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Home | SAN ANTONIO | Focus | Focus - Green building in the United States of America is a victim of its own success

Focus - Green building in the United States of America is a victim of its own success

image Omar David Land, MEP Systems Manager, Bartlett Cocke General Contractors, San Antonio, TX

SAN ANTONIO - Flash back to 1894: refrigeration systems dedicated primarily to producing large blocks of ice, have begun to revolutionize the way that industrial processes function and have opened incredible new ways to preserve and transport food. Engineers decide that a committee should be formed to standardize and regulate these systems and the American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHAE) was founded.


    In 1902, a commercially viable air conditioning system for commercial buildings was invented, and by 1959 these systems and their derivatives were so widely adopted that ASHAE joined with American Society of Refrigerating Engineers (ASRE) to form the now internationally influential American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). 
    As one might expect with a new technology, the focus of these groups was primarily on safety, comfort, reliability, and maintainability for building occupants, owners, and service providers.  Energy efficiency was readily sacrificed in favor of these more immediate considerations. 
    In the early 1990’s in response to grow-ing concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Energy Star Program” were formed.  While Energy Star focused on consumer goods and residential construction, the USGBC formed with a broader ambition of “promoting sustainably focused practices” in the construction industry.  By 1998, the USGBC strategically launched a program to achieve this objective by providing awards to developers and institutional owners who could design and construct buildings that operate 10%, 20%, 30% efficiently than the code standards promulgated by ASHRAE and/or the International Code Council. 
    The USGBC program was known by the acronym LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  LEED certifications for buildings and for construction and design professionals alike became a badge of honor synonymous with all things positive in the design, development, and construction world.  Buildings proudly displayed LEED certification badges in lobbies, “LEED Accredited Professional” was exuberantly added to the signature block of professionals throughout the design and construction industry. 
    From 2003-2009 the LEED program was enjoying broad growth and acceptance; but the LEED program’s inclination toward a broad holistic approach to “green” design and construction pushed it beyond a mandate for energy efficiency, and into the realm of urban planning, material sourcing, and waste management.  The result was occasionally buildings that were impractical or unwieldy from a maintenance perspective, or that lacked optimal functionality from the user perspective. The proverbial pendulum swung from sacrificing efficiency for comfort, to something quite the opposite in some of these LEED certified buildings. 
    Concurrently, in the year 2000 the International Energy Conservation Code became a part of the prescriptive package of codes adopted not only by the major municipalities in the United States, and several other countries around the world.  Recognizing the surge in green building and responding to demand for standards requiring that buildings operate more efficiently, ASHRAE and the International Code Council started to significantly increase the requirements for energy efficiency in the baseline building codes and by 2009 the standards were so stringent, that many municipalities deferred adoption of a code update until 2012.  A review of construction costs during this time will reveal construction costs rising at a rate that is significantly faster than the rate of inflation and much of this can be attributed to these code changes.
    Frustrations with the earlier versions of the LEED program, in conjunction with the increased requirements of the baseline code, have cause many owners to strike what might be the best balance between the two options, incorporating what they perceive as the best of LEED standards and requirements to build sustainably and produce an energy efficient project, without pursuing the actual LEED certification and thereby mitigating the expense associated with the administrative costs of obtaining a formal certification.
    Aided by changes in federal, state and municipal law, building codes, and technology the USGBC has been so successful in their mission to make buildings more environmentally friendly, that exceedingly few buildings pursue the actual LEED certification anymore.  This isn’t bad news however for the USGBC or for the construction industry; the USGBC’s World Green Building Council is pursuing similar success in countries around the world, and the IECC and ASHRAE continue to refine the building codes in the United States to strike the right balance between green building and meeting the needs of business decision makers.     
    Bartlett Cocke General Contractors is a full-service general contractor headquartered in San Antonio, TX. -cmw

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Carol Wiatrek meditor@constructionnews.net