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Updated: August 19, 2010 17:12 IST

See the building as a whole system

D. Murali
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When William ‘Willie’ Sutton – a prolific US bank robber, who during his forty year criminal career had stolen an estimated $2 million, and eventually spent more than half his adult life in prison – was asked why he robbed banks, his simple response was: “Because that’s where the money is.”

Opening a chapter with this quote, Peter Senge writes in ‘The Necessary Revolution’ (www.nicholasbrealey.com) that if global carbon emissions were currency, most of the ‘money’ could be found in our office buildings, malls, hotels, factories, apartment buildings, and private homes.

The greatest consumers of energy today – and, in turn, the largest contributors of greenhouse gases – are our commercial, industrial, and residential buildings, he adds. “Heating, air-conditioning, and electricity for what the industry calls ‘the built environment’ accounts for 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the US (almost 60 per cent globally), almost twice the emissions of the automotive sector.”

Industry challenge

While, therefore, the built environment represents a high-leverage point for anyone looking to create eco-friendly energy systems, the building industry is tough to change, the author concedes. It is highly fragmented, and the competitiveness – and even suspicion – among different competing interests is just part of the way the business generally works, he frets.

A quote in the book is of Bob Berkebile – the founding chairperson for the Committee on the Environment, created in 1990 within the American Institute of Architects (AIA) – that there can often be an adversarial relationship among the three main parties in any major project, viz. the owner/ developer, the architect, and the contractor. Developers, he says, tend to set their budget for total building costs as low as possible to maximise their profit on the project; architects, engineers, and construction firms then compete to maximise their share of the fixed budget!

Suboptimal design

That is how you end up with buildings with the cheapest heating and air-conditioning systems, as opposed to the most efficient – despite the fact that a higher-priced, more efficient system would save the owner money in the long haul and be better for the environment, Senge explains.

The net result, he finds, is a suboptimal conventional design that wastes resources and has double or triple the operating costs of green buildings – costs that are passed on to occupants indefinitely. “Those occupants may have their own goals – including comfort, healthy workers, productivity, and lower operating costs – but typically they have no involvement in the development process and relatively little influence over these factors (and costs) once the building is completed.”

Small group

In the battle against the ‘lowest-common-denominator’ approach of the building industry, Bob and his AIA committee got help from David Gottfried, a small-town developer, and Michael Italiano, an environmental litigator, who believed there could be a better way.

What began thus as ‘a small group of like-minded people who were interested in genuinely addressing the total impact of buildings on the environment, human health and well-being, and communities’ succeeded over a decade in establishing the US Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system, the author narrates.

Since the competition and fragmentation within the industry thwarted real change, the founding group resolved to get representatives of the entire system involved from the outset, one learns. That meant real estate owners, financiers, engineers, architects, construction companies, and all of the roles involved in the full life cycle of real estate, as well as people from environmental organisations, government, and the media, as recounted through a quote of Jim Hartzfeld, a former president of the Council.

Bias for action

Did the group begin with a grand vision of green building early in the process? No, the mantra was ‘seek agreement and go,’ with a bias towards action. Rather than try to resolve all the issues, the group members realised that they would have to ‘go through many cycles of seeing the problem, clarifying their purpose.’

Such an approach ultimately proved fortuitous, the author observes, because it made possible a more collaborative process of ‘learning through doing’ as more and more people engaged themselves in the process. “Hartzfeld and the others were discovering the first principle of building genuinely shared visions: It takes time, and along the way, engagement is worth much more than superficial agreement.”

Basic question

A basic question that the group had to find answer for was: What is a green building? The first collaborative project, launched in 1996, was therefore to develop ‘an initial set of objective criteria to determine the key characteristics of a green building.’

Importantly, the guiding idea in this exercise was to see the building ‘as a whole system and articulate all the interacting attributes.’ For example, rather than designating a building as green because of the use of recycled materials, the group considered the whole system: ‘the land, the site itself, how it uses water, how it uses energy, what materials are in it, what the indoor air quality is like, and the healthiness of the building for its occupants.’

That implied the need for tapping the expertise of various professions associated with design, architecture, construction, and building maintenance; and also a lot of humility. “Our contribution wasn’t in knowing the knowledge in any one expert’s head, but in bringing the expertise distributed across the industry into the conversation,” elucidates Hartzfeld.

Collective learning

Agreeing on the initial LEED criteria was a four-year process, but when it took shape, it catalysed a collective learning process, whose power surprised everyone, writes Senge. It became ‘something tangible, something that, however imperfect, people could touch and use.’

Today, the certification has spread around the world. There are GBCs in countries such as India, China, Brazil, and Mexico, which have become a powerful and unifying force within the building industry, the book acknowledges.

Not astonishing, hence, should be a host of ‘news’ headlines you get when searching for ‘LEED India,’ in Google. Sample these, at the time of writing this: ‘India’s green building footprint increases: Jones LaSalle’; ‘Byculla Zoo eyes green status for building’; ‘Rashtrapati Bhavan, now a certified ‘green’ building’…

Recommended addition to ‘green’ shelves.

**

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