The reality of buildings is that they are both incredibly complicated and very simple. Driving through any area in the country it’s easy to give a simple definition to the buildings in front of you. It’s a warehouse or a school or an office building or a hospital. Yet just below the surface lies a complex web of building systems and interactions. There is the lighting system, the air conditioning, the paint, the wall material. We used to think of those building systems as discreet. We like to imagine a single, genius architect thinking through all of these things and then birthing a perfectly working building, like a fine hand-cranked watch from a Swiss factory. We know that’s not how it works. A building is designed by an architect, but then a series of consultants, reps, distributors, engineers, contractors and subcontractors, manufacturers, suppliers, facilities managers, owners, occupants and maintenance staff mold that initial design into a living, working building.
Our existing building stock is incredibly inefficient. That starts in the core and shell, the window enclosures and the minimal insulation. In a “lowest bidder” building culture we sacrifice building quality for speed and lower cost. In the past, we would make up for that difference by filling our buildings with more artificial light, more heat in the winter, more cold air on the summer.
None of this is new information to anyone who’s thought about our building stock. So why am I bothering to write it out now? Well last week, I wrote a post saying that what was driving my retrofit work every day wasn’t LEED, it was the rebate programs of our local utilities in the NY Metro areas. I mentioned that LEED points never came up when I spoke to facilities managers, what mattered was meeting the lighting needs with less energy and in a way that would qualify for rebates. I stand by the original post as an accurate portrait of the lighting market here in NY.
That said, should that be the whole story? Is there nothing between the glittering LEED certified towers we read about and the scrappy commercial warehouses I work with every week? We can’t afford to have a gap in our sustainability strategy. We cannot accept that there will be a chosen few “good” buildings and the rest will make due. We need to close the loop and make all of our buildings sustainable assets.
First some statistics…
According to a 2010 market estimate by CoStar there are more than 84 billion square feet of commercial real estate in the United States. As of 2011 there was 1.6 billion square feet of certified LEED real estate and another 2.6 billion square feet of built to LEED real estate. Taken together that adds up to 4.99% of the commercial real estate market in the United States. That sounds low, but consider the commercial real estate stock I’m talking about dates back at least 80 years (the Empire state building is a simple milestone–opening in 1931). The LEED program was created in 1998. Moving that much of the market in just 16 years is an accomplishment in and of itself. Some states and localities have made LEED their legal building standards.
So with a 5% market share over 16 years, why should we care about LEED any more? The simple reason is because no single entity in the United States has done more to advance the notion that buildings can actually promote sustainability rather than simply consuming resources. The USGBC and the LEED program have led the way toward creating a more sustainable building stock. What matters more than any particular set of points a building earns, is the methodology and thought process behind trying to create a better building stock.
So when we’re talking about retrofit strategies, it’s not that rebates aren’t important, they are. Rebates are usually the catalyst behind a lighting retrofit, or at least a strong short term incentive. At the same time, we need to make room in our conversations for more holistic re-design. Thinking about how a lighting retrofit could reduce the strain on the HVAC system, or thinking about how proper control of natural light lends itself to better productivity. When we start to think about buildings holistically, we can move from simple retrofit thinking to dramatically improving our built spaces.
Rebate programs are simple and economical. They are win-win solutions for all parties involved, but they don’t come without a cost. The cost sometimes comes in the form of sacrificed lighting quality. Sometimes in the form of short term thinking. While rebate program are a good catalyst, there are ways they could be improved, more on that in future posts.
We need to always remember that however much we are doing, we can probably do more. No single program has done more than LEED to try and address all aspects of the built environment and the power of buildings to make our planet healthier. As we learn, the program evolves, forever disappointing those who wish it would go further while annoying those who think it goes too far. None the less, it’s still there, pushing us further, trying to get us beyond thinking about our next electric bill.
It was never my intention bash LEED when I wrote my last piece. My intention was to point out what my clients are thinking about every day. LEED and the USGBC are leading the way when it comes to green building. As an industry we still have a long way to go. But perhaps we can aspire to more than earning a rebate this year, perhaps we can aspire to continuously improving the built environment for a lifetime.