Green building's golden chance

August 11, 2010

Earlier this month, some 50 green building activists, energy providers, real estate executives, government officials, architects, and engineers were invited to San Francisco for an all-day think session to address two related questions:

First, are green buildings healthier for occupants and therefore more "productive" than conventional buildings? And, if so, can that proposition be proved to the satisfaction of even the most hard-nosed skeptics, particularly those in the commercial real estate industry?

The Feds were there in force — EPA, GSA, DOE, the Army, the Air Force. So, too, city and state environment departments, from California, the city of San Francisco, and Portland, Ore. Industry was represented by McQuay International, Herman Miller, Siemens, Trane, York International. Plus NGOs in abundance, professional societies (AIA, ASHRAE), and utilities (Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Gas, Southern Cal Electric, and those from Sacramento, Portland, and San Diego). Even some real estate and Bank of America.

The two questions before the group were hardly new. There's plenty of research about the impact of indoor environmental quality on human health and performance, a body of it having been conducted by the IEQ department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's, one of the event's organizers (along with the Electric Power Research Institute). Much of this research was summarized in BD&C's "White Paper on Sustainability" (November 2003, downloadable at

The new element in this equation is, of course, LEED — the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building rating program. LEED for new construction may not be perfect (as our White Paper made clear), but it does offer a fairly uniform means to compare "green" buildings with "conventional" buildings.

That's what this meeting was all about — to design a definitive study of, say, 20 successful LEED buildings and compare them to 20 non-LEED reference buildings for such factors as energy use, temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide levels, formaldehyde, and total VOCs, as well as occupant surveys, reviews of commissioning reports, building inspections and verifications, surveys of the buildings' facility managers, and cost analyses. All over several years, at a cost of $5-7 million — split between government and industry.

By the end of that busy Friday, there was consensus that such a study not only was desperately needed but, with some tweaking, reasonably feasible. One caution flag, raised by Jones Lang LaSalle's Don Rudy and environmental consultant Pamela Lippe, was that there had to be a "deliverable" within 12-18 months — at least some preliminary evidence to start convincing the real estate community of the direct financial benefits of green building. The study's organizers, LBNL's William Fisk ( and EPRI's Annette Rohr (, promised to do so.

Armed with such a study, green building advocates will have plenty to talk about to developers, owners, insurers, appraisers, and lenders.


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