings, let us remember that sustainability does not exist in steel and concrete, CSR reports, or figures in a ledger. It exists in our desire for better, in our refusal to accept “good enough.” The good news I took away from this evening is that we have the tools to achieve our goals. Now, let’s go out and build green into our relationships with each other.

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[1] Joseph G. Allen, Piers MacNaughton, Usha Satish, Suresh Santanam, Jose Vallarino, and John D. Spengler. (2015, October 26). Green office environments linked with higher cognitive function scores Retrieved from http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/green-office-environments-linked-with-higher-cognitive-function-scores/

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