Green Building at the Tipping Point

About the author: Ken Sandler is Co-Chair of EPA’s Green Building Workgroup. He has worked for EPA since 1991 on sustainability issues including green building, recycling and indoor air quality.

At EPA, we strive to help people make the environment part of their everyday decisions. But how can we tell when we’re succeeding?

In truth, we often can’t. But sometimes the evidence of change is hard to miss.

Take green building (Web site or video) – making buildings and their sites better for the environment and health. It’s an issue on which I’ve worked for a decade, and I’m now leading efforts to establish a new EPA strategy on the subject.

Yet for years, I would draw blank stares when mentioning “green building” in conversation. Some people would even ask if it meant painting buildings green.

And then, suddenly, nearly everyone had heard of it. My Dad was sending me articles on green building from Newsweek. I would mention it at a barbecue and people would come up to me and say, yes, we’re looking to green our homes, tell us how!

Green building seems to have reached its tipping point. But how do such things happen? If there’s a formula to make sustainable practices bloom, we’d like to get our hands on it.

In fact, we’ve seen such phenomena before. Take recycling. In 1988, only 1,000 communities in America had curbside recycling. Just 8 years later, that number had leaped to 9,000. Why? One reason was that in 1989, responding to public concern, EPA set a goal for the US to recycle 25% of its municipal waste.

This helped set off a competition among states to set their own recycling goals. In response, systems were established to recycle a variety of materials. The engine of recycling got going – and keeps on humming.

With green building, the story is different. Since the early 1990s, EPA has successfully pushed voluntary programs covering many aspects of the built environment – energy, water, indoor air quality, products, waste, smart growth and more. Other groups began to put these pieces together in holistic, market-based programs.

The U.S. Green Building Council, a leading non-profit, has its own eye-popping numbers on the transformation they helped bring about. From 2000 to the present, their member organizations went from 570 to over 15,000, the number of buildings registering to use their LEED green building rating system from 45 to 21,000.

So does this mean our work is done? Hardly. The green building field has needs that range from research to stronger standards to more public education and partnerships. We plan to work with a wide variety of groups to help tackle all of these challenges.

But there are many advantages to reaching a tipping point. Those years of struggling in obscurity have given way to lots of new doors opening up. And it’s nice to get fewer blank stares at parties.