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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

EPA’s new green building report is really good, but stops short of what it should have been

Kaid Benfield

Posted February 23, 2009

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I just read a terrific new report on green buildings developed by EPA's Midwestern (Chicago) region office.  Titled Removing Market Barriers to Green Development, the report's cover (by: EPA, NE-MW Institute, Delta Institute)the report thoroughly documents the state of green building practice in the US today and provides a detailed set of recommendations for leadership and policy incentives to help mainstream more sustainable building practices.

The 59-page document, which was developed in partnership with the Northeast-Midwest Institute and the Delta Institute, is the culmination of a two-year process of investigation and stakeholder participation.  Its key findings are the following:

  1. Applying the integrated design approach is essential to creating a superior green development.
  2. Green building and infrastructure cost less than conventionally built structures over their lifetime.
  3. Incentives can stimulate the adoption of green development practices.
  4. Regulatory processes and codes can help to promote green development practices.
  5. Building transactions and leasing agreements can be designed to accommodate green building.
  6. The cost, benefits, and performance of green buildings must be documented and communicated.

The simplicity of stating the findings doesn't do justice to the rich detail in the report, of course, and I recommend it to anyone involved in the process of making individual buildings more sustainable.

Here, however, is what the new report does not do:

Despite its "green development" title, it really reflects a one-building-at-a-time view of sustainability; and, despite references to transit, transportation, and location sprinkled here and there in the narrative, it pretty much totally misses the mark on those things.  The report considers these issues as not for today but for tomorrow:  there is one - yes, one - paragraph on location efficiency and one on brownfields (no doubt because of the Northeast-Midwest Institute's influence), both on page 50 in a section headed "Issues just over the horizon."  That's pretty much it.  Sigh.

Chicago's Center for Green Technology (via: Midwest Permaculture)What a missed opportunity to bring green building and smart land use together under the umbrella of green development.  One senses that the participants would actually have been sympathetic to that notion, but lacked the expertise and the elements in their process that could have facilitated a more holistic approach.

There is a long and very impressive list of participants in the process, many of them based in and around Chicago, at the end of the report.  I didn't count, but there must be close to a hundred of them.  Here are some names I would have liked to have seen on that list:

  • EPA's terrific smart growth office
  • American Planning Association (headquartered in Chicago)
  • Congress for the New Urbanism (headquartered in Chicago)
  • Center for Neighborhood Technology (headquartered in Chicago)

They aren't.

Let's not kid ourselves: "green building" isn't green when the buildings are in the wrong places; "smart growth" isn't smart if it doesn't include sustainable building practices.  Addressing this is not an issue for "over the horizon"; it is an issue for today.  If I can figure this out, so can EPA.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.


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Jim Van der KlootFeb 24 2009 06:05 PM

Response from the authors:

We are glad that you enjoyed the report, but would like to respond to several of the points that you raised.

Background – Market Barriers to Green Development grew out of a broad-ranging set of projects and discussions which have been held in the Midwest, beginning with the 2003 Midwest Summit on Sustainable Development of Brownfields (which was put on by EPA and HUD in partnership with Farr and Associates), leading through the 2006 Green Makeover conference in Milwaukee, (which was designed to maximize the ecological, stormwater, and New Urbanist benefits of infill redevelopment at Brownfields), and more recently the 2007 Sustainable Development in the Ohio River Valley. In each of these conferences, we sought to bring together the concepts of Smart Growth, Green Buildings, New Urbanism, Conservation Design, and Brownfields.

Often, we heard good, common sense ideas which were not being adopted widely by the marketplace. In order to address the barriers which stand between the good ideas and implementation, we have hosted have focused problem-solving processes on: 1) quantification barriers to green stormwater practices; 20 quantification barriers to green buildings; and 3) engineering barriers to green development of brownfields. In each case, after taking a broad look at the issues, we narrowed our focus in on specific barriers. In this same manner, we developed the concept for Market Barriers for Green Development, along with our Steering Committee.

We did, in fact, invite the EPA Smart Growth Office, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and an individual from the American Planning Association to participate in Market Barriers to Green Development. Outstanding organizations like this have many demands on their time, and each declined to participate.

While the Center for Neighborhood Technology is not on the list of participants, we did consult with them several times during the process and are collaborating with them on quantification of building performance.


Jim Van der Kloot

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 24 2009 06:42 PM

I appreciate having the authors' point of view, Jim. I think the report is terrific with regard to the subjects it covers. Clearly you, your colleagues, and your partners did an amazing amount of work in the process that you describe above and in the report.

I hope we can come together in the future on a more encompassing definition of what "green development" means, and that more stakeholders will find it in their interest to engage with you on the issue.

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