The time is rapidly approaching when there will no longer be a choice about pursuing sustainability, but so many whose involvement is necessary continue to try to pass the buck. These days, few people would object to incorporating green building concepts into new construction, but those who have decided to investigate the feasibility of such a project may be intimidated to find that conflicting municipal codes and regulations, difficulties with obtaining adequate materials, and outdated public concerns about safety still exist as hurdles to trip the unwary.
As has always been the case with so many environmental protection efforts, making green building standards a norm for construction requires bold action by individuals who are willing to face existing barriers to progress and overcome them. The publishers of the Living Building Challenge recently issued a report on the feasibility of projects striving to meet more comprehensive performance requirements, and noted that “[t]he result is often much greater difficulty navigating the maze of regulatory approvals than projects seeking only to meet minimum regulatory requirements.
Many developers, architects, and construction companies might be surprised to discover the extent to which existing municipal zoning and building codes, having been thrown together piecemeal for more than two centuries, conflict with the simple principles of sustainable green building standards like those in the LBC. Attempts to address these kinds of problems are often inhibited by the countervailing force of special interests or even of misguided public fears.
For example, one of the hallmarks of a “Living Building” is that it treats and reuses all of its own water. However, many municipal codes prohibit the use of so-called “grey water,” largely out of fear that reused water could cause health problems. In addition, electric companies, water companies, and others that historically have weighed in with opinions on building codes are not motivated to encourage the kind of change necessary to welcome in the Living Building concept. All of those utilities, some of them owned by municipalities, make money from consumption. Until public opinion sways toward accepting sustainability as crucial to survival, the road through municipal codes is likely to remain unchanged and difficult to traverse.
The LBC’s third major category, “Materials,” places some fairly severe practical challenges in the way of one of these projects. The “Red List” sub-category of materials and chemicals that simply cannot be used in a Living Building means that developers have to find working substitutes. Although the LBC has been said to have spurred building products manufacturers to run for the drawing room in an effort to get ahead of the game, new materials continue to trickle onto the market slowly. In addition, other LBC sub-categories place limits on the sources of timber that are allowable, as well as radius limits on the distances from which materials and services can be obtained, including everything from consultant travel (1500 miles) to heavy, high-density materials (250 miles). In some cases, it could be extremely difficult to find materials within the given distances that do not violate the “Red List” in any way.
All of these practical and legal difficulties tend to exacerbate what is perhaps the biggest current impediment to the mainstreaming of green building standards: Up-front costs. Society has far too long sacrificed the pursuit of technological advances in sustainability, in favor of spending less in the present time, and it may be difficult to motivate people to do otherwise in a recessed economy. In a recent report, the Living Building Institute concluded that in the long run, green buildings do recoup the cost of construction through savings on energy costs and other operating expenses. Studies have also shown that LEED-rated buildings were more likely to be occupied and easier to sell than conventional buildings. For owners who are in the project for the long term, this may not present a real problem, but it may stand as an apparent barrier to developers who simply want to build and then sell for a profit, or to lessors, who rent out properties and do not pay their own utility costs.
For the time being, traditional building materials are cheap; however, knowledgeable industry researchers forecast a true crisis of high prices to come, when the slowly recovering economy reacts with depleted natural resources, reduced populations in industrialized nations, and rising demand for materials in developing countries. In spite of the obvious necessity for innovation in the built environment, the high up-front costs associated with implementing green building standards during construction continue to deter some who otherwise would be happy to consider such projects, and the economy presents a challenge to implementation now of standards necessary to protect the future.
Some of these difficulties will not be overcome as quickly as others, but they absolutely must be overcome. Changing the public’s view of perceived health threats, for example, will likely take longer than the development and widespread marketing of appropriate building materials, and thus, the “maze of regulatory approvals” is likely to be around for a while. Part 3 of this Beyond LEED article will present solutions that are working for those who are wisely choosing to do what is necessary to step into the next level of sustainable building.