The Dangers Of Energy Myopia

My new friend Timothy Hughes over at Virginia Land Use & Construction Law Blog had a nice piece highlighting the flaws in the New York Times analysis of the Nathaniel R. Jones Federal Building and US Courthouse (Youngstown, OH) which it used as a primary example of LEED buildings failing to live up to their green claims.  Most interesting in his expose was the fact that the Jones Federal Building did not purport to have energy efficiency as its primary goal:

 A review of the GSA study on its website reveals a few interesting facts that the Times left out of the article:

The GSA study was of 14 first wave green GSA buildings ; 8 were LEED certified, 2 were LEED registered, one used Green Building Challenge, and three were designed with an emphasis on energy efficiency
The Federal Building project did not seek any credits for energy efficiency under EA Credit 1. Similarly, the project did not seek points for additional commissioning, measurement and verification, or green power
While the Federal Building project did not receive the 75 score required to qualify for Energy Star, it did in fact reach a 58 despite the fact the building did not even try for the energy efficiency credits. Every other GSA project contained in the study qualified for Energy Star

I perceive this as an example of Energy Myopia, which we have seen in recent green building regulation, particularly the Waxman-Markey Bill.  Section 201 of the Waxman-Markey bill calls for an energy efficient building code, as described in greater detail here. It does not, by definition, address water efficiency, site selection, indoor air quality, or materials usage, the other components which most green building rating systems, particularly LEED, encompass.

Why is this? There are a few factors at play.

First, energy efficiency is important.  With carbon emissions causing global warming, and coal fired power plants producing lots of carbon emissions, reducing energy use is critical.  However, with global warming, many are arguing that water efficiency is at least as paramount.  Moreover, saving water through reduced use literally makes more water available for other uses--it is a direct resource saving, in a way that the impact of building energy savings is not. 

The second reason that energy has been the focus is the same reason people rob banks--because that's where the money is.  As I wrote earlier here, of the entire ARRA allocation of $60 billion for "green" programs, the EPA was allocated exactly $0 for green building, and a measley $7 billion over all.  By contrast, the DOE was allocated $32.7 billion, with $5 billion for weatherization alone.

Third, energy savings is comparatively easy to measure. How do you measure the environmental savings of selecting an urban infill site instead of a suburban greenfield? In vehicle miles saved? Runoff averted? Stream quality? It is easier for proponents of green buildings and critics alike to use energy savings as a proxy for environmental friendliness. 

It is critical for green building regulations to encompass the mulit-faceted environmental impacts of the built environment, and to look holistically at the environmental impacts of so-called "green buildings." 

Later this week...Why Holistic Green Building Regulation Is Hard And What To Do About It.

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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Jason Pratt - September 14, 2009 10:25 AM

This is a great example of why "green" and "sustainability" are so difficult for the public to get behind. Like "diversity" and "justice", they are nebulous topics that are difficult to truly quantify.

Is a bigger building that is more efficient on energy, better or worse than a smaller building that has a standard energy profile? This is a real, tough question at the heart of the entire industry. If we get more efficient, we build bigger, which defeats much of our efficiency.

Timothy R. Hughes - September 14, 2009 11:32 AM

You are hitting on something really pivotal Shari -- it is easy to regulate baseline performance numbers. The holistic, more supple approach of LEED may (will?) continue to allow LEED/USGBC to keep a significant profile even in the event Congress or code bodies step in with major changes to required energy efficiency.

Andrea Goldman - September 16, 2009 12:46 AM

Shari, Thank you, as always, for keeping me up-to-date regarding issues with LEED and Green Building.

Mitchell Swann - September 16, 2009 5:20 PM

"supple approach" ? hmmm... or slippery?

I think that energy efficiency ends up taking the big role because the others (except water) as has been said are more ephemeral. Plus many of our 'sustainability' concerns tie back to energy - consumption, generation or fuel in some way. At some point however if the price of materials actually reflect the cost of materials and the price of building in what was formerly farmland actually reflects the cost of building on farmland then you would get closer to what you want to measure. What is the 'value' of recovering an urban site compared to the value of paving over a field? In one place it is one thing, in another (like when you build daycares on former drycleaner sites) you get a very different calculus. To try to look at social costs you would need to go to a triple bottom line or "B Corp" view. There is some World Bank stuff on that.

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