How We Got Here


How We Got Here

This feature is a follow up to Bill’s previous post on The Journey of Sustainability.

1 September 2021

Thirty years ago today, Amory and Hunter Lovins, over the objections of some of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s board of directors, allowed a 29-year-old to launch a new program to work with real estate developers to make buildings more energy efficient and lessen their impact on the environment. For lack of a better name, we called the project Green Development Services. It has been a long strange journey, but I think we learned a few things along the way, sometimes by necessity and other times by happy accident.

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro…

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971

Green design doesn’t work well as a relay race.

The architect handing off drawings to the mechanical engineer with the instruction of “Here, cool this.” does not result in a high performance building. The best projects integrate a broad range of expertise and perspective early on, thus the need for the green design charrette. The shear complexity of the Greening of the White House project in 1993 made this really apparent, and the only way to tackle all of the issues was in partnership with the AIA and the US DOE to assemble 130 people into 13 working teams in a 3 day long charrette. That process was refined by the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) and others in subsequent charrettes for the Pentagon Renovation, and for the Greening of Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks. Today environmental opportunity charrettes are pretty much standard practice for green design.

Big savings may cost less to achieve than small savings.

While this goes against everything we were taught about diminishing returns, the real lesson is that by pushing further up the return curve, you may get to a point where you can greatly downsize or eliminate equipment to a point that offsets the increased cost of components. Amory Lovins calls this “tunneling through the cost barrier”, and perhaps one of the most compelling examples comes from an experiment that Davis Energy Group did with Pacific Gas & Electric. In a standard suburban tract house design they were given the rule that any measure would be accepted if it had a 10 year or less payback (which is generous since 3 years is typically the maximum). The designers kept adding energy efficiency measures until they reached the payback limit and had saved more than half the energy of the other homes of the otherwise same design. There were several additional measures that they wanted to try that did not meet the payback criteria, but, when applied, enabled the removal of the conventional heating and cooling systems. The result was a house that saved 80% of the energy and cost $1,500 less to build.

Have a way of gauging results.

Early on, the performance of buildings was expressed as a superlative. It was very green, sort of green, absolutely green or deep green. At the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) we had started with a page and a half description of what we thought it meant to be a green building; it was clumsy and obtuse. I was working with David Gottfried on an ASTM subcommittee for creating a green building standard. It was a frustrating process, with weird bits of opposition that would suddenly occur. David was forming the US Green Building Council and we eventually abandoned the ASTM effort and along with lots of other folks launched what became LEED. Only later, as a result of some congressional hearings did we learn that our ASTM road bumps had been orchestrated by the Tobacco Institute. The success of LEED and other subsequent certifications has made it possible to better gauge the environmental performance of buildings. This was the revolution that led to an exponential growth in the USGBC and the number of green buildings around the world.

The level of certification is not the goal.

As LEED and other rating systems took hold, many owners and design teams started to define their goal in terms of a certain level of certification achieved. This approach is mistaking the measuring tool for the what is really important. The real goals should be improving the environment, addressing climate change and supporting underserved communities. Ultimately, I would argue a best way of setting performance goals is to ask what nature would do in this place, and that usually means going beyond zero. As Janine Benyus says, “nature doesn’t do zero.” This biomimicry at an ecosystem level and is part of the larger conversation about the regeneration of healthy culture and places.

And most importantly…

Buildings are about people.

In the 1990s, our focus was on lowering the environmental impact of buildings. In the process of gathering case studies for a book on energy efficiency in manufacturing and another on green real estate development, the two teams at RMI noticed that people were more productive in green buildings. This was somewhat of a surprise since the business management literature of that era emphasized the now discredited Hawthorne study which concluded that how you managed the people (and not the space) was the mechanism that led to gains in productivity. Initially we thought productivity gains were mainly a result of better lighting and visual acuity. While the economic benefits of these gains were truly impressive, we began to suspect that they might be a placeholder for the bigger issue of health and wellbeing, which led us to a conversation with Judith Heerwagen about humankind’s underlying connection with nature—enter, biophilia.

In 1991, I never would have imagined that I would be writing about the economics of biophilia or spending some of my time talking with neuroscientists about collinear pattern processing and statistical fractals in nature and applying these elements to the design of green buildings.

Thanks to all the people who have been part of this shared journey.

Where do we go next?