Thursday, May 19, 2011

LEED-ership Beyond the Tipping Point

Like most architects, I try to stay informed about significant trends that affect our profession. Even so, I’ve been astonished by how quickly sustainability has become a watchword for the construction industry. Seemingly overnight, a quixotic pursuit by a small community of dedicated environmentalists has become a societal imperative. It’s as if we have passed a “tipping point.” More people than ever before understand that truly being sustainable—meeting society’s present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own—is a responsibility we all share.

In a previous post for Green Blog, Penny Bonda commented how “mainstream” the green building industry has become. Specifically, she reported about the U.S. Green Building Council and the media-savvy branding of its primary product, the Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) green building rating system. There’s no doubt that my profession, the building trades, manufacturers, and developers have taken notice: The up-to-the-minute count of LEED-certified projects is 20,278 buildings totaling 1,348,939,491 square feet. The USGBC reports that billions of more square feet of construction are in the pipeline. My home state, Oregon, ranks among the highest for LEED-certified commercial and institutional green buildings per capita. The number of USGBC member companies across North America now exceeds16,000. There are also more than 157,000 LEED professional credential holders.

I’m not yet one of these LEED accredited professionals. Should I pursue LEED accreditation or status as a LEED Green Associate? Yes. Accreditation is validation of one’s breadth of knowledge and expertise about the fundamental principles of sustainable design. Just as structures that are LEED certified are virtually synonymous with green buildings, LEED accreditation has become de rigueur for design professionals who want to declare their green pedigree. My 13-employee firm is a USGBC member; three of my colleagues are LEED-accredited. We’re pursuing LEED certification for several current projects.

The science of climate change has become unassailable, so a cognitive hurdle is largely behind us. On the flip side, hurdles to even greater acceptance of sustainability principles do remain: global warming deniers illogically persist, factions within the green movement are divided, and “green fatigue” is mounting. Some bemoan the costs of the LEED certification processes (failing to recognize the probability of significant returns on their investment generated by savings in operational costs).

Penny Bonda cited one of her favorite LEED-isms, which is that LEED is a triumph of good over perfect. Solutions shaped by complex systems and codification are always compromises, and LEED is no exception. For instance, I believe the rating system fails to adequately take into account locally specific environmental conditions. Moreover, I think the Green Building Certification Institute too readily grants LEED status to bloated, wasteful projects that are superficially “green.” Is the massive CityCenter project in Las Vegas (the least sustainable city in America) really deserving of LEED Gold certification?

What will it take for the USGBC to capitalize on the construction industry’s increased awareness and aspiration toward sustainability to further advance its suite of LEED rating systems? How can we make the most of this opportunity to reform the construction paradigm? The USGBC and the structure of its certification program only provide a framework. In demand are new visionaries for a sustainable future. What we need is a coupling of LEED-ership with leadership.

Leadership will be crucial to the issue of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Ed Mazria and his Architecture 2030 organization point out that buildings are responsible for almost half (48%) of all greenhouse gas emissions annually. According to Mazria, immediate action in the building sector is necessary if we are to avoid truly catastrophic climate change. Global heating caused by greenhouse gas emissions will undoubtedly be looked at in retrospect as the single most important issue of the 21st century. If we do not successfully deal with the manmade causes of climate change, all other issues—the economy, wars, health care, education, ecosystem health—will be even more challenging or nearly moot.

Leadership will also be vital to developing strategies for adapting to climate change. These plans would address water shortages, agricultural challenges, energy conservation, and security. Mitigation alone will not be enough; we must prepare for the changes to come.

If you’re an architect and have not already adopted sustainability as a fundamental precept of your work, do so now. Don’t wait to act. The tipping point has passed. This is our time. Exhibit the leadership necessary to advance the changes that will secure a livable future for generations to come. Reducing the environmental impact of buildings may be the single most important contribution architects can make. The actions of a few can impact the lives of so many.

LEED accreditation does not supplant the credentialing and broader suite of education and skills required to achieve professional status as an architect. Then again, accreditation would endow me with greater authority on matters related to sustainable design. I should take the leap. I want to be a leader and make a difference through the projects I work on. If becoming a LEED-AP enhances my prospects in this regard, the expense, time, and effort will have been worth it.

1 comment:

Blake Andrews said...

I can't really argue that Las Vegas is a green city but I think they're water policy is a model for the country. I can't remember the exact stats but through efficiency measures (mandated by the reality that they live in a desert) they've cut per capita consumption something like 75% over a decade. Eugene can learn from them. Even though we take water for granted here, no resource is inexhaustible.