While “green” is good, ultimately it is sustainability that matters. Something that is “green” may in fact NOT be sustainable. The difference between something that is “green” versus something that is sustainable is key for cutting through the clutter of green-washed philosophies and products out there vying for your attention and for your money.
From Humble Beginnings to Big Business
The green movement has made considerable gains in the past few decades. From humble beginnings “green” has, in many respects, become big business, as corporations rush to meet the demands and expectations of a new generation of consumers interested in where products are from and how they are made. In the building industry, the green movement can be seen in the success and proliferation of environmentally conscious ratings systems, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED ratings system and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Star program. Evolving from some of the nation’s first green building initiatives in the 1990’s, LEED and Energy Star have become international standards from which projects across the world now seek recognition. When it comes to housing, green features, such as low-e windows and rooftop solar panels, have supplanted the traditional American fixation with big homes and white picket fences.
However, while growth in all areas of the green sector have been positively explosive, and public interest remains high, actual adoption and implementation of sustainable practices still remains surprisingly low. For example, renewables as a whole, still only contributes around 13 percent of the nation’s entire energy mix. In regards to the building industry, many architects, builders, and homeowners alike often consider green home construction to be a good idea but uneconomical. Predictably, only 17 percent of new housing stock even bothered to get Energy Star seals, let alone more rigorous certifications such as the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. In truth, building green only adds on average less than 2 percent to total construction costs. Further more, studies show that homes built to be sustainable sell for considerably more. Nonetheless, sustainability still remains somewhat of a tough sell.
It’s too expensive.
It’s too impractical.
It’s a waste of resources.
Other countries do it better.
It’s just not quite there yet.
It’s just a trend.
It’s only for those with disposable income.
These are common complaints when it comes to pursuing sustainability in public, at the workplace, and at home. The problem is that sustainability can get utterly disconnected from the workings of reality – becoming what is essentially a trend. In other words, it ceases to be a mindset and becomes another trend. “Green” can often be a trend. “Green” may be the corporate excuse to go paperless in order to cut corners. “Green” can lead to such novel yet impractical innovation as photovoltaics on the roof of super-cars, McMansions, and other such status symbols. While solar panels are certainly “green”, depending how they are deployed, they may or may not be sustainable.
The differences between sustainability and a surging “green” trend invading consumer products everywhere are subtle but incredibly key to understanding both the importance of sustainability and the treacherous danger of conflating the term with a mindless trend (when something becomes cool, and even admirable, but remains impractical or unadoptable by the majority). Sometimes even well-meaning individuals and organizations get caught-up in expensive environmental fads (General Motor’s 2009 attempt to capture some of that eco-friendly mojo by literally greening their logo comes to mind). They want to know more about the technologies available, and invest heavily in the tools, things such as solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal pumps, or embedded radiant heating and cooling coils. These things are great, and effective when intelligently designed and deployed. But focusing only on high-tech, active solutions to the complex problem of energy management and climate change merely invites disillusion.
A good example of the tension between a fad versus a mindset would be the debate over whether organic fruits and vegetables are really worth the price premium. While many diehard believers in the power of organic greens will swear by their choice in produce, the truth is, in the end it’s about whether it suits you personally and whether you can afford it. Organic veggies have not been conclusively proven to improve health or provide more nutrition. However, while buying organic-grown fruits and vegetables could be considered a trend by many, leading a healthy lifestyle would universally be seen as a mindset. That’s because living healthily involves holistic planning and execution. Eating organic produce may be a part of a healthy lifestyle, but it certainly does not result in a healthy lifestyle in and of itself. By the same token, gleaming solar arrays, towering windmills, and algae fuel may capture the public imagination, but these glamorous technological innovations constitute only a tiny portion of what it means to be sustainable.
So What is Sustainability?
Sustainability is holistic. In regards to building design and construction, that means sustainability encompasses, pervades, and informs everything from initial schematic design to the eventual decommissioning and demolition of a building. Unlike turn-key developments that pursue blitzkrieg build-and-leave strategies on 10-month business cycles, building sustainably entails careful considerations of site, materials, livability, energy economics, homeowner needs, natural lighting, and much, much more. In fact, building green from the ground up at a premium of two to four percent over traditional tract homes adds far more in value overall and over time. That’s because sustainability is inherently about economics. It’s about balancing relationships between economics, people, and the planet in a way that allows all three to flourish. This mutualistic relationship forms the basis of sustainable thought, and represents a refreshing departure from the take-all and use-all approach mankind has adopted in the last century.
Sustainability is about quality.
Sustainability is about paying now, as opposed to later.
Sustainability is about living within our means.
Sustainability is about evaluating value and impact over a lifetime and beyond.
Sustainability is about working with nature, not against it.
Ultimately sustainability is a mindset. Everything else, including expensive clean tech innovations, are merely tools used to achieve sustainability.
Live Well. Think Green. BuildNative.
Sustainability is a Mindset
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