Have you considered building green?

Julia Anastasio, Esq.
Senior Manager of Government Affairs
American Public Works Association
Washington, D.C.

Over the last few years the green building movement has gained momentum as the nation begins to grapple with high energy costs, regulatory pressures, climate change and quality of life issues within local communities. Green buildings and sustainable design have the potential to transform the built environment. Local leaders across the country are embracing and institutionalizing innovative sustainability policies that include green buildings and sustainable site initiatives that may prove useful to public works managers as they struggle to meet the environmental or sustainability directives of community leaders.

Buildings in the U.S. consume 39% of our energy use; 69% of our electricity consumption; 38% of carbon dioxide emissions; 12% of water consumption; and 36% of non-industrial waste generation (www.usgbc.org/news/usgbsinthenewsdetails.aspx?ID=3558, Feb. 21, 2008). Green buildings minimize their impact on key resources like energy, water, materials and land, and create healthier work, living and learning environments that contribute to improved employee health, comfort and productivity. Green buildings are cost effective and, in many instances, save taxpayer dollars by reducing operation and maintenance costs. Green or sustainable building designs are sensitive to the environment, resources and energy consumption; the impact on human health and the environment; financial impact (cost effectiveness from a full financial cost-return perspective); and the world at large (including a broader set of issues, such as groundwater recharge, global warming, etc.) through buildings or facilities design, construction, and operation and maintenance practices. Katis, George, "The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Buildings: A Report to California's Sustainable Building Task Force," October 2003.

Several green building initiatives and sustainable sites initiatives are gaining popularity as interest in sustainability gains momentum at the local level. For example, there is the Green Building Initiative, a green building standard from the National Association of Home Builders; the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environment Design; and the American Institute of Architects' Center for Communities by Design. See www.thegbi.org; www.nahbrc.org/technical/standards/greenbuilding.aspx; and www.usgbc.org. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGB) Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) is "becoming the de facto standard for sustainable building." Cortese, Amy, "'Green' Buildings Don't Have to be New," New York Times, Jan. 27, 2008. The LEED Green Building Rating System ranks new and existing commercial, institutional and residential buildings according to their environmental and sustainable impacts and features. The LEED system utilizes a list of 34 potential performance-based "credits" worth up to 60 points, as well as seven prerequisite criteria divided into six categories: (1) sustainable sites; (2) water efficiency; (3) energy and atmosphere; (4) materials and resources; (5) indoor environmental quality; and (6) innovation and design processes. See www.usgbc.org. Four levels of LEED certification are available, depending on the number of criteria met: (1) LEED Certified; (2) LEED Silver; (3) LEED Gold; and (4) LEED Platinum. Id.

LEED certification is available for all building types including new construction and renovations. Conventional wisdom perceives green building as overly expensive. However, according to the USGBC and the Green Building Finance Consortium, green buildings properly executed can actually reduce capital costs and expenditures. Champagne, Jacqueline, "Building Green is more than Efficient," Boston Herald, Feb. 1, 2008, available at http://www.usgbc.org/news/usgbcinthenewsdetails.aspx?ID=3579, Feb. 21, 2008. Green buildings' incorporation of efficient energy, water and waste systems reduce operation and maintenance costs. Id. Moreover, building green decreases energy consumption from 10-40% compared with conventional construction, increases property values and worker productivity. Id. See also, Wilson, Alex, "Making the Case for Green Building," Environmental Building News, 14:4, http://www.buildinggreen.com/autho/article.cfm/2005/4/1/Makingthecase. Feb. 22, 2008.

Across the nation, American cities are going green. Some counties, cities and other local governments are implementing innovative sustainability policies, including green building initiatives, to address local climate change and local sustainability goals. Many jurisdictions are currently developing LEED-based guidelines and ordinances, and often these local guidelines or ordinances are more stringent than existing LEED standards. According to the American Institute of Architects, 92 cities have green building programs and at least 42 million Americans live in cities with green building programs. Rainwater, Brookes, "Local Leaders in Sustainability: A Study of Green Building Programs in Our Nation's Communities," American Institute of Architects, 2007. Green buildings are rapidly becoming a fundamental component of local strategies to address many of the environmental and fiscal challenges facing local communities, and public works professionals managing a community's facilities and grounds are on the front lines of these innovations.

In addition to greening the built environment, the USGBC, in partnership with the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the U.S. Botanic Gardens, are working together to develop standards and guidelines for sustainable site development. The Sustainable Sites Initiative (SSI) seeks to "develop national, voluntary standards and guidelines for sustainable land development and management practices as well as metrics to assess site performance and a rating system to recognize achievement." See www.sustainablesites.org. The partnership is working to identify the highest standards in sustainable site development and line them up with practical, real-world approaches that can be incorporated into other existing rating systems, such as LEED, or to stand alone. The USGCB has agreed to include the sustainable sites guidelines in future versions of the LEED standards. See Sustainable Sites Initiative, "Standards and Guidelines: A Preliminary Report," November 2007, available at www.sustainablesites.org.

The SSI is taking an interdisciplinary approach to all aspects of developing a comprehensive rating system and guidelines for sustainable land development. Late in 2007 the Initiative released a preliminary report that provides a snapshot of the group's initial findings and is based on a comprehensive review of the science available on sustainability as well as best practices in the relevant industries involved, including landscape architects, horticulture, ecology, and civil and environmental engineering disciplines. The next iteration of the Standards and Guidelines is scheduled to be released in October 2008 with a final report completed by May 2009. The Initiative seeks to complete a comprehensive rating system by May 2011; identify and implement pilot projects between 2010 and 2012; and finally, publish a reference guide in May 2012.

The SSI ultimately will provide the information and tools necessary to integrate the functions of healthy systems and natural processes into land development and management practices, relying on the best available science and credible professional practice. To counteract the acceleration of local development, the Initiative established six guiding principles to reflect the values of the Initiative and guide future site development. The principles include (1) do no harm; (2) employ the precautionary principle in making decisions that could create risk to human health and the environment; (3) design with nature and culture; (4) use a decision-making hierarchy of preservation, conservation and regeneration; (5) provide regenerative systems as intergenerational equity; and (6) support a living process by continually reevaluating assumptions and values and adapt to demographic and environmental changes. Id. The Preliminary Report concludes with three recommendations for professionals: (1) assemble a group of knowledgeable and diverse professionals to form integrated project teams; (2) prior to making decisions, conduct a complete and thorough assessment of the site; and (3) integrate land practices that replicate the functions of healthy ecological systems. See www.sustainablesites.org.

As the SSI moves forward, it is seeking input from all interested reviewers and stakeholders. Interested reviewers may visit www.sustainablesites.org where they will find an online feedback form to submit comments. Comments will also be accepted via e-mail, fax and regular mail. The Initiative is specifically seeking comments on cost-benefit analysis of all phases of land planning and bioregional best practices. According to the group, the scope of the Initiative is so broad that it needs input from the widest possible sources to ensure it adequately addresses all issues that must contain the latest science and must result in a set of guidelines and approaches that are economically feasible. If you are interested in serving on the review committee, visit the SSI website and register as a participant. Individuals will be notified of upcoming reports and other opportunities to participate. Many local and regional efforts now provide guidelines for improved land development and management practices. The Initiative recognizes the importance and relevance of these programs and is interested in information sharing and partnering. If you or your organization has information to share, contact SSI directly.

Sustainable building practices and land development practices can support local sustainability initiatives and help localities stretch community resources further. Public works professionals managing a community's facilities and grounds will be on the front lines of these innovations and several of the initiatives and programs discussed in this article can help you as you move forward.

Julia Anastasio can be reached at (202) 218-6750 or janastasio@apwa.net.