Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Green Building Myths that Need Exploding!

The movement that is greening the built environment is accelerating and according to some estimates, as much as 3% of total commercial and institutional construction in the U.S. is now using green building rating systems to assess how green these projects are. Most of this greening is taking place based on the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) suite of green building rating systems which are used to determine if the resulting construction is green or not, and just how green it is. Simply put, LEED is a points system and the more points the project earns, the higher its rating. A building can have a platinum, gold, silver, or certified rating depending on how many of the 69 maximum points the project achieves. Within the LEED suite of building rating systems, the LEED standard for new construction, version 2.2 (LEED-NC 2.2), is the tip of the spear promoting this shift. By many accounts the green building movement is the most successful contemporary environmental movement in the U.S. So we should be celebrating? Well, yes and no.

In spite of the apparent success of this movement in the U.S., what I find particularly disturbing are the enormous myths, sort of urban legends, that have emerged from this movement. These myths, of which there are many, degrade this movement because they serve as a sort of ad hoc foundation for the green building movement and they are often cited as rationale for the approaches being taken to green building. Myths have only so much staying power and once compromised, only fuel the demise of the structures built upon them. A foundation based on myth is a very weak foundation indeed.

In this edition I will address the fundamental myths being passed around in the USGBC community. The most grating of these fundamental myths violate the laws of physics, common sense, or both. Below are three examples of these myths which are circulated at large in the green building community and which address the issue of design and its relationship to nature. The italics are my rendition of these commonly accepted myths, followed by a brief explanation of why they are indeed myths and deserve to be made part of a concrete mix and buried forever.

1. Humans should rely on nature as the model for design. The subtext accompanying this is that nature has done the hard work. “Nature's ecosystems have nearly four billion years experience developing efficient, adaptive, resilient systems. Why reinvent the wheel, when the R & D has already been done? (from Gil Friend’s August 7, 2006 blog, http://radio.weblogs.com/0109157/)” Well the problem here is that nature’s designs are based on evolution and history whereas humans are the single species that is forward-looking, that creates new materials, products and processes based on discovering the laws of physics and applying them to solve problems. We are a risk taking species, it is our nature and we invent and explore for the sake of invention and exploration. Certainly nature is a significant input, but far from the only one. I would guesstimate that we use and can use only a limited range of mostly metaphors from nature and very few models. I have written more extensively about this in a draft paper you can find at http://www.treeo.ufl.edu/rsc06/Refining%20Ecological%20Design-Kibert-29%20March%202006.pdf The green building design community is also deeply smitten by the concept of biomimicry which is many consider to be the foundation of so-called ecological design and which relies entirely on nature as the model. With all due respect to Janine Benyus, the author of “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” (1997, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.), biomimicry likely has very limited play in how humans design systems. Yes, pharmaceutical companies have made some progress in developing new drugs, there are some interesting shapes and forms that can be found in nature and adapted into human design but most adaptations of nature into human systems are trivial. So let’s respect humans as well, and the fact that most of what we create does not exist in nature. What we should address are the ethics of our production and consumption and the risks associated with our inventions.

2. Nature has closed loop behavior, biological waste is always food for other organisms, and we should mimic nature’s behavior. This myth, like the others, is well-intended and meant to inform us that we need to minimize waste and reuse and recycle materials. However this statement is related to the Myth #1 above and is equally off target. In fact there are numerous examples of ‘waste’ in nature: coal, petroleum, elemental sulfur, chalk, limestone, iron ore and phosphate rock are all examples of geochemically transformed biological waste. In other words nature produces significant waste which is simply degraded matter and is not food for other organisms. Thus designing our industrial system based on industries using the waste of other industries is purely Imagineering and nothing more. (See “On the life cycle metaphor: Where ecology and economics diverge,” a working paper by Robert Ayres of INSEAD, 2002/119/EPS/CMER). Also note that complete cradle-to-cradle behavior (as laid out in “Crade-to-Cradle” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, 2002, New York: North Point Press) is impossible because it violates the second law of thermodynamics (entropy), the nasty one which designers seem to find intellectually insurmountable. In every recycling loop, matter is lost due to dissipative forces. Recycle a kilogram of steel several times and only a few grams will remain, the rest having dispersed into the background. The same law applies to nature and nature’s attempts at recycling result in similar dissipation. The second law should as a warning that recycling certain materials can indeed be hazardous to our health because they will become part of our environment. Should we recycle? Of course! There are indeed limited resources and we have an ethical responsibility to future generations to protect their quality of life. But let’s be clear: nature does not exhibit closed loop behavior and recycling has consequences. Let’s at least get the facts straight!

3. Nature runs off current solar income. This myth is meant to tell us that we need to shift off our diet of non-renewable fossil fuels to a solar diet. It is like the other myths just that, a myth. It begs the obvious question which is: what happens when the sun goes down? Clearly much of nature runs off both current AND stored solar income. And indeed, there are natural systems that run of geochemical energy or other energy sources totally disconnected from solar inputs. Yes we should use renewables to the maximum extent possible for our energy systems. However, they are generally very expensive and take enormous quantities of land, whether it be biomass, wind energy, or photovoltaics. If one scours the literature about how we will derive our energy for the future, the credible prognosticators tell us it is far more likely to be a nuclear-hydrogen based system rather than one based on renewables. Certainly they will be part of the mix but hardly the dominant source of energy, at least for the coming centuries. A recent analysis of Florida’s energy needs concluded that to replace current gasoline consumption with ethanol would require an area four times the state’s land area. Talk about ecological footprint! The bottom line is that nature does not run off current solar income and it is also highly unlikely that humans will either. Well, until we have consumed every other energy source!

This is just one set of green building movement myths, the “nature as model” set, that need to be exploded. Please feel free to post your favorite myths here. In the next edition I will address even more dangerous myths that are directly in the green building development process.