How Green is Green?

Bullitt Center, Miller Hull Partnership

During the last decade, cities and counties worldwide have developed green building and sustainable community programs and have adopted requirements for green building certification for certain types of construction projects.  On a recent trip to London, I learned about London’s green energy policies, which are more advanced than those of most cities in the U.S.  For example, see London Renewables, Integrating renewable energy into new developments: Toolkit for planners, developers and consultants, from the London Energy Partnership and the London Plan, 2011, Ch. 5 London’s Response to Climate Change.

Because of the long-standing high energy costs in Europe, many cities there are looking for ways to develop energy-efficient buildings, both old and new, and to encourage construction projects that provide for net zero energy use.  Green building practices provide an opportunity to create environmentally-sound and energy-efficient buildings through an integrated approach to design.

The U.S. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings.  The U.S. Green Building Council developed the LEED system and has now adopted a LEED for Neighborhood Development Rating System (LEED-ND).  In addition to energy conservation, LEED promotes health and quality of life issues, such as limited toxicity of materials and access to views and daylight.  At the neighborhood level, the LEED-ND certification is more difficult to achieve than the green building certification and is still at an early stage of implementation.  Quite a few Washington communities, including Seattle, King County, Bellingham, and Kirkland, among others, have adopted green building programs that require or promote LEED certification for some new buildings.  Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco are vying for the honor of being the greenest city in the U.S. (See The 30 Greenest Cities in America.)

The new Bullitt Center building in Seattle, which is being developed under Seattle’s Living Building Pilot Program, is being touted as the greenest commercial building on earth.  Even so, Seattle’s Living Building Pilot Program has generated some controversy regarding When is Green Not Green Enough?  There are different opinions regarding how effective green buildings really are in saving energy and resources.  In order to be certified as platinum, gold, or silver (ratings of LEED buildings), a proposed structure must meet fairly strict requirements; however, there is no assurance that the actual building will be as “green” as proposed. For instance, some green roofs have not proven to be workable, and energy savings in some green buildings are not as great as anticipated.  Some developers are using the “green” label to promote their projects and to achieve exemptions from other code requirements.  Also, developing a green building is more costly than constructing a typical building, and these costs are likely to be passed on to the tenant or purchaser.  In theory, of course, green buildings will save energy costs in the long run, thus paying for themselves over time.  Many green residential buildings are predominantly high-priced housing.  In cases where low-cost housing is demolished to make way for a green project, a community’s supply of affordable housing is reduced.

To address the issue of new green buildings versus historic structures, the historic preservation community has stated that “the greenest building is the one that is already built.”  Existing structures represent a considerable amount of embodied energy in their materials, and sometimes include energy-saving features, such as operable windows.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has established a Preservation Green Lab to support policies that make it easier to reuse and green older and historic buildings.  District energy systems can make it simpler and more affordable to transition older neighborhoods to cleaner sources of energy.  Issaquah has developed housing to achieve net zero energy usage, zHome, Issaquah Green Building Demonstration Project.  Other examples of net zero energy projects can be found in Seattle, Vancouver, Lopez Island, and other Washington communities.

In a time of widely recognized climate change, limited energy resources, and increasing energy costs, the need for sustainable building design and sustainable communities is clear; how best to achieve that sustainability is up for discussion.

For more information on this topic, see MRSC’s webpage on Green Communities and Building Design.  If you are aware of other programs or ordinances we should add to our webpage, please add a comment below.

About Carol Tobin

Carol has more than 25 years of experience as a planner and consultant to local governments in Washington State. Carol’s areas of expertise include neighborhood planning, historic preservation, tourism, urban design, and environmental planning. Carol also has a library background and started at MRSC as a librarian.
This entry was posted in Energy and Environment, Land Use and Zoning, Planning. Bookmark the permalink.