The Evolution of the Sustainabilty Movement

In last month’s Forum article, I wrote about the numerous organizations and information sources dedicated to helping design and construction professionals step up to a new ‘standard of care’ for the environmental performance of the buildings we design. It’s been an interesting evolution of organizations, and someday I hope to read a long treatise on the history and success stories of the ‘sustainability movement’.

As many of you likely remember, some of this focus began in earnest in the early ’70s with a first wave of concern about energy issues and pollution. The energy crisis of that time and the founding of Earth Day in 1970 are a testament to that blossoming concern for providing basic protections for clean air (indoor & outdoor), clean, available water, and responsible energy use and generation. It was an era when we as a nation became much more aware of the need to give positive guidance to our industrial leaders about the limits to ‘free enterprise’. It was a time to assert the need for responsibility and accountability as it relates to industrial and entrepreneurial progress, in order to bring it into balance with the basic needs of the common citizen.

Indeed, it was the beginning of a movement to assert the rights of a community of citizens over the rights of individual enterprises in that constant struggle to avoid the environmental degradation of the common wealth of clean water, clean air, etc., where there was a clear conflict between the goals of each.

Many of the issues of what we think of as ‘sustainability’ were put on the table for discussion, debate, and action in that time. We realized that holding enterprise responsible and accountable is a necessary check to ‘free’ enterprise in order to reach the optimum balance for the common good. In that way we could hope to maintain genuine long term positive outcomes, versus the short term gain with a long term loss. Pollution was a cost industry was able to exclude from its balance sheet, but had costly consequences to communities as a whole.
As municipalities, local, state, and federal, we began to enforce our rights to protect the ‘commons’ from abuse or environmental degradation from those who by their actions refused to factor that into the equation. Examples of this were the adoption of ordinances on wetland protection, storm water runoff, and groundwater overlay zones.

Throughout the early ’90s, there was a renewed focus on the issues of toxic chemicals as well as naturally produced toxic mold. In our world of buildings, we heard about buildings being closed due to ‘sick building syndrome’, and as design professionals there was a renewed concern about the products we specify, and the building science of the assemblies we design.

One of the heroes of that era, who may have even been responsible for making the word sustainability mainstream, is Paul Hawken. His book, The Ecology of Commerce, subtitled “a declaration of sustainability,” was a national best seller and appealed to the business community as well as the general public. In it, he challenged businesses to seriously address the issues of the long term bottom line, rather than short term profits. He was also a crusader for getting toxic chemicals out of our products, and holding the manufacturers’ of toxic chemistry responsible for their toxic molecules (he introduced the idea of tracking them at that scale). If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in a while, check it out or revisit it. The book was published in 1993, and is still so very relevant today.

The LEED rating system, modeled on its predecessor from England, BREAM, was crafted mostly in the late 90’s, but came on strong in the 2000 decade. Although interest in certifying buildings to LEED standard’s has waned, the professionals that came together to create the standards, and the idea of awarding kudos to the buildings designed to meet them, was a very good example of using the carrot or ‘gold star’ method of addressing the issues and moving things forward. Perhaps the best accomplishment of the USGBC organization was to bring product manufacturers into the discussion, and make significant progress addressing toxic chemistry, recycled materials & waste products, as well as the efficient use of energy and resources. Two example industries that made significant strides were the carpet manufacturing industry and the paint & coatings industry. And yes, some commercial products are making excessive product claims and engaged in the ‘greenwashing’ game, but on the whole, in a few industries there have been major improvements. This has given us, as designers and builders, a choice to specify more thoughtful products from more thoughtful companies addressing long term sustainability.
Today we seem to focus more on climate change related to atmospheric CO2 accumulation through fossil fuel abuse as one of the more serious sustainability issues. Optimum Energy performance and the idea of net zero buildings have become possible for some building types due to significant cost reduction in solar photovoltaic panels. Renewable energy production is growing and is proving to be cost competitive with other fuel sources.

Other important sustainability issues relating to life cycle costs, and the longevity of construction assemblies, will hopefully get more attention during this time of a lower cost of money. Lower financing costs have been a helpful upside to all of the downside precipitated by the Wall Street financial mess. Hopefully, this will help those with the motivation to finance more sustainable long term solutions and eliminate the excuse of “it costs too much.” If not, sometime down the road when the real costs, including what economists like to call ‘externalities’, catch up with the short term profit philosophy, it really will cost too much.

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