Do We Really Still Not Know What Makes It Green?

First, the 411:
AIA Seattle’s annual What Makes It Green? awards event is this Tuesday, April 28th, 5 – 7pm at the Farestart Restaurant at 7th and Virginia. It will be a unique opportunity to view examples of the latest and best green design efforts in the region.

Second, the gratuitious rant:
Can we please, for the merciful love of the deity of your choice, move on from chattering endlessly about what is and isn’t green? Cause anybody with a pulse who’s paying the slightest bit of attention already knows. OK, so the What Makes It Green? competition is a good thing and doesn’t deserve snark, but something about that tag line question brings out the petulant bee-awtch in me — like a tipping point in a rising ocean of green cognitive dissonance.

Like most in the endless parade of green lectures and meetings in Seattle, the AIA event this Tuesday will be overflowing with big-brained folks who possess piles of knowledge, skills, and desire to make green development happen. But the vast a majority never get the opportunity to implement all their great ideas in real projects. And that is our integral predicament: we know what to do, but we’re not doing it. Green buildng is not a design problem or an engineering problem, it is a people problem — institutional, political, economic, cultural.

Take for example the new Weber Thompson HQ that has been piling up green design awards. The two key design features that make that building most exceptional — passive ventilation and daylighting — have been understood and practiced in buildings for millennia. It’s not the design that is the big mystery here. No, the mystery that we need to solve is why, given the dire need to make buildings more energy efficient, isn’t every new midrise office building being designed for no air-conditioning in a temperate climate like Seattle’s?

There is more processing power in an iPod than would be required to monitor and provide real-time optimization of energy use in a large building. So why is that most of our buildings are operated as if the integrated circuit had never been invented?

Over the past half century it has become blindingly obvious that the single most important strategy for greening cities is to reduce car dependence. So why is it that in the vast majority of Seattle, we still have laws that require on-site parking for development? And why is it that after Metro bus ridership has risen 20 percent over the past three years it now faces a 20 percent budget shortfall and has to go begging to the State for permission to establish new revenue sources, even as the State signs off on $2.4 billion for an underground bypass freeway for cars?

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is widely recognized to be a critical ingredient for sustainable growth in the Puget Sound region. So why is it that so little progress has been made in terms of planning for and establishing TOD at the new light rail stations in Seattle? And why such animosity towards our established policy experts in sustainable growth and urbanism when they propose policy to promote TOD at the State level where it actually would stand a chance of being effective?

It is not new information that sprawling development is destroying salmon habitat and creating massive runoff pollution in Puget Sound. So why is it that as you read these words, billions of dollars and the creative energies of millions of people are being directed towards creating the same formulaic combination of pavement and dispersed single-use buildings that we all know is killing the planet?

It is not, I am afraid, because we don’t know what makes it green.


Ah well, that’s this world over
Ah well, next one begins
Ah well, that’s this world over
You sadly grin…

Will you tell them about that far off and mythical land
And how a child to the virgin came?
Will you tell them that the reason why we murdered
Everything upon the surface of the world
So we can stand right up and say we did it in his name?*

*This World Over lyrics by XTC, written in the context of the threat of nuclear war during the Reagan years, but the “ah well” sentiment nails what often seems to be the prevailing attitude today as well.

8 Responses to “Do We Really Still Not Know What Makes It Green?”

  1. Kathryn

    I think the comments on this article are very instructive regarding the utter cluelessness of people for oh so many reasons.

    My personal view is that we don’t have a good way to get the USES, economic development and economic diversity people need for good sustainable neighborhoods. But, when I read the comments on the above article, I just want to scream.

    There is a good reason why people target the real costs of all new building. Sure, build new correctly, but consider all of the costs when deciding if it is worth it.

  2. jeff

    Great question! Why do they force us to build parking stalls on private property? How is it fair that you can turn a once dead store into a nightclub and have people park along the streets and you as owner don’t have to pay to build parking like a new builder would?

  3. jeff

    As a side note though, how can we ever NOT have this requirement if the Federal Govm’t and ADA has such strict requirements for handicapped accessibility?

  4. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Here’s a thought: every single household living in Seattle’s existing old “streetcar suburb” neighborhoods (Capitol Hill, Ballard, Wallingford, Ravenna, etc.) has a connected urban environment on the ground today. Why do most of us regularly drive places despite the fact that a car costs thousands of dollars a year? To get “a good deal” on lightbulbs at a discount retailer or broccoli at a discount supermarket. It’s the same reason we’re buying cheap sweatshop goods by the bargefull. It’s easy to push the true costs off where they’re not in our faces every day.

    I also oddly found myself imagining your XTC quote being spoken by an Amish woman (maybe it’s all the Patricia Polacco books we’ve read to our 3yr old). Their sustainable ways have been in the news lately. Is that what it takes?

  5. Japhet

    ummm is it because green is not something you build, it’s an entire shift of the economy. Green banks and green underwriting guidelines, and appropriate transportation policy at the federal level would make every profitable new development a green development. We can nip at the margins of density and building envelope design, but until the federal transportation and infrastructure dollars are tied to appropriately dense zoning, then we end up with business as usual.

  6. timetowakeup

    Hello Dan –

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. If I may add to this comment:

    ~”Take for example the new Weber Thompson HQ that has been piling up green design awards. The two key design features that make that building most exceptional — passive ventilation and daylighting…”~

    One more item to consider – beyon the passive ventilation and daylighting: This is a FOR-PROFIT building on a VERY LEAN BUDGET that has chosen to become a laboratory for sustainability. Not an easy thing to do these days. It is still a very tough sell to developer clients and this econonomy is not exactly making it easier.

    I appreciate your irritation with the incessant questioning of “what makes it green”, but we need this. The truth is that we are all neophytes in this new game – lets at least appreciate that we are pioneers and inventors and risk takers in a new age. Some day, in the not to distant future, we will not longer need to ask ourselves “What makes it green” -technology and philosophy will have come to the point of inflection – that intersection where true change happens. The efforts, the measures that we take today will seem like Thomas Edison with the string and the soup cans. Sorry for the bad metaphor, its the best I could do on the run :).

  7. Zero-speed

    While I’m not savvy on urban design principals I do notice similar parallels with other critical issues facing society (i.e. Public Health – basic services vs. pharmaceuticals). And, as Japhet eludes, it all comes down to economics and, more specifically, short term profit. Economic value needs to be derived from sustainability. Until then even a green Capitalist economy will be unsustainable and the issue of innovative design, density, transportation, etc. will be mute.

  8. JoshMahar

    @6: We aren’t pioneers or inventors at all. Walking for transportation is obviously much older than driving. Passive ventilation and daylight have been known for millenia. Wasting all our time and energy coming up with impossible ways to sustain the unsustainable will do nothing. We need not think of the current state of humanity as a new challenge to rise above but rather a failed direction that needs to be halted and stepped back from.

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