Five Myths About Sustainability

1. Sustainability is a trend.

It will not fade or go away. Sustainability has moved beyond the tipping point. Back in December 2005, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) adopted a policy requiring that all new and renovated buildings reduce fossil energy use by 50 percent (compared to a 2003 baseline). On June 8, 2010, the U.S. General Services Administration selected Eleni Reed as the first Chief Greening Officer, responsible for aggressively pursuing innovative sustainable practices within GSA's portfolio of government-owned and leased buildings. Additionally, as the cost for sustainable construction has gone down, more building owners have embraced green principles. And more Americans are experiencing the many benefits beyond lower energy costs—less absenteeism, greater health, improved morale, and better job recruiting and retention. Once they experience these advantages in one location, they seek to create them in other venues.

2. Knowledge of sustainability is prevalent and equal among design and construction professionals.

The design and construction profession is overrun with "Green Snake-Oil Salesmen." For example, almost all carpets use some level of recycled content, yet despite what a construction company may tell you, few of them are highly sustainable products. Many businesses, even ones with good intentions, know or sell only a limited array of sustainable products. Very few firms are able to affect the sustainable solution on the entire project from vision to completion. Sustainability is one discipline in which no one ever knows it all. With constantly advancing practices and a myriad of new and better products coming to market, construction professionals must always make an effort to learn about new opportunities for making their products more sustainable.

3. Sustainable buildings cost more.

Not true. Holy Wisdom Monastery, a 2009 project my company took on, has the highest-rated LEED designation for new construction but was built for $209 a square foot, which is less expensive than or comparable to conventional buildings similar in quality and utility in the Madison (Wis.) area. At Holy Wisdom, special glazing on the window glass intentionally limits the visible light transmission. Andersen designed these windows to allow for excellent light and climate control at all times throughout the day, and they eliminate the need for blinds or other window treatments. In our projects, sometimes we use sustainable floor products that cost less than conventional ones. And we can use the saved money toward the cost of installing better heating and cooling systems.

4. All products that claim to be "green" are sustainable.

Since following the green wave has rapidly become "the thing to do," many companies are claiming to have green products. Although various standards for green do exist, there are gaps and conflicts that make it tricky to monitor the efficiency and effectiveness of the products and systems. Consumers must be careful when purchasing products claiming to be sustainable. For example, there are many product options for carpet backing, acoustical ceiling tile, and other finishes made with postconsumer recycled content, but that doesn't mean that, once in your house, they save energy. And recent research has revealed many products that received the Energy Star seal didn't really live up to their hype. Why? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the program, is overloaded with products to review and became inefficient.

Another sustainability contradiction—one that anybody can relate to—is plastic water bottles. Just last week, I saw one with a label that said it was green because it was ergonomically designed to fit someone's hand. That is a real stretch. Plastic water bottles are about the most unsustainable product there is (except that they're recyclable, but only about 5 percent of water bottles end up being recycled).

5. LEED equals sustainability.

LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) is a rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to provide guidelines for, and certification of, sustainable buildings. There are many highly sustainable buildings that are not LEED-certified; it's not a requirement for being green.

If an organization won't benefit from LEED certification, we don't recommend it. It's costly and time-consuming so there has to be a business value to get the plaque on the wall. There are times when a project is highly sustainable, but pursuing LEED certification is not the right business decision. For example, our firm renovated a former retail department store and moved our office there. This office space is now one of the most sustainable retrofits in the country. For us to achieve LEED certification, we would have had to purchase a $150,000 air-handling unit for the 550,000-square-foot, multi-tenant building and utilize a separate meter for electrical power usage. Instead, we installed carbon dioxide (CO2) detectors (approximately $200 each) that assess the levels of CO2 in the conference rooms. If CO2 levels become high, fresh air is brought into the room. It is a sustainable, inexpensive, creative, and highly effective alternative. It did not meet the criteria for LEED certification, but it did meet our criteria for a responsible, sustainable business solution.

If anyone from a construction company says LEED equals green, that person doesn't understand sustainability.

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