Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Times They Are A-Changin’

The turning of the calendar to 2017 brought with it a predictable flurry of crystal ball prognostications heralding the new year. I came across a particularly interesting piece on the website Construction Dive. Authored by Emily Peiffer and entitled "10 Construction Industry Trends to Watch in 2017," it was actually Trend #9 that I found most intriguing; here it is:

9. The sustainable construction movement will consider changing its message 

The incoming Trump administration has implications beyond infrastructure, as sustainable building leaders are now considering the possibility of altering their messaging to ensure the movement continues. 

"It’s really important not to lose the gains of the past by clinging to the way we talk about things," said Beth Heider, chief sustainability officer at Skanska USA. "It’s really important to look at the work that we’ve done under the umbrella of sustainability and continue with that work and just recognize that there are lots of ways to articulate what we’re achieving."

Heider said she believes the industry should put less emphasis on the climate change implications of sustainable construction and focus more on the bottom line, as resiliency and high-performing buildings can lower energy costs and create jobs. 

"The new administration has probably been a wakeup call to the nation that all perspectives don’t feel as if they’re heard," she said. "That also means you’ve got folks across the country who we aren’t communicating with. This gives us an opportunity to communicate the value of smart, high-performing buildings and infrastructure in a way that can be understood by more people." 

Both Heider and [Michael] Vardaro [managing partner at Zetlin & De Chiara] are optimistic that sustainable construction and the green building movement will continue to make strides in 2017. Vardaro said the year ahead will bring "the next step of building green," with more owners and tenants demanding energy-efficient features in new buildings. Sustainable construction, he said, will be more of the norm rather than the exception going forward. 

At first, this interesting take on the radical change of the status quo since last November 8 rang true; however, after thinking about it more I believe the message was already evolving well before the Orange One assumed the mantle of president-elect. Few people, even among those for whom “sustainability” is a dirty word, would argue protecting our environment is not a worthy goal. It’s really when efforts toward that goal conflict with personal property rights or individual prosperity that people feel threatened by the concept. For the most part—notwithstanding cynical climate change deniers motivated by personal greed—everyone embraces the notion of minimizing harm to our planet and its biological systems. 

Increasingly, the buzzwords are resilience, adaptability, and transformability. They are complementary to and will progressively supplant the usage of “sustainability” when the topic is the future of construction and high-performing buildings. Discussing resilience, adaptability, and transformability appeal more directly to fiscally minded building owners, particularly those most interested in protecting valuable holdings. Designing for resilience means building in enhanced capacities to respond to unforeseen changes, including those changes that trigger tipping points beyond which the systems we’re accustomed to cannot be recovered. This is a bottom line concern shared by interests across the entire political spectrum. 

Designing for resilience also means buildings will necessarily be judged by more than rhetoric and advocacy alone. Actual performance, rather than green laurels and ratings, will be the measuring stick. This will be a good thing, as there is a growing backlash against green building products and developments that fail to deliver promised benefits despite anecdotal claims that they do. Few would fail to endorse sustainable design if its benefits are tangible. 

There’s no doubt we live during interesting times. Some believe the new political reality threatens their cherished beliefs and progress toward important goals; that’s a glass is half-empty perspective. I prefer to believe it is half-full. Sustainability as a mindset is too well-established in the minds of too many to simply disappear from our collective consciousness. Dogmatism and partisanship notwithstanding, I am conditionally optimistic. Though our times may be a-changing, changing the message may prove unnecessary.

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