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Constructing Green: Sustainability and the Places We Inhabit: LEED Is Good, but a Volunteer System Will Never Be as Effective and Have as Much Impact in Transforming the Way We Design, Build, and Maintain Buildings as Actual Legislation

By de Leon, Monica Ponce | Planning for Higher Education, July-September 2011 | Go to article overview

Constructing Green: Sustainability and the Places We Inhabit: LEED Is Good, but a Volunteer System Will Never Be as Effective and Have as Much Impact in Transforming the Way We Design, Build, and Maintain Buildings as Actual Legislation


de Leon, Monica Ponce, Planning for Higher Education


Before becoming dean of the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, I was a professor of architecture at Harvard University where I taught design studio, lecture, and seminar courses on topics including digital technology and the history of design and an introductory course on the environmental impact of material selection and application. I am also the principal of an architecture firm and, as such, have dealt with the struggle to do the right thing on real projects, in real time, with real budgets and real constraints. As someone who has a foot firmly planted in academia and a foot firmly planted in practice, in this article I want to address the design of objects and buildings and where I see the challenges and opportunities in the future.

But first let's review some facts that are now common knowledge: buildings are one of the heaviest consumers of natural resources and account for a significant portion of the greenhouse gas emissions that affect climate change. In the United States alone, buildings account for 38 percent of all CO2 emissions (Energy Information Administration 2008b). Buildings represent almost 40 percent of U.S. primary energy use and 75 percent of all U.S. electric consumption; they consume 14 percent of potable water (Energy Information Administration 2008a).

Perhaps less discussed, but no less significant, is buildings' share of material consumption and waste output. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2009) estimates that 170 million tons of building-related construction and demolition debris are generated annually, with 61 percent coming from nonresidential and 39 percent from residential sources. This represents 30 percent of all waste output in the United States (2003 numbers reported in 2009). Globally, buildings use 40 percent of raw materials (Green by Design 2009).

This is, of course, not surprising. From the onset of industrialization, material production in the various design fields--from industrial design to the design of environments and buildings--has had and continues to have a devastating effect on the planet. So given the magnitude and complexity of the problem, how can designers participate in the solution?

The answer is complex. Building is at the center of many disciplines, and therefore no one field can provide effective alternatives. To address the environmental impact of buildings will demand a revolution in which many fields will be required to think differently about their missions, their histories, and their purposes. We will also need regulatory mechanisms that ensure change in the marketplace. We will depend on access to innovation and information so that designers, owners, and users can make informed choices.

Today, many designers see third-party certification systems as the only viable solution to managing the environmental impact of buildings. Third-party certification systems and organizations have become increasingly streamlined, recognized, and respected. For example, the LEED rating, assigned by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), has undergone a revolution in just over 10 years. As of March 2011, the program has grown from six volunteers on one committee to hundreds of volunteers in 78 local affiliates to cover about 99,276 registered and certified projects (U.S. Green Building Council, pers. comm.).

Despite its success, LEED has fundamental flaws that expose the limits of third-party certification. For example, negative points are not part of the system. In theory, one could do something terrible for the environment, garner points through other means, and still have a LEED-certified building. In addition, LEED only helps to compound the very complex issue of transportation of materials to the site: local production is not always best, despite its immediately apparent benefits. There are strong arguments in favor of large-scale, centralized production in some industries.

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Constructing Green: Sustainability and the Places We Inhabit: LEED Is Good, but a Volunteer System Will Never Be as Effective and Have as Much Impact in Transforming the Way We Design, Build, and Maintain Buildings as Actual Legislation
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