The marching order to “leave nothing but footprints” enlisted an infantry of green builders this season, before our collective attention turned to security. While our man from the Midland Petroleum Club (a k a George W. Bush) dissed environmental causes and dismissed global warming, before his attention, too, was turned, a growing number of land-shapers and place-makers began to cast an ecological eye toward planning and construction. Whether labeled green building, sustainable architecture, organic architecture or what one inclusionist calls “The Whole Building,” this new constituency of ecologically attuned and everyday builders has begun to consider environmental values in building inside and out–from the materials in the making, to the siting of the structure, to the energy it consumes.
“Every architect wants to build green,” one would-be organic architect says longingly, listening to speakers at a conference on “Building Energy 200l.” Sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) at Tufts University, the assembly was one of two events pulling in record numbers of builders looking to tread more lightly on the land. The second, “Sustainable Communities by Design,” the Southface Energy Institute’s annual Greenprints meeting in Atlanta, likewise drew green-minded “carpenters”–sick-building doctors, clean-air experts, developers, engineers and construction firms–as well as professional architects, landscape architects and planners with a growing green agenda.
“What is starting to change a heretofore esoteric or niche market to make it more viable?” Peter Yost asks rhetorically. “People are starting to make a value connection between health, sustainability and the environment,” says Yost, senior editor of Environmental Building News. The biological impact of building has begun to enter their calculations, in other words.
Beyond these green gatherings and sentiments, or perhaps because of them, the political advocacy for environmental building legislation has also advanced. From state to state, activists are backing tax-credit legislation for conservation measures in building. Some have secured them in New York and Maryland, and others are sponsoring or organizing them in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Executive orders have issued forth for renewable energy in Chicago and for cleaner buildings in cities (Seattle), states (California) and even the federal government, at the State Department.
Campuses have also become new centers, particularly universities like Tufts and Oberlin, with the latter trying to create an environmental department building that will be climate-neutral, a net nonconsumer of energy, says David Orr, one of its generators. Along with the labors, inevitably, come the publications to instruct them in the nitty-gritty of the new art and the books of broader import on the impacted planet that impel them to the task.
In some ways, the new thinking is not startling, even in terms of self-interest. With fears of rolling blackouts, California dreaming for a time became the national nightmare, power-miser bulbs the new lingua franca. Concern about global warming, fed by the greenhouse gases that heat the planet, is shifting attention to alternatives in both power and production. Americans, chief among the world’s consumers (and contributors of one-fourth of the planet’s emissions), have begun to calculate the pennies and problems escaping through their single-glazed windows, their under-insulated attics, unwrapped water heaters and oversubsidized superhighways and sprawling buildings.