When Green Buildings Go Brown

By Kelly Caffarelli, President The Home Depot Foundation

The scene is finally becoming pretty familiar:  the owner of a building is surrounded by the architects, engineers and contractors, perhaps a few local politicians, when the plaque on a new green building is unveiled.  The local news might report that this is the first [pick a type of building: home, bank, hospital, fire station, etc.] to reach this level of green certification [silver, gold, platinum or whatever] and touts how much lower the utility bills will be and how much healthier the people will be.

There’s no doubt about it – high-performing green buildings have come a long way and everyone who has been involved in the process of bringing the dreams and designs to reality has truly accomplished something worthy of applause.

But what happens after the ribbon cutting, when everyone has moved in and the building starts to be worked and lived in and needs maintenance?  That’s when seemingly simple things – changing light bulbs and air filters or repainting a room – can begin to have a huge impact on the building’s green status.  If CFLs are replaced with incandescent bulbs…if the dirty filters either aren’t changed at all or are swapped for the cheap ones…and if the room is painted with a great new color, but the paint contains VOCs, the building’s energy efficiency, cost effectiveness and air quality can be significantly degraded.

That’s easy, you say.  Homeowners and maintenance staffs can look for information on the internet.  Give it a try.  Despite all that’s been written about environmentally friendly buildings, your search won’t get you much except links to lawn maintenance services that promise green grass.

Of course all of this comes down to educating people and making sure they are using and maintaining the building properly.  That means teaching everything from turning off the lights when they leave a room, to actually programming the programmable thermostat, to leaving the restrictor valve on the low-flow showerhead.  And if people don’t listen and learn?  Well, they miss out on the economic and health benefits they could have enjoyed. It’s tempting to just leave it at that and hope that they will eventually learn.

I think it’s more than that one building or one family, though.  While people are now building green buildings believing that the benefits will materialize, we’ll soon need comprehensive data to prove that those benefits are real and sustainable.  If a green building is allowed to go brown, then the utilities will be higher than the models projected, the incidents of asthma among residents won’t decline and the extra money that went into making that building green won’t look like a very good investment anymore.  But the plaque proclaiming the greenness of the building will still be there.

So what do we do?

First, we must understand that when a building is commissioned and certified as green, we have taken a snapshot of the building’s birth, not a video of its life, and the building will change over time.

Second, we need to educate the occupants and maintenance staff (including the families living in green homes) about how to keep the building green.  That doesn’t mean giving them a thick manual they will never read.  For many of the green affordable housing initiatives we fund through The Home Depot Foundation, we actually provide hands on training to homeowners and maintenance staffs, including one-on-one sessions and DVDs.

Third, as we monitor and assess the building’s performance, we must continually think about how it’s being used and what may have changed.  The building should be assessed periodically to ensure it is still operating the way it did when the plaque was hung.  Only then will the data be meaningful; otherwise the performance will never live up to the promises.

Finally, we must consistently collect and analyze information about the performance of these buildings to demonstrate in a statistically significant way that these green upgrades really do pay for themselves economically, socially and environmentally.

It won’t be easy, but getting to where we are today wasn’t easy either, and it would be a horrible thing to see a green building go brown.

Kelly Caffarelli has been president of The Home Depot Foundation since 2003.  Under her leadership, the Foundation has granted more than $190 million to nonprofit organizations and supported the construction and preservation of more than 95,000 affordable, healthy homes.  You can follow her on Twitter @HomeDepotFdn and read her blog at www.homedepotfoundation.org/blog.

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