Category Archives: architecture

Cheap shots at LEED standards

I’m a little disappointed by Daniel Brook’s Slate essay “It’s Way Too Easy Being Green,” on the supposed slackness of the U.S. Green Building Council’s “LEED” standard for environmentally sound construction. It starts promisingly, ripping the fact that a Mumbai tycoon’s private skyscraper is officially considered green, but devolves quickly into nitpicking. At heart, Brook’s criticism is that LEED standards reward people who have neither the green mentality nor the inclination to work really hard to be friendly to the environment.

The LEED checklist points system is to blame, Brook writes:

Installing a $395 bike rack is worth the same under the LEED checklist system as installing a $1.3 million environmentally sensitive heating system. Which is the cynical builder going to choose? A builder more interested in good PR than being good to the environment can even get points purely by chance. A new casino project in Philadelphia, which the city is requiring to pursue LEED certification, is located, like most downtown buildings, within a quarter-mile of a subway stop, earning a LEED point for transit accessibility. But the developer on the project, which includes a 3,200-car garage, won’t commit to running a shuttle bus between the subway stop and the casino to encourage customers to take transit. No points in that.

Well, maybe there ought to be points deductions for some of your more flagrant anti-environmental choices. But the underlying argument strikes me as practically meritless. Does it matter that bike racks are cheap and easy to install, when considering their actual environmental value? If there were nowhere to lock up my bicycle, I and maybe two dozen other people where I work couldn’t use them to get to and from work day in and day out, eight or nine months of the year. An efficient heating system brings long-term payback for the builder and/or landlord; a bike rack is really worth nothing, financially, most places. Putting a good one in (the checklist requires capacity for five per cent of the building’s occupants at peak times, plus changing and shower facilities) should be worth a point or two.

And as for proximity to subways, it’s true that most downtown buildings would pick up that point easily, but it’s a pressing concern that many builders are not, in fact, building downtown. Those that are should be acknowledged somehow.

You need to rack up 26 points like this for minimal certification, and most aren’t this easy.

I carry no brief for the green building council, and I’m not particularly qualified to say that its rating system is perfect. It’s not a fair criticism that the LEED standards don’t judge people’s attitudes well enough, though.

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Baby steps at Yahoo!

I very much want to like Yahoo!’s project to make its operations carbon-neutral by the end of the year. It’s an extremely ambitious plan for a very large and still growing company with so many recent acquisitions. I particularly like that they’ve decided to include their employees’ commutes in their calculations, taking some responsibility for the consequences if it puts offices in distant, low-density, poorly-served-by-transit suburbs. I shudder to think of the pollution consequences of the mirrored offices of Markham and Kanata and Burnaby.

It’s the kind of corporate leadership the world needs more of, and Yahoo! is being strikingly open about its philosophical approach and its plans (meaning the latter, as yet quite vague, can be measured against the former), so I don’t want to dump on it. It’s ahead of most any other company its size in the United States.

But…

The company estimates its current emission responsibility as the equivalent of 25,000 cars being driven for a year; with the going guesstimate of a single car’s annual output being 10,000 to 12,000 pounds a year, that’s 125,000-plus tonnes of CO2. So we’re talking about a hell of a lot of carbon Yahoo! has to either eliminate or find some way to put back into the planet.

It appears that Yahoo!’s plan will rely heavily on buying carbon offsets, so much so that they say they’ve identified some offset projects they want to invest in and are inviting proposals for the rest. That’s still got to be a good chunk of money for it to be worth someone’s while to submit a proposal and Yahoo!’s people to evaluate them.

Yahoo! has the resources to buy into a couple of big, meaningful projects (the company mentions “a wind farm in India or a small-scale run of the river hydroelectric project in Brazil”) instead of the sort of borderline useless thing you and I might do in hopes of offsetting the carbon-spew of a cross-country flight, such as paying into a tree-planting program that may or may not result in any actual trees being planted.

Nevertheless, carbon-offset projects, even comparatively good ones, are fundamentally cheats. They’re an improvement we can make in what I hope is a first phase of global emissions reductions, not a permanent solution. There aren’t enough renewable-energy projects in the world, not enough fertile land on which to plant fast-growing carbon-fixing plants, not enough scrubbers to put on Third World smokestacks, to make up for the First World’s carbon dependency. The kinds of solutions we need to take up, led by successful cutting-edge companies, have to reach more deeply and make carbon-offsets unnecessary. Ditch the traditional office-building HQ in Sunnyvale, for instance, unless it meets LEED platinum standards — as TreeHugger reported last summer, not even 20 commercial buildings across America recently did. Commit to buying only office supplies that are fully recyclable. That’s hard and, for now at least, expensive. Yahoo! is one of the few companies that could likely afford it.

Yahoo!’s plan talks about the right things for a Phase One–type plan. I look forward to Phase Two.

(Hat-tip: Joel Makower.) 

Green-roof skeptics

The insurance industry’s business model is risk-aversion, so I guess it’s no surprise that new developments in green architecture are meeting some skepticism from the actuaries on the west coast:

B.C.’s insurance industry and homeowner protection office, gun-shy after the province’s leaky-condo debacle, has temporarily put the brakes on the burgeoning green-roof industry.

The plans of dozens of developers poised to put green roofs on their condo buildings — the Olympic village being the most prominent among them — are now in limbo after the province’s Homeowner Protection Office sent out a letter to all municipalities warning that local insurance companies are mostly unwilling to insure green roofs on multi-unit residential buildings that will be sold as condos.

“I don’t know what the B.C. industry is talking about,” says Steven Peck, president of the Toronto-based Green Roofs for Healthy Cities.

“It’s just unfounded. And strange. One of the foremost green-roof research facilities in North America is in Vancouver, but it seems to me the insurance industry in B.C. has a lack of technical sophistication.”

Peck was referring to the B.C. Institute of Technology’s Centre for the Advancement of Green Roof Technology.

Peck said millions of square feet of green roofs have been installed in countries like Germany, while green roofs are booming in North America, with no signs of problems beyond what any roof might have. He said insurance companies in Germany actually give buildings with green roofs better rates because of the reduced fire risk.

The Lower Mainland’s leaky-condo problem was a gigantic fiasco that justifies a certain gun-shyness on the insurance industry’s part. Builders trying to squeeze a lot more people into limited space and adopt the open architectural styles of the U.S. Southwest cut corners and built buildings that weren’t properly sealed against British Columbia’s rain and damp. Fifty thousand units affected, $1 billion in repairs, and new and permanent suspicion on the part of condo buyers would make anybody worried about a repeat.

But it’s a shame that insurance companies would hold back developments in a reasonably mature field like green roofing. Imagine what they’ll make of green walls. Whichever of the companies is willing to acquire the expertise to assess these things and write policies covering them stands to make a killing.