The Definition of “Green”: Education and Sustainable Building

This summer I had the opportunity to work with a handful of Philadelphia professionals as part of a Green Homes report I was writing for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. After speaking with these professionals, and taking into account the experience I had at the Energy Coordinating Agency in my internship last summer, I realized that the largest problem with sustainable building (as with many other areas) is ignorance.  

Almost any professional in the field will tell you that the government and other organizations with influence (such as unions) need to start working on the education of sustainable building. Contractors, homeowners, and developers, among others, have no idea what measures are necessary to create an efficient and sustainable building. To add to the complexity and confusion of designing and constructing a building, the extra layer of intricacy that is involved with sustainable design can be equally frustrating for architects, designers, and builders alike.

For those who want to try and ameliorate this situation, it’s not just as easy as, “well, go take some classes.”

Right now, the Green Building Certification Institute through the U.S. Green Building Council heads up the education and certification of green professionals with their LEED AP program, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional. This is a solid system that has a required exam based on the LEED requirements for buildings.

Unfortunately, to become a LEED AP, you have to pay the steep $450 exam fee, plus the $100 registration fee and biennial renewal fee of $50. This means that you must invest an initial $550 dollars plus another several hundred dollars over your career to obtain and retain the status of LEED AP.

Another huge disincentive is that these credentials are based on the specific LEED standards, which are only tailored to one of five certification systems. For example, to be credentialed in both LEED for Homes and LEED for Neighborhood Development, you have to take two separate exams, and upkeep two sets of credentials. While it is good to have a standard for education and credentialing systems, this is simply not feasible for a huge number of professionals.

The USGBC also offers many classes through its local chapters, but despite these opportunities and the LEEP AP programs, most professionals including plumbers, HVAC experts, electricians, drywall contractors, and many other types of building subcontractors have no incentive and little opportunity for education in green building methods and techniques. A huge part of what makes a green building green are the details in the systems and integral functioning parts of the building, and the lack of education in these fields will continue to be a huge detriment to the progress of sustainable buildings.

The Energy Coordinating Agency is currently working to create a training center in North Philadelphia to educate and prepare local professionals for “green collar jobs”, a sector that seems to be growing. This is a small step in the right direction, but unions and city or state governments really need to start making some headway in creating incentives or requirements for professional education and/or accreditation to help continue the progress and success of the green building movement.

Lastly, the most important and most challenging group that needs attention is the clients of the green professionals: the public. While there are a few groups who are apt to go for more ‘green’ designs, few of them actually understand the inner workings of what creates a sustainable home, office building, or apartment complex. And there are many others who are either totally or mostly ignorant of sustainable design, working with and creating standard buildings such that have been designed for the last few decades. Trying to educate this group is seemingly impossible, because they have no incentive to learn more about this type of building other than their own personal interest. Some developers are jumping on the bandwagon because building green can be used for a marketing ploy, but these developers are not necessarily required to understand what the green building is and what makes it green.

To educate building professionals and clients, it seems that a larger initiative will need to take place either in a statewide or national organization to provide incentives for green education and implementation. While it seems that the green revolution will continue to pervade the U.S., I would bet that, without some kind of education for both professionals and their clients, it will eventually hit a ceiling that will be nearly impossible to penetrate without some basic knowledge.