Archive for ‘Building Design and Construction’

March 30, 2012

Making Your Green Building Work For Your Business

When is going green a sound investment, and is it ever the wrong move?  This recent blog post from the Green Real Estate Law Journal reported on a new study citing evidence against the market value of pursuing green building certifications in certain geographical/geopolitical areas, or on certain project types.  As it made the rounds at Brightworks, one of our schools of thought could be summed up as, “So there is no ‘one size fits all’ green building solution for everyone…and this is news?”

The study focused on a small group of industrial buildings that underperformed their “non-green” peers – an effect which was especially pronounced in politically conservative counties.  This runs contrary to more common studies showing increased value tied to green building.  It asked, “…If green rental premiums are attributable to the branding of space, why would industrial warehouse facilities…benefit? Alternatively, if energy efficiency drives green premia, such effects may well be more pronounced within the industrial sector.”  Exploring questions like these with clients is the foundation of our work, because the business case for sustainability is different for everyone.

These two charts from our Business Case for Sustainability presentation (you can read our related article or  view the presentation deck on SlideShare) present sample breakdowns of how the business benefits of green building might look different for two different buildings – an owner occupied building versus a speculative building meant to be sold.

The Business Case for a Green Owner Occupied Building

Owner Occupied Building

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March 5, 2012

“I want to build sustainably, but I’m not sure where to start.”

Dennis Lynch, VP Sustainable Buildings Group, BrightworksBy Dennis Lynch, VP, Sustainable Buildings Group

The other day an architect started a conversation with Brightworks about green building by saying he was not in favor of LEED and didn’t see the value in it for his firms’ clients. As our conversation continued, he related a few instances where he was able to interest his clients in at least considering some sustainable features for their building design. By the end, he confessed he did want to build more sustainably more often. His question to us was: “How do I get started?”

After reflecting on this question for some time, I realized you can begin building green in several ways. You can start with something easy, something strategic or something meaningful that makes the changes most valuable to you. Each entry point opens the door to more action, and each will suit a different type of business.


Start! Image via The Lost Jacket

Start with Easy and Inexpensive

My very first thought in response to his question was: Why not try greener alternatives that will have little or no cost? Recycled carpet to reduce waste and low-VOC paints and adhesives to keep toxic chemicals out of the building are easy substitutions. You’re already specifying carpet and paint, so just specify something greener. There are probably a dozen items like these you can easily incorporate into your design and construction.

Start with Strategy

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January 10, 2012

“It’s More Difficult to Change a Building Than to Change a Person.”

By Brandon G. Sprague, Brightworks Communications Team

Eric Corey Freed, organicARCHITECTPart One of our interview with architect, innovator, and thought leader Eric Corey Freed of organicARCHITECT explored his thoughts on the green building innovations and critical issues we’ll see in 2012. Here in Part Two, he shares practical steps building owners can take right now at no cost, and where he finds hope and the greatest potential for change.


Brandon G. Sprague: Many readers of this blog are members of the real estate community. When you travel around the country speaking and teaching, you often state, “My vision of why I’m doing this is the basic idea that everything that exists in this world should exist because it makes the world a better place.” In what ways is the design and building community making the world a better place with its current practices? In what ways is it not?

Eric Corey Freed: On a very high level, you can argue that the built environment – any built environment – improves the world by providing human beings with shelter, habitat, places to work, places to live…

But at the same time, practically all of the buildings that exist in the industrialized world – all but a very small percentage – ignore how they use energy, water, and resources. In creating such a built environment over the last 150 to 200 years, we have created a system that that is too expensive for us to maintain, a system that is actually threatening our existence. When we planned and designed this system, energy was cheap and abundant. But in the last 50 years, we’ve realized that energy is neither cheap nor abundant. And we’ve realized that our consumption of energy is actually threatening, if not killing, our way of life.

Now that cheap energy no longer exists and our consumption patterns are forcing us to change our way of life, what do we do? This is where the opportunity comes in for the design and construction industry to transform buildings and thereby transform civilization. We have the technology to do it, we have the ability to do it, we just need the will to do it. In doing so, we will have to look for innovative ways to work in, live in, and operate our buildings.

This Could Be Your Shopping Center

This could be your shopping center. Image via organicARCHITECT

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December 14, 2011

Eric Corey Freed on “Innovations That Would Freak People Out”

By Brandon G. Sprague, Brightworks Communications Team

Eric Corey Freed, organicARCHITECT

Eric Corey Freed

We at Brightworks are frequently in conversation with clients, partners and the media about what’s new and what’s next in sustainability. Heading into 2012, we sat down with architect, innovator and thought leader Eric Corey Freed of organicARCHITECT to get his perspective on the future of green building. A frequent speaker and author of four books on sustainable design, Eric shared his views on the limits of “sustainable design”, the three most critical issues for the building industry in 2012, and the next waves of innovation.

Brandon G. Sprague: Organic Architecture is an approach to the design of buildings that has guided your career. How do you describe Organic Architecture?

Eric Corey Freed: For decades now, we’ve had this thing called “green building” or “sustainable design” which dictates that the designers, builders, owners, and operators of buildings orient them in certain ways and take responsibility for the energy, water, and materials used in them. Defined this way, sustainable buildings are pretty straightforward. Make “better” siting and material and building system choices and you make a “better” building by focusing on the nuts and bolts of the building’s assembly. Organic Architecture – which is the term Frank Lloyd Wright used for designing the way nature designs – looks beyond that, into how the form and structure is shaped by these natural principles.

10 Principles of Organic Architecture

Photo via organicARCHITECT

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June 15, 2011

Learn, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Nate backpacking on Washington's Olympic Penninsulaby Nate Young

Brightworks Education Coordinator

A number of years ago, researchers dug into the efficacy of the 50-year-old “Smokey the Bear” campaign to prevent forest fires. They found that a picture of Smokey produced a 98% aided recall of the campaign. Digging deeper though, they found only a 7% unaided recall and an even lower rate of understanding of what actions actually reduced forest fires. A critical but missing piece of the campaign was the education behind the image: What steps should campers and other forest users take to prevent forest fires?[i]

Smokey the Bear

But how, Smokey? What do I actually do?

Is sustainability your Smokey the Bear? Do your employees recognize the importance of sustainability, without understanding what the term means, let alone their role in driving the firm toward triple bottom line success?

In addition to managing the competitive pressure to increase sustainable practices, I’ve pointed out before that many firms also recognize the important role workforce training plays in engaging and retaining high-quality, motivated employees. As awareness of sustainability grows, employees increasingly seek out employers that offer and encourage professional growth generally and in sustainability specifically. According to a recent Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) study, fully 67% of firms interested in sustainability are or will be providing on-the-job training in sustainability.[ii]

I’ll present three reasons you should join these firms in offering a workforce education program on sustainability:

  • save money
  • make your firm more nimble and innovative
  • improve your employees’ level of engagement.

Then, I’ll offer three crucial tips to ensure the efforts you undertake are worthwhile:

  • engage all levels of the enterprise
  • offer required “courses” but also allow employees to direct some of their own learning
  • tie learning objectives to business objectives and incentives

Why Offer Sustainability Education?

Cost Savings: Who can argue with an opportunity to save money? By neglecting to offer your employees the knowledge they need to make effective, cost-saving decisions, you may be leaving money on the table. Most decisions that affect the bottom line are made at the top. However, the daily actions of line-level workers can result in costs rising or falling.

One energy-saving initiative at Intel to raise the thermostat by one degree led to energy savings estimated at more than $400,000 in just one year. Piloted by employees, this effort cost the company nothing and yet led to substantial savings. With oversight from management, the knowledgeable workforce was able to recognize a potential for savings, test out their hypothesis to ensure there were no negative consequences and institute the plan.[iii]

Nimble, Innovative Workforce: Studies have consistently shown a strong correlation between companies that attend to sustainability and those with superior financial returns. One such study showed companies focused on leadership development and adaptive culture grew four times faster and had seven times higher job creation.[iv]

Setting goals, informing your workforce and providing the necessary training can provide a distinct competitive advantage. As social and environmental sustainability increasingly become a part of consumer expectations, the modern workforce must know how to adapt to changing expectations proactively rather than reactively.

Employee Engagement and Retention: SHRM has estimated the hiring process for a given position costs 70-200% of that employee’s annual salary. One of the most important and effective ways to retain a high-quality workforce and avoid employee replacement costs is to offer ongoing workforce training.

I heard a sustainability executive recently identify employee engagement and retention as one of four compelling reasons her firm continued to pursue sustainability strategies and provide ongoing sustainability training. The company’s job applicants consistently ask: “What is your stance – and how do you engage your employees – on sustainability?” Having a proactive sustainability plan made the firm an attractive place to work for their recruits, and ongoing training kept them motivated and engaged.

How to Ensure ROI on Sustainability Training

As with any new business initiative, sustainability training requires certain steps to ensure a return on investment. There are three critical ways to transform the “fuzzy” benefits of sustainability training into improved business performance:

Engage All Levels of the Workforce: Sustainability initiatives often employ the “green team” model driven by motivated employees with no support from management. Alternately, management may issue a directive to incorporate sustainability, with no explanation or attempt to engage employees.. The most effective initiatives, however, involve every level of the organization.

Ground-level support can truly drive change, as in the Intel example above. However, having management on board with training and other efforts adds to employee motivation, while also providing the high-level leadership needed to truly make sustainability efforts successful.

Brenda Wisniewski, Chief Learning Officer of CoreNet Global, said:

“Where I’ve seen this work best is when training and learning is a priority — and it’s always because the CEO recognizes (and vocalizes) his or her point of view that the better trained the company’s people are, the more they understand the business strategy and where they fit into it, and the better they can deliver on it.”[v]

Offer Flexibility in Training Options:  Part of remaining an adaptive, flexible organization is allowing your employees training options. This enables individuals to pursue aspects of sustainability that are important to them, while also allowing them to bring different knowledge and skills sets back to the workplace.

As discussed above, an organization that adapts to changing conditions is much more likely to be successful. A workforce that is educated on current sustainability trends brings proactive growth to the company when it is critical rather than in response to your competition’s movements.

Tie Training to Business Objectives and Incentives: It should go without saying, but employees tend to be substantially more effective at a task when their compensation and/or bonus are tied to its completion. Stonyfield tied employees’ bonuses to a companywide mandate to reduce energy consumption. Through continued education on methods for energy savings, and with incentives to match, the company surpassed their goal with a 22% reduction in energy consumed in 2008.[vi]

Healthcare giant Baxter developed a separate Environmental Financial Statement (EFS) that has been issued since 1993. The EFS showed that savings from employee-driven sustainability initiatives, tied to bottom-line goals, led to $91.9 million in income, savings and cost avoidance from 2002-2008.[vii]

Now is the Time

Is your company where it needs to be with regards to sustainability? And more importantly, will you continue to be on the front lines based on the level of training your workforce is receiving? Or are you opening the door to your competition by leaving your employees to fend for themselves? Now is the time to offer sustainability training to drive your firm into the emerging green economy – your competition isn’t waiting, and neither should you.

Click to view references

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 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

December 1, 2010

Are Green Buildings Keeping Pace with Climate Protection Targets?

Josh Hatch, Climate Services Group Director, Brightworksby Josh Hatch

Climate Services Group Director

In the past few years there has been a growing focus on understanding and reducing the carbon footprint of new and existing buildings. Trade publications, news articles, and corporate press releases are full of claims of massive reductions. Design firms advertise their net-zero projects, solar arrays, and advanced control systems that aim to minimize the carbon footprint of building operation. But how representative are these claims, and how does actual progress compare with the magnitude of the climate change problem? As a national leader in green building and sustainability, the City of Portland, Oregon offers new data that may shed light on where the rest of the country is headed, and whether enough progress is being made.

Over the past three years, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Portland Design Awards Competition has required that projects submit carbon calculations along with their application. The calculations are made by inputting forecast or actual energy usage information into a standardized carbon-calculation tool.  The tool determines the building’s carbon performance in comparison with both the national average for buildings of the same size and type, and in comparison with the carbon reduction target required for stabilizing the atmosphere concentration of carbon dioxide (as established by the 2030 Challenge Reduction Targets). This collected data provides a rare glimpse into the carbon performance of newly designed or renovated facilities.

The national average information for a building’s energy performance is taken from the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) database and converted to carbon impact. It is important to note that current building code requirements translate into a requirement that new designs demonstrate a roughly 25% improvement over the national average. The average project submitted to the competition in 2010 was 46% better than the national average, up from 33% in 2009, and up from 36% in 2008. Of the approximately 75 projects submitted each year to the design awards competition, in 2010, 28 projects demonstrated a 50% or greater improvement above the national average.  In 2009, that number was 19, and in 2008, it was only 11. Performance of at least 50% better than national average is relevant since the 2030 Challenge Target for climate stabilization was 50% prior to 2010. In 2010, the target for the next five years increased to 60%. In 2010, 16 of the submitted projects already met this higher threshold. These statistics were calculated by the Carbon Analysis Committee for the AIA Portland Design Awards Competition—a committee that I chair.

AIA Portland Design Awards Applicants greenhouse gas emissions

AIA Portland Design Awards Greenhouse Gas Data. Click to view full size.


This positive trend is encouraging, since it demonstrates that even in a relatively short 3-year period, the projects submitted for the AIA Portland Design Awards are showing marked improvement in reducing carbon emissions. However, it also brings up two large concerns:  There is a lag even among projects submitted for the awards in achieving the 2030 Challenge Targets for climate stabilization.  Also, many projects are still being designed and built only to the minimum code requirements. Portland’s data shows that roughly one-third of all projects submitted performance data indicating that they were at or below a 25% improvement over the national average.  Basically, the buildings were built to minimum code requirements. On the other hand, three projects were submitted this year that were carbon-neutral, proving that high performance is possible with today’s technologies and still cost-effective enough to be built during a recession.

Another indication of progress appeared in the release of the first year Progress Report for the Climate Action Plan for the City of Portland and its local Multnomah County. This is a three-year plan to put Portland on a path to achieve a 40% reduction in carbon emissions citywide by 2030 and achieve an 80% reduction by 2050. The report finds that local emissions have already dropped 15% since the year 2000.  Since 1990, a baseline year referenced in the Kyoto Protocol, local emissions have dropped 2% overall—for comparison, during the same time period, emissions nationwide rose 9%.This demonstrates that real carbon emission reductions can be achieved, even with population growth.

These two insights provide valuable information about progress in carbon reductions in buildings and communities. Although there has been a media onslaught about high performance green buildings that claim substantial carbon reductions, one should be skeptical of the US building code baseline used to calculate those reductions. Current energy code nearly guarantees a 25% improvement beyond the national average building performance.  However, only a few buildings are truly striving for or achieving carbon neutrality. It is likely that, until high performance green building achievements are no longer news, we still have a long way to go.

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