Building green is about more than just the buildings

January 07, 2011 |
Rob Cassidy

There is a growing sense among those who take sustainable design and construction to heart that building green buildings alone is not enough. We have to take their location into account, too.

If you stick a LEED Platinum building out in the middle of nowhere, the building itself may be an energy miser, but every employee, visitor, and supplier will consume lots of energy and pump out tons of greenhouse gases to drive to it.

One of the more egregious examples of such misguided planning is the U.S. EPA’s New England Regional Laboratory, which earned LEED Gold early in the game (version 1.0). The EPA chose a site in North Chelmsford, Mass., 22 miles from downtown Boston and a 45-minute drive from Logan Airport (“if no traffic hangups,” says the lab’s highly optimistic website). True, a commuter rail has a stop about three miles from the lab (with a connecting bus), but I doubt that many employees or visitors use it.

Looking back, I’m chagrined that we at BD+C were guilty of praising the project (“Walking the Walk”). Instead, we should have asked: Why is the federal agency that is charged with protecting the environment not locating its regional lab on a site more convenient to Boston’s very workable transit system?

To its credit, the U.S. Green Building Council has become more appreciative of the link between a building’s location and its true overall greenness. The USGBC has provided funding to the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology for the CNT to further develop its Transportation Energy Index, a tool for measuring the impact of building location on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

As Julie Wernau reported in the Chicago Tribune, CNT compared the impact of a 145,000-sf building housing 200 employees in three locations: downtown Chicago, a city neighborhood (Hyde Park), and a northwestern suburb (Hoffman Estates).

To commute downtown, employees would emit an average 16.2 pounds of carbon and use 87.5 kBtu of energy, vs. 22.5 pounds of carbon emissions and 145.2 kBtu for the average commute to the suburban location. The Hyde Park commute was the best: only 12.7 pounds of carbon emissions and 80.7 kBtu of energy use.
Of course, the model depends on a lot of assumptions and variables—for example, assigning the correct percentage of employees who would carpool, take rail, or drive alone. That’s why the CNT is refining the tool.

But even this somewhat crude model provides strong evidence that choice of location is crucial to determining whether a building can be called truly green over the course of its useful lifetime. The decision on where to locate offices and facilities is one that corporations, institutions, and nonprofits with a sustainability charter will need to give much greater consideration in the future.

One solution to the commutation problem that is quite literally gaining traction these days is light rail. Thirty-five U.S. cities have such systems, with another 13 under construction.

That’s a good sign. As we note in this issue (“Mixed-Use on Steroids”), greater concentration of live/work projects, in the form of mixed-use and transit-oriented developments, is crucial to making both cities and suburbs greener and more livable.

Send comments to: [email protected]

Rob Cassidy | Building Team Blog

Rob Cassidy (“ClimateGrouch”) is editorial director of Building Design+Construction. A city planner, he is the author of several books, including “Livable Cities,” and was a co-founder of the Friends of the Chicago River.

Related Blogs

Benjamin Kasdan, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB, Design Director/Senior Designer with KTGY Architecture + Planning, Irvine, Calif. (Class of 2015 40 Under 40 winner)

October 26, 2015 | Building Team Blog

Are you an AEC superstar? The 2016 "40 Under 40" competition is now open for entries. Here are some helpful...

Competency-based learning: A glimpse into the future of higher education?

Photo: Xbxg32000 via Wikimedia Commons

October 16, 2015 | University Buildings | Building Team Blog

For better or worse, the higher education experience for many young Millennials and Gen Zers will not resem...

From Gehry to the High Line: What makes a project a game-changer?

El Peix sculpture in Barcelona, by Frank Gehry. Photo: Till Niermann via Wikimedia Commons

September 24, 2015 | Architects | Building Team Blog

Each year, there are a handful of projects that significantly advance the AEC industry or a particular buil...

Why AEC firms should be cultivating 'visible experts'

Photo: Cydcor via flickr creative commons

July 07, 2015 | Architects | Building Team Blog

A new study pinpoints the true dollar value of having knowledge leaders and market shapers on your team....

Tactical urbanism: Why bigger isn’t always better in urban revitalization

Each September, as part of Park(ing) Day, citizens, artists, and activists in more than 160 cities collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into micro parks, gardens, and art exhibits. Photo:

May 27, 2015 | Smart and Resilient Cities | Building Team Blog

A budding urban planning movement that is sprouting in cities across the globe proves that low-cost, small-...

Hackathons and RFCs: Why one developer killed the RFP

Image depicts design concepts from the hackathon winner, Pickard Chilton of New Haven, Conn. Photo courtesy Skanska

May 06, 2015 | Building Owner | Building Team Blog

In lieu of an RFP process, Skanska Commercial Development hosted a three-week "hackathon" to find an archit...

Chance encounters and the ‘action’ office: Do collisions spark innovation?

Google is among a handful of tech giants to unveil plans for “action” offices. Rendering courtesy Google, BIG, Thomas Heatherwick

March 29, 2015 | Office Building Design | Building Team Blog

Google, Facebook, Samsung, and Tencent have all unveiled plans for “action” offices designed to get their p...

The High Line effect: Placemaking as an economic development engine

Eight years into the transformation of an elevated section of New York Central Railroad’s West Side Line into a public park, the $273 million project is being hailed as a resounding win for the city. Photo: Beyond My Ken via Wikimedia Commons

March 02, 2015 | Cultural Facilities | Building Team Blog

As big money and eager tourists flock to Chelsea, cities across the globe are starting to take notice. Chic...

Photo: Infrogmation via Wikimedia Commons

The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates the retrofit market for small commercial buildings at $35.6 billion. Photo: Infrogmation via Wikimedia Commons

January 28, 2015 | Office Building Design | Building Team Blog

The real opportunity for shrinking the nation’s energy footprint lies in the mundane world of small commerc...

Add new comment

Your Information
Your Comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture. Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.
Overlay Init