Building Green: If I Can Do It, Anyone Can

Globe and Mail Comment 20 March 07 


The mood on opening day at West Coast Green last fall was heady. Several thousand more people had arrived to register at the first annual green building conference in San Francisco than organizers had expected. Second, the USGBA (U.S. Green Building Association) had announced that building green was now only 1% more expensive than building using conventional systems. Most importantly, and in direct contrast to the grim mood at every other enviro conference, there was a strong feeling, that here, right here, a good green future was about to be revealed, and that the attendees, architects, engineers, contractors and trades, were the solution.

And like organic food, green building started out small, local and private, with the refusal of individuals (operating largely on instinct) to continue polluting the planet. How right they were. Forget transportation and industry. Annual building causes 45% of carbon emissions, compared to 30% caused by transport, 25% by industry. Even if you are a global warming agnostic, in terms of resource management, buildings consume 40% of the world's energy and materials, 17% of our water, and 25% of all the wood harvested. If you admit that in the last 100 years, we have lost 50% of the world's wetlands and cleared 50% of the world's old growth forests, green building is not an important mitigator, it is the mitigating factor.

Even if you don't believe in the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit), unlike almost every other environmental solution thus far proposed, this one makes marketplace sense. Green building, because it does not use non-renewable resources is poised to become less expensive than conventional building. Furthermore, investments in green buildings pay for themselves ten times over in maintenance alone. Canadian architect, Paula LaPorte Baker has done yeoman's work by accreting in her book, Prescriptions for The Healthy House, the health hazards created by conventional building, and the solutions already in common use. Chemical sensitivies and childhood asthmas are reduced, and even resolved by living in a healthy house.

The shift is inevitable, but it is the competitive advantage that signals its inevitability. Walmart built one of its stores half green. Walmart's cash registers are all hard wired to Bentonville, Arkansas and it was found by head office that the revenues in the green half of the store were 40% higher than sales on the other side. Furthermore, all the employees wanted to work on the green side. Boeing, Lougheed, ING Direct have had similar results with their green buildings. Schools report that SAT scores rise 14% and other test scores spike even higher, if the test is taken in a room lit by natural sunlight. Higher sales and reduced employee absenteeism have been tracked in office buildings built green; productivity goes up in a green workplace. UBC retrofit its buildings to reduce emissions and found they save $3,000,000 every year.

How steep is the learning curve? If I can do it, anyone can. Where I live, in western Canada, trades can't wait to go green, many architects and designers discount their services if you mention wanting to build green.

If Mr. Harper is serious about being a good green conservative, here is his solution writ very large. Encourage us, reward us, incentivize us. Make the Canadian green building program as much of a breakthrough as his Chemicals Management Plan. We may have muffed Kyoto, but here we can lead the world.