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How can COMMUNITIES accelerate change towards green building? Kathleen O’Brien, LEED AP, CSBA responds.

KathleenOBrien-web When serving on a panel for the Living Future Conference last spring, an audience member, noticeably distressed, asked: “How can we move towards sustainability faster? We don’t have time to waste!” Last week, I responded to this question in terms of what an individual can do. As promised, this week, the post focuses on what our communities can do.

Many within the environmental sector respond to environmental problems with: “There oughta be a law.” This is certainly an appropriate response when the desire is for "minimum compliance." With green building we want and need much more than the minimum. We want creative, integrated, and restorative solutions that move towards the ideal of sustainability. In my experience, that requires an approach that allows the interplay of private and public sector partnerships that build market, identifies solutions, and moves us ever forward.

The first step of this approach — and one that continues to reward — is education. Government agencies have provided free and low-cost education on environmental issues since the ‘70s, when the EPA and the DOE were formed. Local agencies — cities, counties, and states — have followed suit.

Much of the initial education was focused on obtaining industry compliance with (as well as public awareness of) regulations administered by these agencies. Over time, the educational approach has shifted to promoting going beyond code or law, as regulators discovered that the law had quickly become the ceiling rather than the floor — an unintended consequence.

In the early '90s, when these agencies began to offer education on green building solutions, they realized it would require the cooperation of the design and construction industry — both in terms of building the market for these solutions as well as building the capacity to respond to this demand. Not everyone understood this, of course. When I was publicizing "Building with Value" in 1993 — the first green building conference aimed at contractors in the Northwest, I was asked: "Why are you doing this? We'll just tell the builders what to do, and they'll do it!" Fortunately, many regional organizations, both government and non-profit, DID understand the value, and provided enough funding to cover the costs of this conference, helping to set the stage for a vital green building movement in the Northwest.

As time went on, these organizations joined with the design and construction industry to create more and more learning opportunities for professionals and the public, including workshops, demonstration projects, fact sheets, brochures, videos, websites, and more. And now, the educational pathways are robust and diverse. In addition to finding high quality educational resources through the U.S. Green Building Council as you would expect, you can find them through industry groups, such as the AGC, AIA, ASHRAE, or NAHB at the national and local levels. Government entities (EPA and DOE) are still doing good work at the national level; a great example of a local jurisdictional effort is the King County GreenTools Program. And public/private education efforts continue to produce demonstration homes around the country. A must-see example in our backyard is the ZHome townhome project (link) under construction in Issaquah, Washington, which aspires to net-zero energy and carbon emissions, 60% reduction in water consumption, and the use of healthy, green materials. There is no doubt in my mind that the level and quality of educational investment correlates directly with the level of awareness and acceptance of green building principles and practices.

The next step that forward-thinking government agencies have taken is to incentivize green building. This strategy makes doing the right thing "convenient." An example of this is when municipalities provide grants, fee-bates, density bonuses, or streamlined approval process in return for exemplary implementation of green building techniques or standards. Jurisdictions around the country have used this technique to move awareness and acceptance forward to action. It is essential that the incentives are designed to be meaningful. For example, expedited permitting may be an incentive in a hot building market, but not in today’s cool one. Early adopters have been willing to assume more risk and have required less incentive to act. For most of the industry, however, and particularly now when the stakes are so high, aggressive incentives will be needed to offset the risk (even if merely perceived) to provide the comfort level required to spur action.

Another important aspect of designing effective incentives is to focus on performance, rather than prescription. In this way, projects that use the incentives are much more likely to produce the results you are looking for, as well as inspire innovation that can transform building across the board.

Making the wrong thing" inconvenient" to do is the natural next step (and often skipped to my dismay). For example, policy that makes it more expensive to permit a building because it lacks green features or certification or is “super-sized” can be particularly valuable in raising awareness, gaining acceptance, and motivating action. The Washington State Energy Code 2009 (currently suspended but expected to go into effect sometime next year) discourages “McMansions” by requiring additional energy efficiency measures for projects over 5,000 square feet. Other jurisdictions around the country have added requirements or fees to buildings that exceed size limitations or fail to include a particular green feature. (The fees are often used to fund energy efficiency or renewable energy projects.)

Although eager beavers among us would like to do it first…the very last step should be “Just tell 'em what to do.” And even with this step, there is an order to it – apply the mandate inward (to public sector buildings) first, and then outward (to private sector buildings). In the first step, public money is invested to help redirect the economy by creating demand for new products and services – a time-honored practice. It makes a poor case, to say the least, if government representatives are not willing to take the same risk they are asking the private sector to take! Fortunately, we have many examples of jurisdictions that are willing to hold themselves accountable in this way.

If you wait until the market has done all the work it can before crafting and implementing codes, you’ll have already won over most of your constituency. You’ll avoid quashing innovation that provides broad-based benefit. And you’ll avoid the unfortunate circumstance of obsolescing incentives before they've been optimized. Many are unaware that the minute an energy efficiency measure becomes code, utilities can no longer justify grants or rebates for this measure. We have seen this in Hawaii with solar hot water, and I anticipate we will see this in Washington State where performance testing, now promoted by utilities through incentive programs, will become required with the new code.

If you take this incremental approach, you've maximized the joy, and minimized the pain. No one is suggesting this approach shouldn’t be accelerated given the realities we face, nor that there isn’t a place for thoughtfully designed green building legislation. The effort, however, should recognize how people and organizations really change. In addition, regulators need to understand that the building sector is incredibly diverse. Readiness for green building implementation varies significantly with the building sector you are targeting, whether it is residential, commercial, or infrastructure, and varies even further depending on project types within these sectors. And geography matters — urban locations may be better suited to aggressive change, rural locations maybe not. I prefer regulations that recognize the need to phase change in, allowing the regulatory process to incorporate lessons learned. An example of the latter was the implementation of the Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol we helped develop, where the State Legislature funded pilots first, voluntary participation second, and then applied a mandate (which itself was phased in based on school district size). Even this phased approach was challenging for school districts, but I believe it was much better than an approach aimed at "instant change." (In the land of coffee drinkers, try suggesting that instant coffee is equivalent to that double shot soy latte!)

Communities inspired to become change agents should be constantly vigilant in recognizing where their constituents are relative to the desired change (are they in awareness, acceptance, and/or action?) and provide them with the information, motivation, and tools they need to feel confident as they move along this spectrum of change.

Kathleen O’Brien is Editor of Building Capacity Blog and President of O’Brien & Company, which she founded nearly 20 years ago. She is author of The Northwest Green Home Primer and has consulted on many public and public/private projects aimed at getting green buildings on the ground.

Did you enjoy this article?  You might also like these Building Capacity Blog articles: 
How Can We Accelerate the Green Building Movement?
Interview with Eco-Logica Magazine’s Stuart Vazquez
Creating Effective Energy Efficiency & Conservation Strategies Part 1
Interview with City of Kirkland’s Ellen Miller-Wolfe
Interview with King County Green Tool’s Patti Southard
Woonerf Completes a Street

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