Green Building and America

One of the subjects that surrounds my daily life is sustainable architecture. Being from an architecture background and having a mother who gave money religiously to the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club, I learned to appreciate sustainable planning and architecture early on. One of the organizations that has been getting quite a bit of press in the last few years is the United States Green Building Council, a federally-operated organization that runs the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, or “LEED,” as most people know it. As part of the recent “green” trend that has swept the nation, LEED has been borne to the forefront of the issue of sustainable architecture.

While this program and others like it are admirable in their efforts, it becomes apparent that they are usually costly and complicated in their endeavors, acting as a disincentive for homeowners especially. I think that while this is a good step in the right direction for green architecture, we still have a very long way to go before we can make a country that builds (as a whole) green architecture.

The process to plan, design, and certify a LEED building can be very costly, confusing, and if not done correctly, will fail. The costs of registration alone can deter some people (especially smaller businesses and homeowners), and the upfront cost of investing in sustainable and efficient measures for a new building can be overwhelming for some. As part of my work at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, I have been doing some research on LEED for Homes in the Philadelphia region, and the results were a bit startling, if not depressing: There are currently only four (yes 4!) registered and completed Platinum-certified homes in the City of Philadelphia. And they were completed by a developer for a profit. The total number of completed, certified homes in the region is sixteen. While the Mayor of Philadelphia proclaims that he wants to make Philadelphia the “greenest city in America,” the residential sector is a place that is quite obviously and painfully lacking in the green department.

Other cities and states are far ahead of us here in Philly: Chicago, Portland, New York, and a number of other major cities now require that all new government buildings be LEED certified. Others help with financing green projects (Chicago being on the forefront), and still others have tax incentives and grants that are available. Philadelphia is in a state of transition right now, rewriting the zoning code and implementing new programs like GreenWorks Philadelphia and is following the paths of many of the aforementioned cities. A lot of the environmental groups in the region, however, are wondering how we are planning to pay for new programs in the economic downturn and how we can incentivize green building. Both of these are heated topics, but I think that it needs to start first with education. Anyone who is vaguely interested in this topic should read up on the USGBC website and learn a little bit about green building in your area and what programs and incentives are available to do green projects. Pennsylvania has state-wide grants available for solar energy projects, green roofing, and other retrofits for small businesses and homes. We need to start taking responsibility for the type of architecture we are putting forth now, as buildings consume almost half of our energy resources. As a part of global climate change that is not really being addressed, architecture needs some serious scrutinizing in how we make standards of green building, how we incentivize it, and how to educate people about it.