Green Buildings and Base Camp: Getting Up the Mountain

As a former Washingtonian, I follow Seattle’s Daily Journal of Commerce to stay updated on news from my old stomping ground. Two recent articles published in DJC caught my attention.

In the first article, Jerry Yudelson, president of the Green Building Initiative, said that green building in the U.S. has hit a wall because “perceived benefits don’t measure up to actual costs” and many people are no longer willing to take on those costs. Yudelson proposed a return to Sustainability 101 to make green buildings available to the 99 percent. On the very same day, DJC printed an article by my friend Tim Weyand, a Seattle-based architect, calling for the city’s developers to commit to building net-zero apartment buildings.

These two articles made me think about our experiences here at Green Building Alliance and how we see both phenomena play out on a regular basis – we encounter resistance to paying for LEED or any certifications and yet we know there is still a pocket of people who are pushing for higher, even more aggressive standards and results (like the 2030 Challenge). Here is my personal reaction to both articles. Read, share, and comment as you see fit!

I remain an advocate for a realistic and usable entry-level program/certification standard for healthy and high-performing buildings. It is NOT “watering down” if we provide ways and avenues for buildings (and their owners and managers) to get started in accessible, affordable, and meaningful ways and have the chance to grow into a full-blown LEED v4 certification.

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Building green is a lot like climbing mountains.

As an analogy: we don’t ask everyone, nor even expect most people to obtain masters degrees. And even when people DO get a masters degree, they start by graduating high school, then college, then go to graduate school. For many people, a four-year university program is not their best option – whether due to cost, time, family, career interests, personal skill sets, etc. – and a community college or trade school or an apprenticeship actually makes the most sense and will be most fulfilling. Similarly, we do not expect nor do we encourage someone interested in mountain climbing to try to summit Everest as their first big mountain. You get in shape; you do a lot of hiking; you do some rock climbing and learn your knots and rope handling skills; then you climb Mt. Whitney to see how you deal with altitude and carrying a heavy pack; then you climb Mt. Rainier with some guides and learn to use crampons; then you climb another 10 to 20 mountains higher than Rainier to get really good at winter camping and glacier travel and expedition behavior and learn how to deal with adversity and how to have the guts/maturity to turn around and go back; and THEN you attempt Everest.

My issue with the green building world and people who think that anything not LEED is watered down or less useful is that they are, in fact, damaging the movement. Yes, LEED is great, but so is ENERGY STAR, so is meeting the 2030 Challenge, so is meeting the IgCC, so is just insulating your walls and putting in better windows and starting a recycling program. All these should be rewarded and celebrated. We need MORE ways to celebrate successes and encourage people to take small but definitive steps in the desired direction and then grow from there. Some will achieve LEED V4/a PhD/Everest; most won’t, but all accomplishments are worthy. When I was a guide on Rainier, we celebrated successful summits with clients as much or more than any summit anywhere in the world. In green building, too, it is important to allow everyone to achieve milestones along the way. Most of my Rainier clients will never go to Everest, but one or three just might grow into that and get to celebrate such a success and serve as inspiration to those who come after them.

We need to find new and clever ways to motivate people to take steps in the direction of ever healthier and higher performance buildings and to celebrate those successes and encourage folks to ever grander achievements rather than denigrate the 99 percent of buildings and owners and managers who are not there yet.

Keep climbing, people.

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