But the new way, the new paradigm, is coming - it's already begun. Studies conducted by social scientists like Paul Ray have shown that nearly a quarter of U.S. adults have some serious problems with the culture in this country and feel that it needs to be reinvented. Not just tweaked here and there, but reinvented. That's a lot of people who don't like things the way they are, that feel we're all busy making and maintaining a world that we don't want to live in, that seems so beyond our individual control. But it is individuals who have made the pieces that we see around us - the buildings, the cars, the job that leaves too little time for family and friends. And it's up to us to create alternative lives, to design and realize the dream.

Why Green Building

So what does all of this have to do with green building? Modern buildings are not designed and built according to the closed-loop, natural systems model. They're built using the linear take-make-waste model. Buildings are generally built without much thought for what they'll do, who their users are, or what their life spans will be. Or how, when their current users are done with them, how they can be changed to meet future needs or deconstructed easily so that their materials can be reused.

So why green building? Why make a building green? Because a building that is not green is enormously expensive in real-time cost and in future cost. Expensive for the environment, for the health of humans and other species, and in their maintenance and operations.


So what is a green building? Well, to get to the root of that question, what a green building is, we have to understand what most buildings are not. Most buildings are not healthy, they're not resource-efficient. They're wasteful, they leak water and heat, they're heated and cooled using non-renewable resources, which is non-sustainable and negatively affecting Earth's temperature balance, and they're constructed with synthetic and often-toxic materials that make the environment and people sick, from the manufacturers to the building inhabitants. If you stop and think about it, many of today's building products have not been around that long. When many of them were developed, the issues of indoor air pollution and environmental damage were not as widely known as they are today, although they did exist.

Today's buildings are also built and furnished using virgin rather than recycled resources. Even "renewable" resources, like wood, can take years or decades to renew and are not readily renewable, like solar power. All renewable resources are not equal. Just because a resource is renewable doesn't mean that it's instantly renewable.

So, a building can be either a microcosm of nature or synthetic and remote from the natural world. Today, most fall into that second category.


As with creating anything, building should not be taken lightly. The impact of buildings around the world is enormous. One report from the Worldwatch Institute stated that building construction accounts for 55% of non-fuel wood use, and worldwide, buildings account for 40% of energy and materials use.

Designing a building is a big responsibility. Every line of an architect's blueprint will affect our quality of life whether it represents the destruction of forests for wood or of villages for marble quarrying or the restoration of a degraded piece of land. Buildings can also do good. Unfortunately, the ecology of architecture is often ignored in building design and construction. Buildings should be integral to site, environment, and the lives of their inhabitants. Instead, they're often designed for their own sake, without regard for the people who will live or work in them and without regard for their physical and cultural contexts.

Of course, architects are not the only ones responsible. Each of us is responsible for what we take, make, and waste, in the design and the use of buildings. It's important that we're mindful when we build, renovate, or simply use buildings, that we have as little negative impact and as much positive impact as we can.

There is a movement among architects, builders, and urban planners to put buildings back into context again, to take advantage of the natural systems around buildings rather than ignore them. It moves away from the concept of a building in a bubble, separate from the natural world around it. Taking advantage of nature in the orientation and construction of buildings also can mean saving money that would have been spent on fuel bills.

A few architects are working on restorative architecture, trying to have their buildings give back more than they take, to be healthier and more resource-efficient, to focus on regeneration rather than degeneration. The idea of restorative architecture and development that is, doing more good than harm is just coming into its own. This can be accomplished partly through renovating older buildings to make them healthier and less resource-intensive and by regenerating degraded land into healthier habitat.

Good building means that buildings are blended into the natural landscape. It means using nature as our model, and nature uses the sun as its single source of energy. Nature creates no waste. Everything that exists gives life to something else, even in death and decomposition. And we humans are as dependent upon these natural laws for our survival as our ancestors were 50,000 years ago.


When architects only pay attention to what a building will look like, they're missing the point and a great opportunity. Buildings aren't just for decoration - they provide services. These services vary depending on what the building will be used for, like housing & work spaces, but here are ten services a building should provide:

Buildings should provide safety. This is the minimum requirement for anyone who lives or works in a building. Whether it's a hotel, an office building, a hospital, a college dormitory, or a grocery store. But what about today's buildings? How do they measure up? Today's buildings are can be 10x more polluted than the outdoor environment. Many are poorly ventilated and filled with toxic building materials, furnishings, and cleaning supplies, and it's not uncommon to have microorganisms breeding in air ducts. Are they providing the necessary services to their users? Not on the first count, safety.

2) A building should be a comfortable place that maintains a steady temperature, without drafts and without cold and hot spots. Of course, a building's heating and cooling systems should be designed with the building's users in mind. For example, the number of people per square foot will affect the amount of cooling or heating needed. A crowded theater may need less heating in the winter and more cooling in the summer than a hotel or a warehouse. It's important to be aware of the needs of a building's users, the services that the building is supposed to be providing.

3) A building should be well lit. U.S. employers lose $3 billion annually due to pain-induced absenteeism. The National Lighting Bureau believes that much of this pain is due to poor lighting. Most buildings have too little, too much, or poorly designed lighting. This can damage vision and cause eye strain, headaches, work errors, drops in productivity, and increased sick leave. It also can add to the building's heating load, creating more demand on the cooling system

4) A building should be designed to take full advantage of nature's free services. Free, full-spectrum sunlight, natural wind barriers, shading from trees and hills, and passive heat from the sun. This is a smart use of resources. They're available for free and can slash energy costs, costs that are often taken for granted as unavoidable operation costs. For example, Oberlin College's new Environmental Studies Center is being designed as a "net energy exporter," to create more energy than it needs by using both active and passive solar methods.

In the days before central heating and air conditioning, natural factors such as wind direction, solar orientation, and weather patterns were incorporated into building design. Today, they're usually ignored, which is too bad, because if the architects took those factors into account, the buildings would be cheaper to run and, sometimes, to build. If designers don't pay attention to the sun and to the natural shelter of nearby trees and hills when they design and site a building, they may need to compensate with expensive heating, cooling, and lighting systems.

5) A good building should incorporate as many sustainable, local materials as possible into its construction - to support local economies, to avoid the high energy and financial costs of long-distance transportation, and to fit in with local aesthetics.

6) Buildings should be designed with their local contexts in mind. Unfortunately, many buildings are designed without considering their local contexts. In other words, the same building may be built in Anchorage, Alaska, or Miami, Florida. That means that their heating and cooling systems may have to compensate for their inappropriate building designs.

7) A good building uses water and other resources efficiently. Water use is important to keep in mind. As human populations and industries grow, especially in arid regions, the demands for limited water resources increase. Rainwater catchment systems come in different sizes and can be used to collect water for landscaping, for instance. Porous roads, driveways, and walkways that allow rainwater to be absorbed instead of becoming polluted with oil and debris and going down the storm drains are increasingly available.

Some architects and builders are even designing buildings that process human waste on site by creating small ecosystems that filter and metabolize the waste. A builder friend of mine thinks that future homes and communities may be designed to cluster around on-site waste treatment, such as created wetlands. On-site waste treatment saves the energy and expense of using off-site treatment plants and also keeps our waste out of our drinking water.

Oberlin College will use a biological system of waste treatment inside its Environmental Studies Center, and the grey water that comes out of that will be used for the building's toilets.

8) Buildings should provide on-site waste treatment whenever possible, processing waste on site via small ecosystems or created wetlands. This saves the energy and expense of off-site treatment plants. Oberlin College will have a biological waste treatment system in its new Environmental Studies Center. The resulting grey water will be used for the building's toilets.

9) A good building is designed with construction and deconstruction in mind. In Germany, product manufacturers are held accountable for what they make, from the beginning to the end of their products' life cycles. They're required to take their products, such as computers or television sets, back at the end of their useful lives. So, many manufacturers are now trying to create things more efficiently - with fewer parts, easier to put together and disassemble. And some are leasing the services of their products (e.g., carpet tiles) rather than selling them.

For example, Oberlin's Environmental Studies Center will lease its raised floor and carpeting from the manufacturer, who is then responsible their disassembly and reuse when Oberlin is done with them. By doing this, Oberlin is buying what the products will provide without owning the products themselves. This leaves the products' life cycle in the hands of the producer, who will continuously disassemble and reuse them. Again, we're back to closed loop systems, in which waste equals food, in which nothing is thrown away. Buildings, too, should be easier to put together and take apart.

Buildings also should be designed with changing needs in mind. For instance, a Wal-Mart that was built in the Midwest a few years ago was designed so that it could be used for community housing when its days as a Wal-Mart are over.

10) What else should a building be? A building should also be beautiful. It should add to, or at the very least not take away from - the natural aesthetic around it. And beauty doesn't have to stand out - a building can be designed to blend into its natural environment, whether it's a hillside, a forest, or a coastal area. A building should be designed to give back more than it takes - aesthetically and with regard to the health of the surrounding ecosystem. Buildings should feed and nourish their local environments - not just take away from them. Landscaping shouldn't be overlooked and can be done with native trees and wildflowers to improve local habitat.


The things that I'm talking about are not for special buildings - these are things that should be done in every building. Green building should actually be called good building because that's what it is - it's resource-efficient and healthy building. That's all. It doesn't mean living in a dimly-lit cave or a tire house or being cold or suffering in any way. It's just the opposite.

Green buildings are healthier, more comfortable, less drafty, better lit, and less expensive to operate. There's nothing about green building that should prevent it from being mainstream. It's just that many architects and designers have not been trained to take advantage of free light, heating, and cooling and of healthier, safer building materials. Most have been trained to think inside the box. Some are learning to build green because their clients are asking them for green buildings. And others are looking for alternatives because they understand that there must be better ways to build, that today's buildings are not serving our needs.

So, what have we learned from our buildings? That most of them are not doing their jobs. That because we're failing at building, our buildings are failing us. They're costing people in health bills and stress, and they're costing companies in terms of productivity, operations, and medical expenses. And, they're costing the environment. That cost is increasing and is being paid disproportionately by some individuals, communities, and cultures, and this is the driving force behind the environmental justice movement. But future generations, globally, will pay the heaviest burden.


There is another aspect of green, or better, building that many people don't know about but should. Something that has helped to determine the parameters of the box we build in. That is the U.S. building codes. Building codes were created to protect the health and safety of people from the built environment. But these codes are actually jeopardizing the health and safety of everyone on the planet by ignoring buildings' impacts on resources and the environment. I'll explain how.

A friend of mine builds houses using straw bales. This is a low-impact, energy-efficient technology that relies on local materials and can be used to build more affordable buildings. As I've already said, buildings should be appropriate to culture, location, available resources, and economics. They should also use local materials that are abundant, renewable, and affordable. But they don't.

My friend has been working with the people who design and implement the U.S. building codes and has discovered some interesting things in the process. For one, it's hard to build low-tech buildings using local materials in the United States. I know it seems strange, but the US building codes actually discourage the use of low-impact materials. Instead, building codes require increasingly hi-tech, processed, and transported materials, leading to higher levels of resource use, waste generation, environmental impact, and economic costs.

A Building's Life Cycle

The building codes and regulations influence every stage of a building's life cycle. Yet, they usually ignore the factors involved in making building materials and components like resource extraction, transportation, manufacture, maintenance, and the building's eventual demolition or deconstruction. The codes actually discourage the use of lower-tech, lower-impact, more environmentally friendly methods that building code officials consider to be "alternative."

Now, how did traditional materials such as adobe, rammed earth, and stone become known as "alternative" materials, and steel, concrete, plywood, and plastic became known as "conventional"? This is standard "box" thinking. It ignores the future of the high-tech, high-impact building path. A path that is energy-intensive and environmentally non-sustainable. For now, many of the code officials seem to think that there's little to learn from traditional building systems, even though some of those systems and materials are great examples of appropriate technology. There is a preconceived notion that higher tech is better.

Bad Building

In April of the year 2000, the International Code Council, which was formed formed by three U.S. model code organizations, will release the International Building Code (IBC). Not only will this code be used to determine how we build in the United States, but it will serve as the model for codes around the world. Unfortunately, the question of whether or not we are building sustainably has not entered the equation much until now.

Of course, all of the world's buildings can't be built like those in the United States because the resources simply are not available. Over the past 100 years, alone, 20% of the world's forests have been consumed, and atmospheric CO2, or carbon dioxide, has risen 27% - 1/4 of this is from burning fossil fuels for energy for buildings. One study reports that if everyone in the world lived like the "average" North American, we would need the natural resources of two more planet Earths. That's two more, in addition to this one.

It's clear that these building codes have the potential to make an enormous impact on planetary health and welfare. And if the new code's designers continue to ignore environmental and other impacts, the result will be tremendous. The rest of the world, or those who can afford it, will be building expensive, energy- and resource-intensive buildings. Like us, they'll contribute to resource depletion and environmental degradation, and building will be taken out of the hands of people who need shelter but cannot afford to buy expensive building materials.


But even when we do have enough of a resource, that doesn't mean that we should use it. Let me give you an example. The environmentalists long predicted that we would quickly use up the world's fossil fuel reserves. Of course, the reserves are finite, but we know now that there are more fossil fuel reserves than we thought there were twenty years ago when those predictions were being made.

But other factors have come to light that we didn't understand then. So what if there's enough oil for another generation to use? We can't burn it. Things have changed, our knowledge has changed, and we now know that burning fossil fuels creates carbon emissions that contribute to the greenhouse effect, global warming.

So it's not just a matter of whether there's enough of a resource to go around for a while - we also have to take into account what that resource is and how its use will affect this planet.


If we don't start visioning for a world that we want to live in, a world that's sustainable, and create strategies for getting there, then we won't get there. It is crucial that we take care to imagine, design, and create in ways that are holistic and healthy for ourselves and the other species living on this planet. Of course, we need shelter in which to live and work, but we can have it in ways that don't dislocate us from our nature, our roots, and our identities. Ways that don't create isolation and stress. Moving away from non-renewable, synthetic, and harmful materials is a first step.

This is an exciting time to be alive. It requires us to reinvent ourselves, to think outside ourselves, our cultures, our paradigms, and to think outside the box. To live as though we are part of a larger ecosystem, which we are. Part of a larger community. If we want to survive on this planet, we need to play by its rules.

You may not realize this yet, but we are on the brink of a second industrial revolution. It's going to totally change the way that we build, the way that we make things. Life cycles will be taken into account, we'll rethink the way that we live and make, largely out of necessity because we've squeezed ourselves into a corner. It's already happening. The architects, builders, and companies that are involved are doing it for different reasons, but they all understand that it's good business. They understand that creating pollution and waste is bad business. They know that it results from the inefficient use of resources and takes away from their profits, productivity, and available natural capital.

I want you to try something. Next time you're driving or walking or riding a bike, take a look at the spaces around you. Use your imaginations - in your ideal world, what would they look like? If you see large fields of one type of grass, instead of hundreds of plant species, a field where there's no genetic diversity, imagine how it would look with native plants and wildflowers and the butterflies, birds, and other creatures that would live there - do the same with a golf course. And look at the buildings.

Look at your houses, your apartments, your offices, your dorm rooms, your classrooms. If there are strip malls or parking lots, imagine something better. Even if you would keep the buildings and the parking lots there, how would you improve them? Would the parking lots be impermeable, or would they let rainwater soak through and grass to sprout through them? Imagine what a healthy community, town, or city would look like. Keep those visions in mind and build on them, making differences where you can.

It's only through imagination that we create, and only by imagining good things and buildings and places where we would want to spend our time and our lives will those things come to be. Written by: Sustainable Development


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