A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
Here’s a topic I’ve brushed up against a few times but never dived into here: green building ratings. In a way I’ve been avoiding it because it’s a big and contentious topic, one that I hold conflicting feelings about.
To start, some facts. There are several programs for certifying buildings as various levels of “green,” considering, among other things, choice of site, construction process, materials (both geographic source and composition), and water and energy use. The biggest and best known major program is the LEED program run by the U.S. Green Building Council. There is also the International Living Building Institute’s Living Building Challenge, and the Europe-born Passivehaus standard, as well as a number of smaller scale, local or regional programs, including, here in Tucson, the City of Tucson Residential Green Building Rating Program and Pima County’s Net Zero Energy Standard. The programs vary in cost (ranging from free to thousands of dollars), how demanding they are, and how well recognized they are.
When I first started this project, none of this was on my radar. I’d heard of LEED (which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), but I thought it was really just for large institutional buildings. I’d never heard of the others.
Through lots of study, I ended up with two major questions.
Are standards like this a good thing?
One of the first things that became clear as I started learning is that there is range of views. The up-sides are perhaps more obvious: they bring attention to sustainable design, encourage it, and provide detailed guidance for the process. They bring some level of much-needed objectivity to claims that a project is “green.” And at least among certain types of institutions, they have created a competitive spirit and even a public shame component, where new buildings by universities, governments, and progressive companies now have to pay attention to these things for public relations reasons, if not out of ethics.
But there are also objections. For one, all of these standards are, for now, voluntary (although some entities require compliance for all new construction). The fear is that most building is still done as cheaply as possible, and that only mandatory standards will drive serious change in the building industry.
A related concern is that many of the standards – and LEED is a common target here – are not strict enough. They award accolades for buildings that may be a little better than standard, but are a long way from being truly environmentally sound. Even LEED’s highest rating, platinum, rewards buildings that ultimately have a net negative effect on the environment, and LEED’s lowest rating isn’t much progress at all from standard building. This might inhibit adoption of better practices, both by convincing the unwary that they are doing what needs to be done and by giving image-conscious institutions a way to earn “green cred” without making significant effort to reduce their impact. This is compounded by the fact that some systmems apply to buildings in all different climate zones, and thus reward and weight decisions without regard to what the priorities should be in a given area. (You get the same amount of credit for water conservation in Tucson that you get in Seattle.)
And of course, there are administrative problems. The processes can be arduous and expensive, the requirements unclear, the paperwork endless.
As for me, I think many of the objections are valid, but they’re no reason to abandon ship. At this stage, large-scale green building is still fairly new, and the best ways to accomplish it are still emerging. Small steps are still steps, and moving incrementally in the right direction is the only way we’ll ever shift our culture. Many of the objections levied at one standard are met by some different standard (for instance, the Living Building Challenge is an answer to the concern that LEED is too easy, and the development of localized standards resolves the question of priorities). Finally, they provide valuable guidance, with or without an audit of compliance. Reading through the requirements for a few systems was a great way for me to check my existing plans against the universe of considerations, and to refocus as needed.
Is this worth doing?
When I talk about these programs, people ask what the benefit is. You generally don’t get tax breaks for certification. Though institutions get valuable image points that can increase profits, donations and such, those considerations aren’t really in play for a small residential project. It might give a little boost to the resale value, but who knows what all this will mean in a few decades?
So far I can think of three main reasons. First, it could push the project to be even greener by forcing a few specific choices that I might otherwise not have have made. Second, it could turn the project into more of a tool for, for lack of a better word, evangelism. To the extent that the goals of this project include inspiring and educating others to make positive changes, the gold star could help. Finally, these programs are valuable, and if they are going to continue to exist, to spread and grow, people have to use them. Using their standards as guideposts may improve my project, but it won’t perpetuate the programs that created that resource.
The question first came up because David, the building scientist, observed that the project was fairly close to qualifying for some standards even without any targeted effort. It was only then that I learned about the local programs, which seem more doable, partly because they are slightly less demanding than, for instance, the Living Building Challenge, partly because they are tailored to what matters and what is possible here in Tucson, and partly because, being so much smaller and so much closer, they are likely to include less difficult red tape.
I haven’t decided yet what I’ll do. We might “score” the project as it is now on Tucson’s criteria and see where we are. But no matter what happens, learning all this has given me a new dose of much-needed optimism. There is an ever-growing community of people pursuing this goal, and I am part of it. I don’t have anyone else in my immediate circles who has undertaken something like this, so at times I’ve felt a little bit alone. I’ve been “the one who is building the sustainable house.” But now, if I start to feel lonesome, I have lots of things to remind me that I am part of a rising movement. It’s movement with doubts and disagreements and conflicting priorities and pitfalls, but don’t all true movements have these things? They come are a part of the passion that drives us forward.
Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment here.