Trends: Sustainability—From Trend to Standard

Jan. 1, 2006
By Robert Nieminen
As the green design movement matures, its adoption is taking root in both public and private sectors, and gradually shaping the future of the industry.

In the past five years, the sustainable design movement has experienced significant growth and acceptance in the mainstream AEC industry. No longer just a buzz word, green design is more than an alternative to traditional models for design firms and product manufacturers; it is a viable business model that is making significant inroads on its way to becoming the norm rather than the exception in the built environment.

While the trend is still in its infancy and adulthood is yet a long way off, significant progress has been made. In 1999, for example, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) consisted of just under 300 members. That number has risen to 5,700 as of November 2005, and there are 21,600 LEED-accredited professionals in North America. Further, under all the LEED Rating Systems, there are currently 362 total projects certified and 2775 registered—with many more to come.

However, USGBC notes that LEED-registered projects accounted for under half a percent of buildings constructed in the U.S. in 2000, and a little over 3.5 percent in 2003. Critics argue those figures suggest that LEED has a very long way to go in revolutionizing the built environment. Countering the argument is the fact that Federal departments and agencies (i.e., GSA) and state and local governments (i.e., California, Chicago, Seattle) are adopting LEED as a guideline or requirement for their own projects, and tax breaks and other LEED incentives are being offered around the U.S. and the world. For example, LEED projects can be found in about 20 countries, and CanadaGBC and IndiaGBC have licensed LEED from the USGBC for their own use through an agreement that allows them to modify it to suit local conditions.

That isn't to say that LEED doesn't have its own set of problems and challenges to overcome. A recurring complaint about the LEED rating system is the expense of certification. The USGBC's fees for registration can range anywhere from $750 to $3,750, and certification runs from $1,500 to $7,500, depending on the size of the project. The larger expenses come in the form of energy modeling, commissioning and other requirements of certification which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, according to architects and developers. Critics also point to the fact that the basic LEED rating isn't stringent enough and doesn't guarantee a building will achieve energy efficiency, in large part because the point system doesn't require it at this time.

However, according to USGBC officials, the cost will continue to be driven down as the process is streamlined. For example, to expedite the certification of registered projects—currently there's about a three-year lag—the USGBC is looking at phased reviews, a revised auditing scheme, and volume certification for builders, such as retailers, with multiple sites. Most recently at GreenBuild, the organization announced a partnership with Adobe Systems that seeks to significantly streamline critical forms-based processes for USGBC members and LEED users.

"Organizations will be able to submit project documentation electronically, get early feedback that their certification goals are on track, and easily access and update their project information throughout the building process," said USGBC president Rick Fedrizzi. As a result, USGBC expects to dramatically reduce the overall cost of LEED certification for project teams and accelerate the industry's ability to adopt green building practices.

Meanwhile, to help speed global transformation, councils from eight nations in 2002 founded the WorldGBC, a federation of councils "working to transform the global property industry towards sustainability," according to its vision statement. Within this framework, member councils (as of June 2005, member countries include: Australia, Canada, India, Mexico, Taiwan and the U.S.) are working to share knowledge, resources and common principles, and to support startup councils. Clearly, a broader, more thorough discussion is needed, and to facilitate it, a multi-national panel will be assembled at EnvironDesign10 on April 24 to 27 (www.environ to discuss global standards and the future of sustainable design practices.

Another sign that green building practices are on the rise is evidenced by a recent study by the International Facility Management Association which found that 70 percent of respondents to the survey reported implementing green concepts within their organization's facility. Using natural daylight, purchasing recycled office products, water conservation, participation in incentive programs offered by local utilities or state/provincial agencies, and adding environmental criteria to the vendor and product selection process topped the list of the most common green building practices.

Other steps in place or considered pending implementation in the next two years include lighting fixture retrofits, light sensors, employee education programs, and Energy Star, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's program that measures current energy performance, sets goals, tracks savings, and rewards improvements. This energy performance rating system is already in place at more than 21,000 buildings across the country.

Reaping The Benefits"The rewards of green building, like improved employee health, cost savings and environmental responsibility, have really started to emerge, so we were not surprised that more facility managers are adopting green building policies now," said Shari Epstein, associate director of research for IFMA.

In her article, "The Economics of Green Design," Kirsten Childs, ASID notes that with contemporary technology, it is relatively simple both to achieve and quantify energy conservation in buildings. "Today's designers also have the means to manipulate multiple options—building orientation, glazing, thermal insulation, lighting systems, etc.—and to specify any number of readily available, enhanced building materials and systems to achieve energy savings in the magnitude of 40 to 75 percent over code compliance.

"This reduction in energy use also allows savings in equipment costs because less equipment, ductwork, piping, etc. are needed," Childs adds.

Despite the obvious benefits associated with sustainable design, clients still may be reluctant to adopt green practices when considering up-front costs. However, as Joseph J. Romm of Kodansha International notes, the first cost of commercial building combined with the maintenance and operations costs over a 30-year span are less than 10 percent of the total lifetime costs of a building, while personnel costs equal roughly 92 percent. "From this perspective," he says, "keeping the occupants healthy and productive makes strong business sense."

In a speech at the ASID Interiors '04 conference, Interface founder and chairman Ray Anderson asks some probing questions that reveal the true case for sustainability:

"What is the business case for destroying the basic infrastructure of civilization, the natural systems upon which everything depends, including the economy? For, what economy can even exist without air, water, materials, energy, food, plus climate regulation, pollination, waste processing, water purification and distribution (the hydrologic cycle), soil creation, insect control—all supplied by nature and her natural systems—and without any of which there would be no economy in the first place? How can it be good business to destroy these?"

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