Being Green – Cost/Benefit Analysis

Hi Folks:

Friday once again…  Before I get started on today’s ‘Being Green‘ post I thought I’d take a second for a little shameless self-promotion.  Marcia and I write on a variety of topics, as you can see from the columns on the left side of the page.  In addition to Friday’s  post, on Mondays Marcia does a ‘Marcia’s Meanderings‘ segment, on Wednesdays she writes her ‘Poetry Corner‘, and on Sundays we both write on a shared topic in our ‘He Says, She Says…‘ posts.  There are also sections on food, photography, random items, spirituality, and at the top of the page you’ll find links to some of our short stories and other creative writings.  Okay, that’s all the ‘advertising’ you’re going to get here, so on with the show!

Okay, the title for this week’s post is ‘Cost/Benefit Analysis’, and it has several sources for its inspiration.  In some Native societies there’s an idea of the ‘seventh generation’ – that we must plan our actions now for how they will affect the earth seven generations from now.  In a world run by politicians we tend to think in four-year terms instead, knowing that a new candidate or a new government can overturn much of what’s previously been done .  If the world were run by accountants, everything would have a margin of profit or loss and everything would be measured in terms of whether or not a specific product or activity made a profit.  We tend to apply such thinking to most if not all of what we do as a society.

Among the uninitiated at least, probably the one question most frequently asked with regard to green building is “How much is this going to cost?”  If you go back through the archives of previous ‘Being Green’ posts, somewhere in there you’ll find a link to an article that said that many people overestimate the costs of green building by 300%.  Now  monetary costs and returns on investment are hard figures and must be built into the budget of any and every building project.  There’s no way to get around it.  However, it’s important to take a long view.  There are ‘upfront costs’, and then there are ‘life cycle costs’.  A solid-wood hardwood floor will be more expensive than a cheap vinyl floor, but the hardwood floor may last 50 years or more.  Over the long term, the hardwood floor is a better investment.

Adobe Corporation is an excellent example of what’s possible.  Their head office in San Jose, CA has achieved three separate LEED Platinum certifications.  It cost Adobe $1.4 million to retrofit their buildings, of which $389,000 was offset by grants.  However, they’re now saving $1.2 million PER YEAR, and that’s just in hard figures – it doesn’t include reduced water and energy usage, increased employee satisfaction, better health and other intangibles.  Another example comes from two large hotels who have switched to LED lighting for part of their lighting demands.  At the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando, FL for example:

“Conducting its own analysis, Regency Lighting found that replacing the Hyatt Grand Cypress’ hallway lighting with LR6s will have a cumulative savings of $131,659 in the first year, with a return on investment of about nine months. These savings include projected energy, labor and cooling expenses, and the cost of the lamps. Regency Lighting projected a cumulative savings of more than half a million dollars by the fourth year of installation.”

All of which leads to a different question, one asked in a post written last year by  Barry Katz: “How much less does it cost to build green?”  A much better question indeed.

Last night I was at my first meeting of the Victoria branch of ‘Emerging Green Builders‘, an association run under the umbrella of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, founders of the Living Building Challenge certification.  Part of my reason for attending was that they were showing the film Building Codes for a Small Planet, by David Eisenberg and done through DCAT – Development Center for Appropriate Technology.  The film makes some very good points and asks some very good questions; I highly recommend it for anyone interested in green building, sustainability, and the like.  One of the points made is that we tend to look at buildings from a very narrow point of focus, seeing each attribute as separate, and each building as separate, even from its neighbours.  Instead, we need to see buildings as being a part of the neighbourhoods, cities, and environments they occupy.  A city is an ecosystem unto itself, and the health of any ecosystem is dependent on the beneficial interaction of its occupants.   As we expand our view we need to look at how resources used in building construction are affecting environments and the planet as a whole.  Another point was that building codes are inherently reactionary.  Let me state up front that I for one appreciate knowing that both residential and commercial buildings must be built to certain standards, and I appreciate those whose work it is to make sure those standards are upheld.  I’ve done enough repairs of bad construction over the years to know why such standards need to be in place.  Having said that, building codes are primarily that – minimum standards for construction required to make sure the building doesn’t indavertantly fall down or catch fire.  It’s like someone taking a course hoping only for a passing grade.  There’s no impetus within the codes to go for an ‘A’.  Right now, such ideas are currently the province of certification programs like BuiltGreen, BOMABest, LEED, Living Building Challenge and the like, and as conflicting as they can be sometimes, they all point to a way of standing out.  They’re catching on, too, as cities vie with one another to have the most LEED-certified buildings or to be the greenest city in their part of the world.  I applaud them, but it also makes me wonder… why aren’t ALL buildings made to such specifications?  The knowledge is there, the technology is there and the ability is there.  The results are a known commodity.  Greensburg, KS is an excellent example of what’s possible.  So where is the government or leader who will be the first to say that these are the standards that must be met – not just a minimum, a pass, but  each building, each community an example of excellence?  How much would it cost?  How much more will we save?  And how will we (and the planet) benefit because of it?

Okay, before I get to the links for this week I want to add a shout out for a few people.  First of all, Steve Satow and a group of dedicated people in the Victoria area are working to develop the Alternate Solutions Resource Initiative in Victoria and they’re looking for help.  Their mandate, as I understand it, is that building codes are designed to work well with standardized construction techniques such as stick framing or concrete block walls.  Building codes aren’t very well adapted for alternate construction techniques such as straw bale, cob, rammed earth or straw clay construction.  It’s a given that every building must meet minimum standards for health, safety, soundness of construction, etc.  The difficulty is that in straw bale construction, for example, the idea that 2×4 studs must be spaced 16″ apart doesn’t hold up.  There are no ‘standards’ if you will for alternate construction techniques and so each person interested or involved must re-invent the wheel, satisfying the local building inspection team that their plans will meet an acceptable standard for construction.  There’s no need for builders and building inspectors to be at odds with each other if both are seeking the same goals, but sometimes there is a misunderstanding of intent or of purpose.   It would be helpful to have a central resource where both the building team and the local inspection team could look at what’s already been achieved in these areas without having to start from scratch for each project. Steve and his group are not proposing to rewrite the provincial building codes, what they are interested in is creating a collaborative resource of information, adapted to local conditions, for different alternate construction techniques.  In some ways it might be similar to Architecture for Humanity, and may in future link to them, I don’t know.  A good example of the available information is this report on the exemplary qualities of straw bale construction that can be found on the CMHC website.  Another example is here of a Straw Bale Test Program.   What Steve and the team need are people with interest and especially those with some expertise (engineers, architects, builders and the like) who are willing to provide time and information to this project.  Steve and the team may be contacted by e-mail or at 250-744-2244.  I’ll be sending a link to this post to Steve, so if I’ve gotten any of that wrong, please leave me a comment and I’ll correct it!

Second, the Sustainability Solutions Group (SSG) and the Emerging Green Builders of Victoria are going to be hosting a workshop on ‘Carbon Neutrality in the Built Environment’.  Details are a little sketchy at this point, but the workshop will probably be either June 21 or 22, in Victoria.  From what I’ve seen of the schedule it looks to be a very extensive program.  If you want to register, contact the Victoria Emerging Green Builders.

Finally (for now) a little farther up island the O.U.R. Ecovillage in Shawnigan Lake, BC has a number of upcoming courses on different aspects of alternative building resources.  For more information it’s best to check out their website.

Okay, the links for this week include:

Okay, that’s it for now.  Have a great week!
Mike.

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P.S.  I started this post by suggesting some of the other sections of our site, so I’m going to end with one more, and that’s our ‘Hug Certificate‘ page.  There you’ll find an MS Word template that you can download to print out your own Hug Certificates.  We give them to people, leave them in public places, and sometimes mail them to friends who need a lift to their day.  Hugging is good for you!  If you don’t believe me, check out these YouTube videos.  They’ll make you smile… I guarantee it.

Free Hugs Campaign / Free Hugs Campaign continued…
Free Hugs in KOREA / Free Hugs NYC
Is Your YouTube Video Having This Kind of Impact?

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