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Thomas Schueneman headshot

The Built Environment: Inflection and Reflection in the Shadow of Earth Day

Earth Day is over for this year, but what is arguably more important than the day itself is the day after - and the day after that (and the day after that...).

Earth Day serves as the rallying cry calling for the sustained action that drives progressive environmental trends. I spoke last week with Emma Stewart, Senior Manager of AEC Sustainability at Autodesk, to briefly discuss some of her latest thinking about those trends.

Back in 1970, when I was a gawky young lad of 12, jungles in Southeast Asia were denuded with Agent Orange and set ablaze with bombs and Napalm, while rivers burned in the U.S. from the unchecked effluent of industry and growing urbanization.

For me, the original Earth Day is at best a fuzzy memory. Nonetheless my youthful innocence, Earth Day 1970 marked a watershed moment, what Stewart calls an "inflection point" of rapid and substantive change in environmental awareness, policy, and legislation.

Let the sun shine in - the early 70's and environmentalism

The inaugural Earth Day came on the heels of Richard Nixon signing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and establishing of the Council on Environmental Quality, the first cabinet level environmental advisory post. Soon after came creation of the EPA, the clean water act, a revised clean air act, and in 1973 the Endangered Species Act.

In the early seventies, realization of the impact of decades of environmental degradation on human well-being and health coalesced into what some consider the "birth" of the environmental movement (though the idea of conservation in the U.S. goes back to at least Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir). Even in the midst of today's political gridlock that often ignores or belittles environmental considerations, Stewart argues that four decades later we find ourselves at a new crossroads.

A new point of inflection

"It may not be as 'sexy' as a Clean Water Act or establishing the EPA," Stewart explains, "but I see what I think is a new inflection point that we’ll be able to look back on forty years hence and recognize as a period of important and substantial progress – much like we now look back at the early 70’s.”

Emblematic of that for Stewart is Denis Hayes. Earth Day aficionados remember Hayes as the co-founder and principal organizer for the original Earth Day. Now 69, Hayes has been an environmental trendsetter through the decades with his focus now on sustainable development. Currently, Hayes is involved in designing a net-zero office building.

The Seattle-based non-profit Bullitt Foundation, of which Hayes is president and CEO, is breaking ground this spring on the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design  and Construction. Once completed, the Cascadia Center will be one of the first mid-rise commercial buildings to achieve "living building" status.

Living buildings- net-zero and beyond

Living buildings go beyond LEED with the Living Building Challenge. Version 2.0 of the Challenge incorporates a 20-point standard including 100 percent renewable energy production on-site, water consumption from 100 percent harvested rainwater, and super-efficient electrical and mechanical systems. The Living Building standard begins with net-zero and extends sustainability to all aspects of how a building interacts and impacts its surrounding environment; from initial site selection, building design and construction to aesthetics, human health, well-being, and transportation.

The Cascadia Center will be built to last 250 years, adaptable to changing needs and emerging technologies throughout its lifetime.

Emerging policy standardizing sustainable development

Projects like the Cascadia Center remain the ideal, the rare exception - for now. But Stewart considers Hayes' work as a focal point for emerging public policy - both then and now. Even if the mainstream media doesn't take notice, there are significant stirrings afoot pointing toward a shifting policy landscape. Stewart cites three examples as the core of the emerging trend:

  1. Energy Independence and Security Act (2007)
    Requires 3 percent per year energy reduction for federal buildings relative to 2003 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), or 15 percent by 2010 and 30 percent by 2015. Reduction of fossil fuel use reaching 55 percent in 2010, 65 percent by 2015 and 80 percent by 2020. "This is an aggressive mandate," Stewart explains, that serves as a "green proving ground," incorporating the principals of Building Information Modeling (BIM) and the latest design technologies.

  2. Executive Oorder 13514 (2009) Directs that 15 percent of existing federal buildings and leases with more than 5,000 gross square feet will meet Guiding Principles for Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings by 2015. All new federal buildings built after 2020 must achieve Net Zero Emissions by 2030, and all agencies must submit Sustainability Plans

  3. Better Buildings Initiative (2011) Sets the goal of 20 percent improvement in commercial building energy efficiency by 2020

With its vast building stock and power to influence and incentivize change through public policy, these Federal initiatives portend the integration of sustainable development into common practice. Living buildings as the standard, not the exception.

Framing the conversation (who said anything about global warming?)

Words matter. "Global warming" might send everyone to their prospective ideological corners ready to fight (or retreat). And in any case there is no solution to climate change without addressing the sustainability of the built environment. It is harder to deny the importance and advantages of sustainable development, which Stewart summarizes in three words:

  • Efficiency Efficient buildings are less resource and energy intensive, greatly minimizing its environmental impact and saving the owner money.

  • Transparency
    Sustainable design defines the true triple-bottom-line costs of a building's construction and use throughout its lifetime. Transparency adds value and operational efficiency.

  • Jobs
    Retrofit and construction of the new "living" built environment is already a source of job creation and market differentiation that can spur economic growth.
Humanity's natural habitat - urban environmentalism

"We are now a primarily urbanized society," says Stewart, "Buildings represent the cheapest, most efficient path to economic and environmental sustainability." But the message doesn't resonate as much as it should.

"It's a little abstract," Stewart acknowledges. The problem is that there's no "Cuyahoga River" on fire to grab our attention.

"Most people think of transportation" when considering environmental impact. While obviously important, transportation represents 26 percent of global energy demand. Buildings constitute 40 percent of global energy demand and 30 percent of demand growth.

Tesla is cool, the Volt is a step toward the car of the future, but there are even more transformative trends on the horizon as Stewart sees it.

It is the buildings where we live and work that will determine how - or if - we learn to create a livable, sustainable, prosperous, and thriving human society. Fortunately for us, says Emma Stewart, there are reasons to be hopeful, as we build on the ideal of the first Earth Day, making it new again for a new century.

Image credit: mikecogh, courtesy Flickr

Tom Schueneman is founder and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com

Thomas Schueneman headshot

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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