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.