Going Green in 2014: A Conversation with Two Thought Leaders on Urban Green Design

For someone with 25+ years in the engineering-construction industry, I have seen, known, and experienced firsthand where at the end of projects, regardless of size, data goes to die.
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At the 11th annual Urban Green Gala awards dinner, Building a Greener New York, the Urban Green Council honored three innovators: Mark MacCracken, CEO of Calmac Manufacturing Corp.; Rafael Pelli, partner, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects; and Steven Winter, founder and president of Steven Winter Associates.

For this author, who worked as an interior project-and-green manager on New York State's first LEED-Gold residential condo in the 31-story Riverhouse project, located by the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, it was an opportunity to finally meet the green architect Steven Winter, whose firm led the way in delivering the first-of-its-kind unique project in New York with a LEED-Gold certification.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) was a rating system created in 2000 by the founders of United States Green Building Council (USGBC, est. 1993). Since then, thousands of buildings in the United States have earned LEED accreditation from LEED-Silver and Gold to a LEED-Platinum rating.

In the mid 1980s, Steven Winter was an advocate of sustainability. At that time, his voice fell on deaf ears. He recounted that story in the honoree acceptance speech at the Urban Green Council's most important fundraiser that "supports our critical education, advocacy, and research initiatives."

For a LEED-Gold project like the Riverhouse (2005-2008) it was a major undertaking for all stakeholders involved. The three architects, many engineering and construction firms all had to be ramped up on the LEED movement. There was the Steven Winter Associates' team to give project personnel and I an education on what sustainability meant in the urban green setting.

Catching up with Steve Winters
On the initial attempt to develop the green building program: "It was not really my idea, but that of several conservation-minded architects," he said. "The concept was developed by some dedicated individuals like Bob Berkebile, Harry Gordon, Greg Franta and others who started out as the American Institute of Architects' Energy Committee, which later became its Committee on the Environment (COTE). COTE is now as much respected by the AIA and is influential within the building industry." Steven Winter added, "But 30 years ago the AIA's senior officers decided that green issues weren't important and defunded the old committee, effectively killing its ambition and missing the opportunity for AIA to lead the sustainability charge."

Beyond the old guard not seeing the light, Mr. Winter wrote via email: "The earliest obstacles were credibility and buy-in by industry professionals. But starting around 2000 the whole movement took off like a rocket and players from all parts of the building industry jumped aboard in droves, with energy, time and money. During my tenure as Chairman, membership went from about 150 companies to about 2,500, and later to about 25,000." Steven Winter has also taught at Columbia University and the Pratt Institute.

"How can technology augment the next evolutionary phase of sustainability on building projects?" I asked.

"There are enormous strides being made on building energy performance feedback with smart sensors and remote/automatic data gathering devices, allowing us to gather feedback on the results of our building improvement initiatives. Our onsite inspection and testing work can be recorded and reported simultaneously," he answered.

That's a big improvement for a paper-intensive industry that has lagged far behind fifteen other verticals when it comes to investing in technology, according to a McGraw-Hill 2012 report.

"Today, big data is allowing us to make more accurate predictions about future energy and sustainability performance based on data gathered from past performance. This gives designers confidence in building models, and it gives lenders the basis for financing predicted future savings," Steven Winter stated.

The 'body of knowledge,' which has long been lacking in the industry, too, is coming to the fore: how to gather, disseminate, and leverage historical data on projects of scale and complexity?

For someone with 25+ years in the engineering-construction industry, I have seen, known, and experienced firsthand where at the end of projects, regardless of size, data goes to die. Once a project was over, the records were mothballed, in what architects called "dead files," unless a defect would arise later and turn into a claim or court case. Today, technology is allowing designers to not only model, but to design and implement systems from similar projects built in the past.

Another Green Advocate
A week after the Urban Green Gala, I took a tour of Brookhaven National Laboratory on behalf of Livingston Securities and sat next to another "green" architect Gene Stern. He got involved with the urban green movement in 2000. And his view on sustainability supported that of Steven Winters.

"At the time, we thought buildings were being built with no concern to how it impacts the usage of energy, usage of raw materials, and usage of water," Gene Stern said. "I knew that many buildings would last for a generation, but its impact would last for many generations."

That insight echoed the sentiments of the USGBC, which, he said, was created by concerned individuals trying to make an impact and change the way buildings would be built in the future.

"The USGBC realized that we had to have local representation to affect a sea change. Back then, local chapters were formed; the first was in New York City. Although I worked in NYC, I lived on Long Island and along with five or six people, was a founder of the chapter there. Long Island already had issues of population growth, brownfields, and over development (i.e., farmland turned to subdivisions), with less open space," he said. "Our founding group started at Brookhaven National Labs and put together a committee that led the foundation of USGBC-LI, chapter. Our group along with others across the USA created the scorecard system to evaluate buildings both new and existing. That was the beginning of the LEED."

"How has the LEED movement grown since you were involved?" I asked.

"It has been eye opening for me. We had this national meeting of a few hundred people to conventions that had 40,000 visitors. Greenbuild started in 2002. It morphed into the premier sustainability conference in the world bringing architects, engineers, designers, manufacturers, government, environmentalists, developers, real estate professionals, academia, students and media together," he said with zeal. "When President Clinton spoke at the Chicago Greenbuild I was amazed at how far we came. We changed the perceptions of professionals and non-professionals in the real estate market."

"What trends in green are taking place?"

Gene Stern said: "The LEED rating system has undergone continual evolution. We have just instituted LEED V4 this year. We look at a changing landscape with new technologies, new materials, and new systems as an example and try to make changes to LEED to design better buildings now and in the future. There is third party evaluation process that proves what is stated by material and product manufacturers, allowing assurances that we will have better sustainable buildings."

The ultimate goal of LEED focuses on quality of living standards, as well as using less energy and lower resource consumption, which gets aimed at "reducing each building's carbon footprint," Stern concluded.

Challenges for LEED in the Future
Peering ahead, the sage of sustainability Steven Winter sees threats and challenges:

"LEED has competition and will get even more of it: other green rating systems that are less expensive, less restrictive," he wrote, are going to shake up the industry. But can less quality be transformative as the initial launch of the LEED movement?

"Building codes are catching up with green standards. In the future, LEED may become redundant because its criteria will be required by codes," he stated, noting two final challenges:

"LEED is under fire by some industries threatened by it, like the timber and chemical industries. They are applying political and public relations pressure that threaten its success and even its survival.

"LEED certification is time consuming and expensive, and its benefits are not universally recognized. Its proponents must make persuasive business cases to ensure its acceptance and expansion."

On the final point, the paper-intensive industry, which is timber-related, needs to adopt more cloud computing, among other tech solutions. Less, streamlined data shared by all will make the road to LEED certification "less time consuming and expensive."

In that case, less will be more.

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