After a brief awakening, skepticism about global warming is growing again. As compared with April 2008, fewer people now believe there's solid evidence the Earth is warming, according to a poll conducted in October by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Previous polls by other sources have indicated that consumers won't choose a greener product simply because it will help the planet, but they will do so if it promises to lower their energy bills or benefit their health.
Similarly, architects need a preponderance of reasons to spec green, beyond the mitzvahs of resource conservation and energy performance. They require functional excellence and intrinsic beauty as well. That's because architects answer to many, often conflicting, masters—their client, their building department, their conscience, and their muse. There's no single objective truth and no one, unimpugnable answer.
After a recent trip to the USGBC's Greenbuild convention, I feel the same way about purportedly green building products. I saw many beautiful products that touted sustainability, but when I pushed for more information I was often told that the component materials were sourced in the United States, shipped to China for fabrication, and then shipped back here for the end user. The original materials may well have roots in renewable resources, but lots of petroleum went into their distribution. Is that really better than chopping down a tree in the Pacific Northwest and chugging it by train to your local building center? Provided that Oregon forest is sustainably managed?
Certification programs can help narrow choices based on your top concerns. Worried about clear cutting, energy performance, and indoor air quality? They can help you find a window made from a responsible source, assembled without high-VOC adhesives, and comprising energy-efficient glazing. The trouble is, in selecting all of those boxes, you may have winnowed your windows down to something very expensive or ill-suited to your project. Where is the calculator that helps steer your thinking more holistically? Well, the Rocky Mountain Institute has recently introduced one —dubbed Green Footstep (http://greenfootstep.org)—that measures a building project's carbon footprint. The free tool is aligned with Edward Mazria's Architecture 2030 Challenge and the USGBC's LEED credit system.
Even with such guidance, architects still face the struggle of deciding among the best aesthetic choice, the best environmental spec, and the best fit for the overall budget. I attended a case study session at Greenbuild that underlined how far apart zero-carbon and beauty still are from each other—especially in colder climates. A well-known achiever in sustainable building showed his own house as an example of just how difficult the technical challenge is. And let's just say, it's not winning any design awards. For both reasons, it won't inspire any but the most diehard believers to follow suit. Even his wife and children wouldn't live with him until he made some compromises for human comfort.
Despite the shortcomings of his quest, he made a strong case for the “good, better, best” approach. Very few of us can emulate the best practices he was trying to achieve, but if all of us managed to hit the midpoint, the world would be better off indeed.
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