green building

Green Building Blog: The Meaning of Green

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. Find out more about EPA’s green building programs at www.epa.gov/greenbuilding.

Photo of Ken Sandler standing on mountainSo what does it really mean to be green?

That may sound like one of those dreaded philosophical questions you have to ask of a white-bearded guru sitting cross-legged and barefoot on a mountaintop.

But as green becomes the hottest marketing term around, you do have to ask what it means. As everyone from your dry-cleaner to your gas station tries to convince you that they’re the greenest, how do you know who is and who isn’t?

The Federal Trade Commission, which monitors marketing claims, is looking into this issue as it updates its “Green Guides” . But the answers are not always as straightforward as we might like.

In my area of expertise, green building, EPA is considering how we can help this field better define itself. Here are a few of the questions we’re grappling with:

1) Essential components: The popular green building rating systems in the marketplace provide great flexibility to trade off among many strategies, from low-flow toilets to low-emitting paints. But are there any elements so essential that they shouldn’t be traded off – like energy efficiency?
2) Levels of green: A related question is how far you need to go to be called green – for instance, if a company changes its light bulbs to more efficient compact fluorescents, but does nothing to improve its inefficient heating and cooling system – how green can it really claim to be?
3) Lifecycle impacts: One of the most complicated exercises in the sustainability field is life cycle analysis (LCA). An LCA is the Herculean task of comparing the environmental and health impacts of a product throughout its “life” – say, from when trees are cut down or metals mined, through manufacturing and use, to ultimate disposal. An incredible challenge – and yet how can we know what’s truly greenest until we figure out how to do this type of analysis effectively?
4) Maintaining green: Finally, how long will the building or product remain green, and what maintenance will it need to keep that nice green glow from fading?

Maybe some day all of the answers will be easy to find. In the meantime, when you hear green claims, make sure to ask a lot of questions, compare and contrast products, and request as much background information as possible.

But please don’t attempt to climb any treacherous mountains looking for green gurus. No need, actually – these days, most gurus have email.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Low Tech/High Tech

About the author: An aspiring amateur plumber, Aaron Ferster is the science writer-editor for EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

A few weeks ago my wife and I met with one of Johns Hopkins’ top surgeons to discuss a second cochlear implant (CI) for our youngest daughter, who is deaf. She had CI surgery for one ear six years ago, and there are significant potential benefits in getting one for her other ear. The doctor talked about improvements to surgical techniques, new sound processing strategies, and advances to the latest generation of CIs, which truly represent the height of bio-technology.

After the appointment we drove home and I spent the afternoon on something with a decidedly lower gee-whiz factor: draining and removing the bathroom toilet so I could turn it sideways, then upside down so a small scissors that had accidently dropped in would wind its way through the traps and twists and drop out. It worked. But perhaps more importantly, it gave me something to do while waiting for the doctor’s office to call with a surgery date. All in all, not a bad day.

I had another good day thinking about the astounding diversity of technology that surrounds us while attending a session entitled “Green Building Research Needs and the Promise of New Technology” at this year’s EPA Science Forum. The session was chaired by Ken Sandler, who wrote about his efforts to establish a new EPA strategy for green buildings on Greenversations. The panel discussion included exemplary case studies of the latest research and design in lowering a building’s environmental footprint when energy savings and sustainability are priorities.

The talk was inspiring, and like anyone with energy bills to pay, I’m eager to see the advent of low-impact, carbon-neutral homes and office buildings complete with the latest real time information technology guiding energy consumption choices. But like turning the toilet upside down while waiting for the phone to ring, I’d like something I can do today while the green building revolution continues to gathers steam. Luckily, a quick web search reveals a bunch (including a few excellent ones that have already been covered on this blog), including: installing compact florescent light bulbs, greenscaping the yard, biking to work, making a rain barrel, buying energy star appliances, and planting shade trees.

Now if only someone would invent scissors that dissolve in water. Oh well.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The New Ball Game

About the author: Jeff Maurer manages Web content and does communications work for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. He has been with EPA since 2005.

photo of Jeff Maurer at Wrigley FieldBefore I moved to DC, I lived next to Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. I love Wrigley Field – it’s like stepping back in time. The scoreboard is still manually operated. There are no billboards for advertising. They don’t play rock music over the PA system, though they do play polka music on the pipe organ during rain delays. You can still buy standing-room tickets at Wrigley, which is good because the seats were apparently installed when the average American was three feet tall and suffered from tapeworms.

Compare that to recently-completed Nationals Park here in DC. Nationals Park boasts 41,888 American-sized seats (my description, not theirs), a 4,500 square foot high-definition scoreboard, and every other amenity you could possibly imagine. The fan experience is great, though their music choices tend to favor Fergie and Fall Out Boy, with surprisingly little polka.

It just goes to show how much attitudes and planning have changed. Fans in 2008 expect a lot when they come to a ballpark. They expect quality food. They expect not to sit behind a post. They expect to do the chicken dance (why?). As a result, the designers of Nationals Park had to consider a lot more than did the designers of Wrigley Field.

And finally – finally! – it seems that environmental impact is becoming a major consideration. Nationals Park is the first LEED-certified ballpark Exit EPA Disclaimer in Major League Baseball. It has several “green” features, including a plant-covered roof that reduces water runoff, an elaborate water filtration system, high-efficiency lighting, and low-flow plumbing fixtures. Compare that to Wrigley Field, which barely features plumbing.

I’m glad that ballpark designers – and designers in general – are starting to figure this out. People in 1914 – the year Wrigley was built – didn’t care too much about the environment, but people in 2008 do. For example, people at public events expect to be able to recycle their empty bottles. I know this because EPA’s Recycle on the Go initiative – which encourages recycling at public events – has held several well-received events in public spaces, including at the 2006 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

Attitudes and expectations change over time, sometimes for better (e.g., ballparks should have more than one bathroom), sometimes for worse (e.g., Lady Lumps is acceptable music during a pitching change). I think the message is clear: in 2008, the public expects environmentally-friendly buildings and spaces.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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