EPA’s Green Symphony

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.

Lots of people complain about government, and often for good reason. But few really dig deep to find the core problems with bureaucracies, and how to fix them.

Bureaucratic systems aim to solve problems by dividing these problems into steadily smaller pieces. This works, up to a point. The problem is that somebody has to make sure that all those individual instruments, while they’re playing their own pieces, also fit well into a broader symphony.

Here at EPA, we divide up problems at the broadest level into the issues of air, water, land & materials, and toxics & prevention. We then break them down into even finer levels of detail. This allows us to devote greater scrutiny to a whole host of issues, but the challenge is to ensure that, in the process, we don’t lose the big picture.

EPA’s Green Building Workgroup is one of our efforts to ensure that we’re all playing from the same sheet of music. Our agency has a lot of strong programs to deal with specific buildings issues, like Energy Star, WaterSense, Indoor Environments and Industrial Material Recycling. But a building is a whole system and if you only focus on one aspect of it, you may lose other opportunities or cause more problems. In the 1970s, when we started tightening buildings for energy efficiency, some of them starting having indoor air quality problems due to inadequate ventilation. We’ve since learned how to build and operate buildings that are both energy efficient and healthy.

Similarly, when we’re looking at buildings’ energy profiles, we need to take into account not only the energy used to power them, but also the energy used to manufacture building products, bring water to buildings, and convey and treat wastewater from them. Not to mention the energy we use to commute to and from buildings – which gets to an even larger issue, that buildings themselves are part of our development patterns – neighborhoods, towns, metropolitan areas. Here we get into the purview of another EPA program, Smart Growth, which focuses on how to design and manage communities that enhance the quality of life, health and nature.

These are all important programs, and the Green Building Workgroup works to coordinate them so that they all make great green music together. Please help us stay in tune by letting us know what EPA green building resources you would find most helpful.