Don’t Reduce Sustainability to Just Energy Efficiency

series of power metersOur migration to more sustainable buildings is an evolving process that requires a consistent combination of goals, results and critiques. Without any one of these components, we run the risk of stagnation and dampening our progress towards more ecological responsibility in our buildings. However, it is important that the level of effort and investigation put into criticism is commensurate with the amount contributed to the process of designing the results in the first place. When sustainability is critiqued (and it should be) it has to be weighed as a series of components and relationships rather than being boiled-down into one or two metrics to make its retention more palatable.

Sam Roudman’s recent New Republic article condemning Bank of America’s Tower at One Bryant Park that sped through the blogosphere is indicative of one of the largest hurdles that our culture faces for sustainability: the propensity we have to shrink its definition down to fit into sound bites and online rants at the expense of removing large portions of its meaning and resulting importance. Not only does this diminish the progress we have made, but it perpetuates an inaccurate idea of what we are striving for in the first place.

The Roudman article is part of what has become an increasingly common occurrence in how it focuses around two very specific pieces of data, overall energy consumption per square foot and total greenhouse gas emissions as measured by the city’s regional coefficient. Some people are quick to associate a lack of reduction of energy usage with sustainable failure. By association, the challenge can expand to questioning the effectiveness of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system given that its role in the building process is to shepherd our transition to a greener building stock.

Without a doubt, energy usage is important and its an area that we have to maintain focus on in order to gain ground in keeping our air and water clean, saving money and reducing our carbon footprint. The bulk of our greenhouse gas emissions in this country are tied to the way we produce and distribute energy. That being said, the danger in laying ecological stewardship at the feet of energy use is how it simplifies sustainability into a mono-faceted concept with a single goal when this could not be farther from the truth.

The same is true for LEED. Though certainly an imperfect system, I have written before about why the positive effects of LEED far outweigh its shortcomings and it (like all sustainable systems) is not a stagnant entity, but one that continues to evolve. Throughout the years spent continuously refining and improving LEED, it remains comprised of a large number of potential points distributed over an array of categories precisely because sustainability involves more than reaching a metric of energy usage per unit of area. This is done for a reason. The variety baked into the various LEED components reflects the number of building characteristics that affect its ecological stewardship. Not only does LEED aspire to more than only energy efficient buildings, but the Platinum status of any building is due to more than only energy credits.

Sustainability in Building Components

Water is a great example. Water conservation often gets a token mention, perhaps due to the belief that it is not overly complicated. This is interesting given the amount of energy that our water infrastructure consumes in this country along with its resulting environmental effects—especially in our cities. Water conservation is often tied into issues of aquifer levels, access to clean drinking water or damage to wetland ecosystems, but our use of water requires a lot of energy. In the U.S. we use around 8 quads (quadrillion BTUs) of energy as part of our regular water cycle with roughly half on the supply side and half on the waste and treatment side. That is just over 8% of the country’s total, so every bucket that we don’t fill is water we do not harvest, pipe-in, flush, pipe-out and treat. Measures like rainwater capture, grey water systems, low flow fixtures and waterless urinals that can cut a building’s water use may not help turn the electric meter backwards, but they result in less energy usage for the grid as a whole.

This dovetails into the effects that stormwater can have on both municipal infrastructure and natural ecosystems. All too often in the U.S., stormwater is funneled into our sewage system to get treated as waste (once again using energy). The configuration is known as combined sewer overflow or “CSO” systems that remain prevalent in our older cities. These antiquated systems spit waste into nearby rivers and coastlines every time rainfall exceeds the system’s capacity. Across the country, enough untreated of the stormwater/sewage cocktail is released into bodies of water to fill every residential pool 5 times over. True, no direct energy savings there either, but going to places like the Gowanus Canal after a heavy rainfall can illustrate how much of a problem this is for our cities and their surrounding environments. (More on how we can fix that)

Making stuff uses energy, but making stuff from stuff we’ve already made can use a lot less. If we are looking for energy savings then we have to broaden our perspective to include recycled content. Our capability to recycle materials from old buildings into new buildings continues to grow. Building components like aluminum, copper, steel, concrete and plastics can all include portions of products that have already gone through a full lifecycle, resulting in positive energy savings. Using steel as an example, melting old steel down into new steel uses 60% less energy that it takes to fabricate from virgin iron ore. For aluminum, the savings jumps as high as 90%. Materials with recycled content are not going to lower the power bill for a property, but that doesn’t mean there is no net energy benefit.

Leafing through other green building/LEED components uncovers things like rapidly renewable materials that help depress resource depletion with less damage to the ecosystems they help comprise, or 95% particulate filtration of the mechanical system that can actually make the air exhausted from a building cleaner than the air that comes in. Improvements to working environments through daylighting, thermal comfort and Low-VOC materials all contribute to human health, increasing productivity and combating absenteeism. The recurring omission of these qualities from green analysis just because they do not have a measurement in kilowatt-hours does not reflect an actual lack of importance. Even if we paused in the world where watts-per-square-foot was the only metric that mattered there would still be an analysis that explains why electrons produced on site were more efficient and had fewer resulting GHG emissions than those produced by the grid.

It Still Comes Down to Use

Despite all of these points, it’s important to remember that they all dodge the real necessity for achieving anything resembling a sustainable society. As much as we might like it to, the true mechanism for change can’t rest on the shoulders of systems innovation. For our buildings (and everything else), sustainability is not a technological fix to supplement a wasteful lifestyle, but rather an acknowledgement of all the ways our use of the built environment affects the natural world and taking efforts across that spectrum to minimize damage where we can. The changes that are going to last are those rooted in how we live and work, not just what we have to live and work in. Some have pointed to this as a downside of systems like LEED (or PassivHaus, or BREEAM, for that matter) given that they target the rating of a building rather than mandating use patterns, but I think that these systems are tools for orienting the direction of the industry and raising the baseline to a higher standard. As long as we use them as such–and not a silver bullet–then they will meet our expectations.

Not every LEED building will be net zero. Not every “green” building will have a meter that spins backwards. The evolution of both our goals and critiques of our progress must continue to recognize sustainability as more than a power bill and assess the full range of our actions onto the environment and each other.

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