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15 August 2008

First Law of Green Design - Conservation of Energy

conserve: to avoid wasteful or destructive use; to use or manage wisely; to use only what is needed

At the end of  "Sustainable Design - Is It?", we were left with a grass hut on a tropical island as an example of truly sustainable design, and the observation that the farther away we are from that island, the less sustainable our buildings become.

Even though sustainability cannot be achieved, it seems reasonable that green design would result in buildings that use as little energy and other resources as possible. Taken to the extreme, this would mean that those of us not fortunate enough to live in San Diego would live and work in well-insulated, windowless cubes. Obviously, this is unrealistic, and would be unacceptable. It is, however, no more outrageous than many of the award-winning buildings that are touted as examples of sustainable design.
I'm not an engineer, but my gut feeling is that a large glass box, with relatively little insulated surface, will use more energy than the same building with less glass and more insulation. With double or triple glazing and low e coatings, it may be possible to force that box into performing efficiently, but is that being "sustainable"? If the same building with less glass will use less energy, it is the more sustainable of the two. I'm not talking about the windowless cube, just a building with good insulation.

Does "sustainable design" merely mean wasting energy efficiently? A quick look at the highly publicized LEED certified buildings certainly gives that impression.

Instead of comparing two otherwise identical versions of a given building, one using normal construction and one intended for LEED certification, we should be comparing the new building to one that most efficiently meets the program requirements. It makes no sense to compare a 5,000 square feet LEED certified outhouse with a tar-paper outhouse of the same size; we should compare it with the standard outhouse of twenty square feet. It isn't enough to make an efficient building; the design itself must conserve resources.

I suspect the "sustainable" buildings seen in magazines and on TV are sending the wrong message. While green enthusiasts claim certified buildings will save enormous amounts of energy and other resources, the buildings reported to the public often are examples of conspicuous consumption. They may meet LEED requirements, but are in fact ridiculously expensive or blatantly wasteful. How do these examples exemplify conservation?
  • The State of Minnesota, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the University of Minnesota publicly promote green design, yet decide that several new single-purpose sports facilities are justified - one each for professional football, baseball, hockey, and basketball, one for university football, and two for university hockey.
  • A 15,000 sq. ft., $29 million home; with "enough pools, water gardens, misters, waterfalls, strategic landscaping, etc., to drop the site temperature by 2-3 degrees, thus reducing cooling costs."
  • An energy-efficient, 3,500 sq. ft. home on 60 acres, for two people.
  • An urban home remodeled to achieve LEED platinum certification, at a cost of $1.2 million dollars.
The green community celebrates each of these, but what is the message to the public? That green design is for the wealthy, and glitzy, gimmicky design takes precedence over real conservation.

I know that's not true, and I'm certain there are many buildings, LEED certified or not, that do use substantially less energy than their predecessors, and don't look much different from surrounding buildings. Unfortunately, they aren't sexy enough for the press - or, apparently, USGBC - to promote.

The real message is that even though green design costs more up front, it's worth the price, and it doesn't have to be weird.

Until we see more examples of economical and practical green design, "sustainable design" will continue to be seen as something for the rich and famous.

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