Green By Design

Local Building Councils are Guided by Environmental Principles

About 50 people had gathered in the auditorium at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art to hear urban planners, architects and energy engineers talk about the environmental challenges facing South Florida. There was concern about the low attendance, but also optimism that a movement was being born.
“One hundred and fifty years ago, New York’s Central Park was built because of the efforts of just a few people,” says Daniel Williams, an urban planner and architect. “This is our community, our responsibility. We need to immediately make a plan and persevere.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation"s Phillip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis, Maryland is the highest-rated green office in the U.S., using 90 percent less water and 50 percent less energy than comparable buildings.
Dave Harp

David Benjamin, conference organizer and founder of Third Planet, a nonprofit organization that provides green design consulting services to communities around the world, is helping to spread the word by convening the South Florida Green Design Council, a group of architects, engineers, health care professionals and concerned citizens who meet one evening a month. The group has met with an environmental physician to discuss the effects of airborne toxins, a University of Miami economist who presented a view of the financial impact of the pending Everglades Restoration project, and a hydro-ecologist who talked about the dangers of using underground injection wells for water storage, as planned in Florida.

As small as South Florida’s design council is, it is not alone. Another group meets in Miami to discuss the greening of county-owned buildings, and a group of construction professionals interested in green building issues has formed in Palm Beach County. Some of these groups are part of a statewide organization, and some are part of a national network.

There are councils in other countries and even a World Green Building Council. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) was formed in 1993, and membership has doubled each year for the past three years, with more than 1,000 member organizations today. The group helps to promote and disseminate information about sustainable building practices to its members, who in turn bring that information to their clients.

“We try to promote a more holistic approach to sustainable design,” says Peter Templeton, who manages a USGBC quality control program called LEED Certification. “It is a standard definition of what is green—a rating system that allows us to assess a building to determine what its environmental impacts are. We look at five categories—the site, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, material and resources and environmental quality.”

The USGBC LEED certification is a self-assessment, and it is gaining support across the country. Local and state governments in such places as Portland, Oregon, New York City, Seattle and Austin, Texas are beginning to utilize the program as an incentive, and in some cases a requirement, for new buildings. Maryland may soon adopt LEED standards for all state building projects. The USGBC conducts workshops across the country to help builders, architects, planners and government officials learn how—and why—to meet the high environmental standards.

“We were just astonished when 200 people showed up for our first meeting,” says Bob Maddox, director of communications for the Connecticut Energy Cooperative and president of the Connecticut Green Building Council, founded last fall. “It’s the younger workers in these companies saying, “This makes an awful lot of sense.’ If you’re in business and you want the best and brightest talent, you’ll be going green, too.”

A national showcase project for the green building industry is the Conde Nast Building at Four Times Square in New York City, which features photovoltaic cells on the rooftop, strategic use of natural light, protection from radiant heat and superior fresh air standards and systems for maintaining high quality. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland operates the highest-rated building in the country. “It really is an amazing example of what can be done,” says Templeton. “The building uses about 90 percent less water [than average] and 50 percent less energy. It incorporates renewable resources through solar and geothermal energy.”

But there is some controversy over the green designation. Mark Shantzis, of Sebastian, Florida, says he believes that to be certified as green, products need to demonstrate their value to the environment. “There are lots of products out there that people say are green—they’ve got little seals and all kinds of people saying they’re green,” says Shantzis. “I say they’ve got to prove it with a financial analysis.”

Bill Sanders, a Fort Lauderdale architecture photographer, is equally uneasy with the movement. “I’m really skeptical about what’s green and what isn’t,” he says. “Take bamboo flooring—It’s a great product, and it makes more sense than maple because it is much faster-growing. But if you have to import it from Thailand, how green is that? People never think about the energy used to bring a product to the location.”

The use of indigenous materials is an essential consideration in green design practice, and it is included in the LEED certification standards. But Sanders and Shantzis raise an important point. In the 21st century, it may be impossible to be 100 percent environmentally correct.

Meanwhile our heavy dependence on fossil fuel continues, even as we learn ever more about the damage the use of oil for energy production is causing. And population pressures are causing heavy damage to the world’s remaining wild places. “There isn’t much time left—maybe 10 years,” says Williams. “If we don’t make radical changes now, the price will be high. Over the next 40 years there will be 160 million more people in the U.S.—that’s a 50 percent increase.”

Green design isn’t a marketing ploy. It’s a survival technique to ensure a high quality of life. “I think word is getting out about the environmental, health and economic benefits,” says Templeton. “People are seeing that really is a win-win situation.” Maddox adds, “People are saying, “This is the right thing to do. We want it.’”