Buildings That Breathe: Green Construction Is Coming of Age

By Deneen, Sally; Howard, Brian | E Magazine, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Buildings That Breathe: Green Construction Is Coming of Age


Deneen, Sally, Howard, Brian, E Magazine


Jan Bey twice found herself in the hospital emergency room, her throat constricted, unable to breathe. But her persistent sinus and breathing problems ended when she moved out of an old rental unit and into what is considered one of the greenest buildings in America.

Through a giant window in her subsidized studio at Seattle's Denny Park Apartments, she enjoys a generous view of the iconic Space Needle afforded only to a lucky few--and rarely to anyone whose rent is only $329 per month. But Bey's favorite thing about her building is, believe it or not, the ventilation. Fresh air flows in through an air inlet, a small closeable slot in the window. Stale air escapes through a quiet bathroom ventilation fan that, by design, stays on 24 hours a day.

"Knock on wood, I haven't even had a cold here," says Bey, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer diagnosed six years ago. With features such as a building-wide no-smoking policy and kitchen countertops made from wheat straw, Bey breathes easier. "I feel like it's toxin-free," she says.

Bey is on the leading edge of a trend. Her year-old apartment building is the first result of a nationwide program that expects to build green low-income housing in 20-odd states over five years. The green building movement is starting to hit home. Eco-friendly construction is on the rise, and people are starting to seek out innovative designs such as green rooftops.

Five percent of new commercial construction meets standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program (LEED). Ten percent of new homes satisfy the federal government's Energy Star guidelines, meaning they're nearly one-third more energy-efficient than regulations require.

Still, consider that U.S. buildings put out about a third of the country's greenhouse gasses. At the rate green building is penetrating the market today, it will be many years before we save the 70 percent of emissions thought necessary to stabilize the climate.

Obstacles abound. Part of the problem is the resistance to change and refusal by some professionals to learn new methods. And the technology will continue to cost more until economies of scale are realized.

And there are doubters. Some question whether the term "green building" is too easily co-opted for marketing purposes. Some builders, they charge, do little more than erect townhouses that increase urban density rather than building an energy-efficient product that's truly lighter on the land. Critics wonder whether efficiency standards, when applied, can be objectively proven to deliver desired results--such as lower electric bills. Historic preservationists bristle at a perceived bias toward new edifices thrown up at the expense of older buildings that add character to a community and can be sustainably retrofitted.

Buildings are definitely energy hogs. The SUV is the environmental bad-boy symbol, but buildings consume more energy than cars and trucks. It's estimated that commercial and residential buildings in the U.S. consume 65 percent of all electricity, as well as 12 percent of drinkable water and 40 percent of all raw materials, according to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an international organization that is expected in early 2008 to release a report evaluating green building in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

"I believe that buildings are the worst thing that people do to the environment," said Rob Watson, former senior scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council, on the Public Broadcasting System news show, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, in 2005. "... [W]e don't associate the fact that when we turn on a light switch, coal is mined in a mine. It goes to a power plant that comes up the stack as acid rain producing sulfur dioxide, planet-cooking carbon dioxide."

"The new green building movement arises from the realization that we can't go on living as we have in the past: that treating the environment in general and energy in particular as afterthoughts no longer makes sense," author Bill McKibben wrote in an essay marking the October opening of New York City's 46-story glass-and-steel Hearst Tower, which required 20 percent less steel than a conventional skyscraper and was made of 90 percent recycled material. …

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