“Sustainable development is sexy.” Thus reads a T-shirt sold by a public-health group at Columbia University. And, despite being generally against quirky-statement apparel, I could wear that slogan all day long.
Sustainable development, as popularly defined by the United Nations Brundtland Commission in 1987, is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In less diplomatic words: Stop bogarting resources or your grandchildren will live in trash.
We often hear about sustainability in reference to gas-gobbling cars, but they’re not the only culprit: Buildings account for 39 percent of energy use in the US, as well as the 30 percent of our waste output. “Green” construction is one hot method of downsizing such numbers, and buildings tagged with various seals of environmental approval have proliferated over the past decade.
Unfortunately, not all those seals were created equal. (Some are more nominal than others.) But there is a trustworthy, healthily stringent rating system that comes from the US Green Building Council. Their green standard is familiarly known as LEED, an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
Buildings that get a LEED certification use reduced amounts of electricity and water. Their proprietors commit space to recycling. Their inhabitants work or play in fresh air and daylight. And their overhead is (sometimes astronomically) reduced. Such green building has started in Columbia in recent years, but we could certainly use more. We have, you might say, an increasingly pressing need for LEED.
The USGBC’s rating system has been in effect for about 10 years, and many places adopted early. Los Angeles, for example, can champion hundreds of projects. In places such as Baltimore, LEED recently started doubling as the law; if a builder doesn’t adhere to those green standards, no permit will be issued. Show’s over.
Meanwhile in Columbia, only one building — Wabash Station — has been certified, and there are only six more projects registered as seeking verification, according to a database on the USGBC Web site. Granted, these numbers aren’t absolute; the two fire stations set to be certified under the watch of architecture firm Peckham & Wright don’t pop up in the list of results, for instance. But we’re looking at a number that can be much improved regardless.
As Nick Peckham pointed out in a recent conversation, at some point during any talk about green building, one question will inevitably pop up: How much does it cost? And that, according to him and many others, doesn’t have an easy stock answer.
Zealous advocates cite numbers that show you can build to LEED standards at almost no extra cost, if you build carefully. Another figure that gets thrown around a lot is 6 percent, as in addition to your premium. But in some cases, such as completing renovations on old buildings unsuited to green fittings, many more dollars can be in play.
There’s also the cost-recouping to consider. In the case of a banking headquarters in Amsterdam, for example, going green saved the business $2.9 million per year on operating costs. According to the EPA, a LEED-certified building will typically use 30 percent less energy and 30-50 percent less water; that’s a no-joke chunk of the monthly bill.
And there are less obvious means of payback, too. I know it sounds a little cosmic-hippie, I’m-gonna-name-my-kid-Rainbow, but people are happier and perform better in buildings that funnel in the air and sun from outside. The Amersterdam HQ also saw 15 percent less absenteeism, and similar results have been found in other case studies; that adds up in terms of what would have otherwise been lost productivity.
Where schools are considered, one study conducted on the so-called “daylighting effect” showed that students exposed to the most natural light scored up to 18 percent higher on tests than those exposed to the least. That could be a bump from C to A.
Peckham pointed to this kind of non-numerical cost-reward balancing in discussing the Eco Schoolhouse at Grant Elementary School that his firm completed last year. The kids, he said, are learning to live sustainably at a ripe age; recycling becomes a basic alongside arithmetic. And, as he points out, the heart-on-the-sleeve crowd might answer the cost question with another: “Trashing out the planet has one hell of a price tag, doesn’t it?”
Still, Peckham and everyone else know budgets are limited, and that’s especially true at the moment. One idea that’s worked well elsewhere is providing tax-credits and incentives to help cut LEED costs. This idea was raised in the 2007 Columbia Vision Report, as part of a larger “visioning” plan meant to make CoMo’s future green and otherwise bright, but such measures have yet to be approved or implemented.
If all funding fails, one upside of LEED is that it still works as a fine green how-to guide, regardless of whether you follow enough of their specifications to be certified. And getting even a little sustainable development on board is a fine way to get some green-sexy back, believe me: I wouldn't wear the T-shirt otherwise.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.