A discussion of the future of sustainable building.

Expert Advice- Greening the Building Supply Chain

Industry pros answer questions about the future
of sustainable design

MAY/JUNE 2010

On March 11, architects, builders and designers gathered for the most recent installment of For the Greener Good, a lecture series at DC’s National Building Museum. Titled “Greening the Supply Chain,” the event shed light on the movement towards sustainable building and design. The moderator was Ken Langer, president of the Architectural Energy Corporation. Panelists included Gwen Davidow, director of corporate programs for the World Environment Center; Kirsten Richie, director of sustainability for Gensler’s Asia-Pacific region; and Nadav Malin, vice president of publishing company BuildingGreen, LLC.

While there are still more questions than answers revolving around the topic of sustainability today, the following insights should help homeowners make wiser choices as they embark on their own building or remodeling projects.

How do we define green building?

Richie: There are five key concepts in green building:
1. Less space, less stuff used more intensively.
2. Continually innovate for carbon-neutrality; get the CO2 out of our building stock.
3. Build at plant, assemble at job site. Forty percent of construction waste comes from the building environment.
4. Sustainability doesn’t equal austerity. It can be beautiful.
5. If I don’t ask, they won’t tell me. Be sure to ask for information on materials.

How can you tell what products are really green?

Malin: It’s not just about choosing the right product; it’s about how you use it. For example, recycled rubber flooring is great outdoors or in a well-ventilated space. But even though it’s great from a waste-management standpoint, some of that recycled rubber off-gasses toxic stuff. So it’s best to have a level of information to allow you to make value judgments based on your own priorities. Our publication, GreenSpec, is a vetted directory of products for sustainability. You can assess products in it by category.

If the product includes information, can’t the consumer make a choice based on that information, like labels on food?

Malin: No, there has to be some sort of third-party verification to be sure the information is correct. When I make a food choice it affects me. When I made a green choice it affects everybody.

What avenues can we as consumers pursue to help the process?

Malin: Stay local when you can. If I’m buying wood locally I can see how those trees are harvested, I can see the impact on the ecosystem. If not, I don’t have a connection to it.

Some people don’t want to be experts. They just want to do the right thing. How can we do this without going crazy?

Davidow: We need certification of a baseline so that there’s regulation in the industry. The goal should be that the consumer assumes a basic level of green in a product. But the devil is in the details—how do we get there?

Is there a push for manufacturers to build on-site, in clustered assembly sites that minimize waste and carbon footprints?

Davidow: Yes, and it’s a great way to do it, but it will take government incentives to create an environment with the level of encouragement where it really happens.

Is the third-party LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification program driving this movement into greener products more than any other institutional factor?

Richie: Clearly, LEED has done a phenomenal job building awareness and getting manufacturers to ask the right questions. It’s also helped because it’s a global platform for how we’re quantifying green from a building perspective.

What about Cradle-To-Cradle certification?

Richie: LEED is building certification; Cradle-To-Cradle is certification on the product side. It’s one of a growing number of holistic programs to help certify for the consumer whether a product is truly green or not.

Can you be cheapest and best environmentally at the same time when it comes to sustainability?

Richie: I don’t believe green and low-cost are mutually exclusive; I think in many cases they are closely aligned, especially when it comes to building products. On the one hand we have very mature industries with huge volume so they can spread out costs, which makes them low-cost providers. But there’s nothing innovative or new going on there. On the other hand, green-product companies are small operations, very innovative, investing and using money wisely. The costs for established
businesses are artificially low because they don’t innovate or invest. The challenge is to reinvigorate them so their true cost is reflected.

Do we have to make sacrifices to pay deference to the environment?

Richie: It depends on what you mean by sacrifice. We want people to live a lifestyle that’s of benefit to the entire community. Maybe there are changes in behavior and choices. Is that austere? I don’t think so.

For information on building green, visit the U. S. Green Building Council Web site at www.usgbc.org. To view a video of this lecture and others in the For the Greener Good series, visit the National Building Museum Web site at www.nbm.org.

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