Archive for March, 2011

March 16, 2011

CALGreen: Triumphs and Challenges

Marian Thomas

By Marian Thomas

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

On January 1, 2011, CALGreen, California’s new statewide green building code went into effect – soon followed by widespread confusion, panic (and quite possibly tears) among those responsible for securing building permits on new projects. While the actual code requirements are quite reasonable, the implementation of CALGreen appears to be another matter entirely – for building departments and project applicants alike.

Codification of green building: much ado about nothing

Many of us in the green building industry have anticipated the day when green building best management practices became codified. Green building can be interpreted in myriad ways and often suffers from misconceptions around cost and feasibility. Like other building practices, it benefits from translation into concrete, regulated codes. Building codes can demystify green strategies or practice, making them as common place as other building requirements, such as structural or plumbing codes. This eases confusion and drives down costs.

As an example, in the early 1900s engineers initially began advocating seismic design requirements or “earthquake engineering” in buildings. The first generation of researchers could barely secure funding to complete their studies — even after the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Many in the building industry believed “such discussion will advertise the state as an earthquake region, and so hurt business.” Others critics considered the early seismic engineering to be both costly and unattractive. By the 1930s, seismic engineering requirements were signed into law. Today they’re as ordinary as any other building practice in California. This legislation neither hurt nor stalled the boom in real estate and business in the state.

San Francico Earthquake of 1906

Another good reason for building code updates

CALGreen, in taking this initial first step towards integrating green building practices into code, has also encountered its share of dissension that in some ways parallels the adoption of seismic engineering requirements. Like the critics of Assembly Bill 32, opponents of state-mandated green building or energy reduction requirements that claim such legislation will harm development and discourage business from locating in the state are both near-sighted and sensationalist.

The CALGreen authors intended to create a baseline of green building across the state. This now means even smaller jurisdictions without established green building ordinances are required to, at a minimum, reduce water consumption by 20 percent, recycle construction and demolition waste, install low-emitting materials and commission buildings over 10,000 sf. CALGreen’s mandatory requirements are neither overly stringent nor onerous, particularly given the state’s existing energy code. These requirements are a solid first step toward formally establishing green building in California and potentially across the rest of the country.

Implementation: much ado about something

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, it’s not the complete picture. The multitude of ways cities are choosing to implement CALGreen is not doing green building legislation in the state any favors. Since January 1, any city can amend CALGreen as it sees fit. Beyond the mandatory requirements mentioned above, CALGreen also includes a selection of voluntary measures and “tiers” (similar to LEED and GreenPoint Rated credits) that cities are encouraged to adopt as mandatory in their own adaptations of CALGreen. These can include enhanced requirements for energy efficiency, carpool/LEV parking, water use reduction, C&D waste diversion, etc. There are countless combinations of additional requirements and amendments possible under CALGreen.

At the same time, municipalities such as San Francisco and Oakland have also retained certain elements of their previous existing green building ordinances, such as requiring LEED or GreenPoint Rated certifications for certain building occupancies. For project applicants in these jurisdictions, it’s like juggling three separate green building systems. Tracking and managing all these nuances can be both time-consuming and costly.

Many have assumed documentation for all CALGreen measures, mandatory and voluntary, would be included in the construction drawings or specifications submitted to and reviewed by the building department as part of plan check. However, what we are seeing now is that each building department can mandate its own documentation and compliance review process as well – from requiring third-party reviews, to bringing on a licensed “Green Building Compliance Professional of Record” or “Green Building Certifier” (at the owner’s expense) to sign off on the green measures in the project.

While it is valuable to allow cities the ability to set higher standards and require measures that may reflect regional priorities, the inconsistency in compliance and documentation requirements may be doing more harm than good to green building in California. This variation in the municipal implementation of CALGreen is creating confusion and a bit of pandemonium among those trying to navigate these new green building requirements. As a result, many will continue to see green building as a hurdle to overcome, rather than an accepted standard of practice.

CALGreen, the “Third Wheel”

Perhaps having a separate “green building code” makes it appear, once again, that building sustainably is an add-on – as other third-party certification programs are often interpreted. Perhaps it would have been less distressing to the building design and construction industry to instead integrate many of these “green measures” more subtly into the existing building code divisions. For instance, water use reduction targets could have easily been added to the plumbing code, and enhanced indoor ventilation requirements could have been added to the energy and mechanical code sections.

In fact, many CALGreen measures are simply repeats of existing code requirements anyway. While it doesn’t carry the same mystique or catchiness as “CALGreen,” the more subtle approach may have avoided the confusion now plaguing the building design and construction industry under the new CALGreen mandates.

Bottom line: the primary challenge posed by CALGreen will not be meeting its requirements, especially for teams accustomed to meeting LEED or GreenPoint Rated systems. The real challenge will be ensuring documentation and compliance is adhered to properly for every city, county and jurisdiction in the state.

March 15, 2011

Client Corner: Cate Millar of the Leftbank Annex

Josh Hatch, Climate Services Group Director, Brightworks

by Josh Hatch

Climate Services Group Director

How green do you want your business to be, and how do you know if you measure up to your own standards? The Leftbank Annex, a flexible event space in Portland, Oregon, requested an independent, third party sustainability audit to answer those questions for their business. We analyzed their operational practices and the preferred vendor list that they suggest to all of their clients to give them an accurate picture of their sustainability successes and opportunities for improvement. I sat down with Leftbank Managing Director Cate Millar to talk about what prompted the project for them, and how they’re planning on using the findings as they move their business forward.

Oregon Environmental Council 2011 Annual Event at the Leftbank Annex

Oregon Environmental Council 2011 Annual Event at the Leftbank Annex

Josh: You’ve said you want to be the most sustainable event space you can be. Where did that goal come from?

Cate: Our goal came from within – from our ownership really believing this is the right thing to do. Sustainability is the primary concern of very few of our clients. It’s somewhere on the list of concerns for many, but it’s not on the radar at all for the majority. It’s a pressure that’s just nascent in this market. But we know that if you look at the trends nationally, things are going that way. It’s there, it’s just not “the thing.”

Part of it for us is a role model mindset. If we can do it, anyone can do it. And we want to attract businesses and clients that want to put on green events, but we also want the events of people who don’t care to be as green as possible.

Josh: The “We’ve done our research so you don’t have to” model.

Cate: Right. It’s a nice exclamation point at the end of a tour with a prospective client. “By the way, this is how our space works. It’s green.” We’re giving them everything they want, and then some. This audit process provides independent corroboration that we’re doing what we set out to do. When I spoke with your CEO, he put it this way: “We walk the walk, so you can talk the talk.” We want to be sure we have the walk before we talk. There’s the issue of greenwashing, and we’re hypersensitive to it.

Josh: When you renovated the building, you installed high efficiency water fixtures, but also added plumbing for a future rainwater capture system. The high efficiency fixtures make a big dent in your water usage, but something the report turned up is that one of the biggest changes you can realistically make to be more resource efficient is capturing rainwater to flush toilets. You’ve actually already plumbed for it, but it’s still an investment – it’s a tank, and a system…

Cate: But that’s good to know, and we’ll use that information to help prioritize future capital decisions. And the vendor reviews you put together are something we can use right away. The great thing about this project is that you’ve confirmed what we believed – that we created the space we intended – and given us the tools to make incremental and major improvements that will keep us on track. In fact, having you do an annual review, or asking for your advice before making a major investment, would probably be a very smart thing to do. Every decision we make needs to build off this foundation.

The Leftbank Annex
The Leftbank Annex event space, photo from Benefit Auctions 360

Josh: Food is a really tough nut to crack when you’re talking about sustainability, and we know that. But your exclusive vendor is in the pack of leaders.

Cate: Our goal is to be the greenest possible event space we can be. After how we manage our facility, the caterer has the biggest impact on operations. We were very cognizant of that when we selected Bon Appetit. Sustainability is at the heart of their corporate DNA and we knew they would carry that part of the business.

Josh: Your vendors were very open about their sustainability challenges.

Cate: We wanted to offer our customers a list of “preferred vendors” that share our business and sustainability goals. We went through a rigorous process to vet our selections and are confident recommending any of our partners. When you speak to someone about sustainability, you can tell if they’re really committed or just talking the talk. When you ask someone what they do to be green you hope for a more thoughtful answer than “Well, I drive a Prius.” Our vendors had real answers; they gang deliveries to reduce travel, use local and organic food, natural cleansers and seasonal flowers. They compost and use recycled water to clean rentals. You know they’ve really thought about it.

Josh: You have to ask about specifics. If I ask a caterer where they get their tomatoes in winter, I know they’ve been deliberate when they have an answer like “This is something we struggled with for a long time, but eventually we found a vendor who does thus and so, and here’s why we think that’s best.” When they have a static policy like, “We only buy organic tomatoes,” it almost seems too cut and dry.

Cate: If we’re committing to continual improvement , our vendors have to be too. If you’re at the head of the pack and do nothing, everyone else passes you by after a few years. This assessment is only a beginning. That’s what’s exciting to me. It’s never done.

March 14, 2011

Opening up to what nature can teach

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorBy Nicole Isle

Senior Sustainability Advisor

Do you know where you live? No, really, do you know where you live?

Think of the location where you work and imagine what it looked like pre-development. Buildings and infrastructure: gone. Roadways, railroads, houses, high rises, bridges, sidewalks, and lawns: all gone. People may still be there, or not, depending on your image; but in both cases, your perception of your surroundings has completely transformed.

Now take a big deep breath and take it all in. What do you see, and more importantly, can you describe it? Maybe you see a forest of trees, a broad open field or a winding stream. Maybe you see all of these things and more. Now the question becomes: Could you give directions to someone located 10 miles away to find you? How would you begin to describe your location?

Inspiration from the nature of place

Portland, Ore. is home to me and its 580,000 residents. However, for the rest of the species living here, too, home is the Columbia Basin and Willamette River Watershed. In any quest toward living in balance on Earth, learning about the natural history of place provides the most promising example of how to achieve sustainability using local solutions.

Nature thrives under the same conditions humans do and is our most inarguable example of truly sustainable development. To understand what this means and to be inspired over and over in your work, all you have to do is open your eyes!

Seriously, learning from nature can be as easy as taking a walk outdoors and letting your curiosity take over. Connecting with your local watershed councils and organizations focused on protecting urban ecosystems is another great way to reconnect with nature.

Try researching your project site to contextualize the basis for design and to develop design parameters that align with the site’s environmental performance. For example, what is or were the primary natural features of the site that define its function in the broader watershed? Features may include a wetland, forest, floodplain or hillside. Research these features and work to mimic their functions in the development of your design.

Nature’s lessons at your fingertips

The Internet has become our dearest source of instant information, and learning about nature is no exception. The Biomimicry Institute has a wonderful website called It’s chock full of examples of how life has evolved to thrive on Earth. It’s also a great tool for designers, educators, researchers, businesses and others to seek new inspiration for their work. A couple hours on this website could solve challenges related to architecture, planning, organizational structure and product design by providing solutions that align with nature’s principles.

I perused AskNature for building and product solutions based on the local ecology of my neighborhood. In 30 minutes I discovered amazing ways to possibly solve common structural engineering, glazing and resource-efficiency issues. For example, the hexagonal cells of beehives create an incredibly strong structure. The 120-degree angle of a hexagon is stronger than a typical 90-degree angle, and its repetitive pattern comprising the hive minimizes energy and material use. How practical and economical!

Arnold Glas, a German company, has created an insulated glass-sheeting product that is designed to reduce bird collisions. Only birds can see its UV-reflective coating, which resembles a spider web cast across the window. Designers were inspired after learning some spider species utilize this sort of reflective element in their silk to distract animals that could potentially fly through and destroy their webs.

In my research on AskNature, I was also struck by the incredible ability of trees to perfectly position their roots and leaves to capitalize on water and solar resources.

Development teams can use AskNature to learn how to solve design challenges based on what they can learn from nature at their project site. The Biomimicry Guild calls this process Genius of Place, which uses environmental performance measures based on the local site ecology as a benchmark for measuring a development’s ability to function as the local ecology functions. This means aligning with how nature lives in balance with local operating conditions.

Use nature as your most trustworthy design resource and mentor. After 3.85 billion years of trial and error, nature knows what it takes to live in balance on the planet.

March 10, 2011

The More You Know…

Better Educated = Better World

Nate backpacking on Washington's Olympic Penninsulaby Nate Young

Brightworks Education Coordinator

I’ve always been impressed with the impact knowledge can have on an individual. My driving habits were forever changed when I learned automakers and the EPA advise that there is no mechanical reason to idle a car longer than 30 seconds. If all US drivers changed their behavior accordingly, this tidbit of knowledge could save as much as 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline. The GHG impact would be comparable to removing more than three million cars from the road annually.1

Similarly, professional, adult or continuing education helps the educated make better decisions. As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said, “Benefiting society as a whole, educated individuals are more likely to participate in civic affairs, volunteer their time to charities, and subscribe to personal values…that are increasingly crucial for the healthy functioning of our diverse society.”2 Education leads to positive changes within our personal and professional practice and, in turn, benefits an entire ecosystem, raising all boats.

Sustainable Careers Require Constant Evolution

The value of continuing education is not lost on the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). In June 2009, the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) revamped the credentialing process. Individuals accredited by the GBCI are now required to earn a number of continuing education credits every two years. (Check out our brief guide to the Credential Maintenance Program for those Legacy LEED APs without specialty who are interested in the prescriptive path to a LEED specialty.)

Further, the first ballot version of the 2012 LEED rating systems states that Legacy LEED APs will not qualify for “LEED AP credits” as they have in the past. This is meant to ensure the credit is awarded only for green building professionals that are up to date on industry best practices. (For more information, see this article on LEEDUser.)

We agree green building education is not a static destination, but a journey. Brightworks recently launched a series of continuing ed. workshops that aim to fulfill the specific requirements of the prescriptive path to a specialty (though our content aims to move beyond the LEED fundamentals by bringing innovative and practical courses to the industry).

To stand still professionally is to be moving backwards, particularly in today’s job market. Participating in workshops and trainings is one sure way to stay on top of changes in green building. It also shows current and future employers you’re making an ongoing investment in your career and industry.

Bored at Work? Get Inspired!

The inspirational value of ongoing education should not be ignored either. Professionals are continually pushing the boundaries of green building. Additional standards, such as Passive House and the Living Building Challenge, raise the bar for rating systems and set a new benchmark for green buildings that strive for regenerative design. New initiatives such as STARS quantify for the first time better practices for new transportation projects. And frameworks such as biomimicry support the design and implementation of green building strategies, often changing the way we think about design.

One recent participant of a biomimicry workshop said, “The way you look at nature after taking this class is forever changed.” Not only did she benefit professionally from a framework that looks to nature for inspiration in solving design challenges – significant in itself; she also developed a new appreciation for the natural world that is a strong driver for our work!

The Multiplier Effect of Education

Finally, I’m passionate about the combination of sustainability and education because of the potential multiplier effect. As Scott alluded to earlier this week, changed individuals can create “infinite ripples of change.” Think of the power that all those ripples taken together can have!

As we individually learn more about sustainability, our knowledge filters out to the network of individuals around us. Just one A/E professional knowledgeable about sustainability influences an entire network, driving change on projects that lead to even greater triple-bottom-line benefits. In the end, that is Brightworks’ and my mission: “to foster the emergence of a sustainable, equitable society.”

1    Carrico, A. R., Padgett, P., Vandenbergh, M. P., Gilligan, J. & Wallston, K. A. (2009). Costly myths: An analysis of idling beliefs and behavior in personal motor vehicles. Energy Policy, 37, 2881-2888.

2    Bernanke, B. S. (2007). Speech to the US Chamber Education and Workforce Summit, Washington, D.C. September 24, 2007. Retrieved from

March 7, 2011

Measuring What Matters, Part 1 : The People Metric

Scott Lewis, Brightworks CEOBy Scott Lewis

 Brightworks CEO

My friend Randy Hayes, the founder and former Executive Director of the non-profit Rainforest Action Network, told me a story about meeting the writer Carlos Castaneda.  Randy asked Carlos, “So. Does what we are doing matter?”  Carlos pondered the question, gazing off into the distance.  He then looked at Randy, and said, “yes, but not for the reasons you think.”

At Brightworks, we continually ask ourselves the question: does our work really make any difference, and how can we know?  In response to this question, we have a long-standing internal dialogue about what metrics can reflect the impact of our work, and the tangible outcomes of our projects.  Because a great deal of our work involves what we refer to as built environment sustainability, some metrics are easy to capture: what are the energy, water and waste savings of our projects?  And while we would be loath to ever assume or imply that it is our work alone that create these results – we work on teams with gifted architects, engineers, planners, and builders – we do assume that we have some contribution to those outcomes.

Several years ago, we started tracking and reporting those water-energy-waste savings, and translating them into meaningful numbers such as tons of carbon dioxide averted from the atmosphere, or dollars of saving to the owners or occupants of the building we work on. As of the end of 2010, our metrics looked something like this:

BW Metrics

For more details about the numbers behind those numbers, see the metrics page on our web site.


But considering our metrics, for some time, something has been bothering me.  Something is missing.  It occurred to me that while the energy and water and dollar savings created by our work do matter, perhaps the most important impact we have is not measured in kilowatt-hours or gallons or tons of CO2.  Maybe the most important impact we have is in the people we touch – the people we inspire and teach.  The people to whom we give tools they didn’t have before, or more importantly even, those whose understanding and expectations about what is possible we shift, just a little, or occasionally, a lot.  If we help people understand the possibilities for transformative change – that by changing how we as a society do what we do, we, together, can catalyze disruptive, positive, discontinuous change in the sometimes lethargic movement of our economic and social paradigm.  If we can awaken in people hope, or restore it, if we can energize them to try harder, to work harder, to believe in a future where human prosperity no longer is tied to the degradation of the planet, but rather, to its conservation and regeneration, then doesn’t that matter more than all that CO2 and averted dump trucks?  You bet it does.

So then, how do we measure this – the people we touch, and the impact we have on them?  The answer is obvious: not easily.  But even so, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it, think about it, and try to track and report it.  Here is my current thinking, and I welcome feedback and input…

Look at all the places, through our work, that Brightworks regularly has an opportunity to influence how people think.  Some of those places we have greater leverage – an in-house training at a business, or facilitating a discussion seminar with a group of graduate students, for example.  Other places, our influence may be less powerful – members of the project teams with whom we have some, but not a lot, of daily interaction, or people who live in the buildings we work on.  And in between: readers of our newsletters and blog, attendees at the conferences we speak at, or perhaps even participants in our public workshops and trainings.  Whom do we move more, whom do we inspire less?  (Whom do we alienate and have negative influence on – perhaps they get fed up and become climate change skeptics?)

Hard – perhaps impossible – to measure with any meaning.  But we can at least track the raw numbers.  So here we go – our shiny new “People Metric”:

  • People who read our blog in 2010: 3,000
  • People who “opened” our email newsletter last year: at least 1,000 (impossible to count multiple opens by the same person in different issues…)
  • People who attended our webinars in 2010: 500
  • People who attended our workshops in 2010: 600-700
  • New projects we started in 2010: 94*
  • People who live or work in buildings we worked on: 26,700

* [figure there were on average 15-30 people attending the eco-charrette we facilitate at the beginning of the project, and another dozen or so people we interact with in the course of the project.  So that means another couple of thousand people, give or take, touched in our project work in 2010.]

And then, the one last component of our people metric: our team.  If we are successful in our internal efforts to be informed, expert practitioners in the art of helping our clients create lasting value through integrating sustainability into their work and lives, then each one of our team members is also at the center of one of those “infinite ripples of change” circles.  Impossible, again, to measure the impact of a well-trained, inspired, effective Brightworker.  But at least worth noting it as one more metric: 24 current team members, and a small handful that have moved on to other ventures.  Some impact in this cadre of dedicated, devoted sustainability change agents, beyond that measured in the line items above. One might hope.

What Does It All Mean?

The answer is: we’re not sure.  It means we have the opportunity to touch, teach, co-learn with, learn from, inspire, and change, many people through the course of each year.  So when we are tracking metrics of the impacts we have, while the precise meaning of these numbers may be elusive, that fact does not imply that the numbers are meaningless.   So we’ll leave it to you to decipher the relevance of these numbers, and that, in itself, is perhaps the value of the exercise.  To just say: here’s what we did, we know there is impact in there, we know it’s impossible to measure with precision, but here are the rough numbers, interpret them as you may.  And that’s about all there is to it.

For as Carlos Castaneda so succinctly observed: what we do, what you do, is important.  But perhaps, not in the ways you think.

And perhaps it is best to simply leave it at that.

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