The Weekly is STREAMING now. Join us at HorizonTV

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:

Rob Cassidy | BD+C Editors

Robert Cassidy is Executive Editor of Building Design+Construction and the Editor of Multifamily 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

Life Fitness says it will sell its exercycles to apartment and condominium property owners.

December 23, 2019 | Multifamily Housing | BD+C Editors
Reconsidering construction robotics, Building Design+Construction

Photo courtesy Construction Robotics


December 18, 2019 | BD+C Editors

After decades when experts predicted that robots would become more prevalent on construction sites, it woul...

The Oxford word of the year: climate emergency. Graph sourced from the Oxford Corpus

November 20, 2019 | Sustainable Design and Construction | BD+C Editors

The Oxford Word of the Year 2019 is climate emergency.

ProForm Studio Bike Pro

Reviewer Elyse Betters-Picaro gives high marks to the ProForm Studio Bike Pro ($999) as her best buy for alternatives to Peloton. Photo: ProForm

November 08, 2019 | Multifamily Housing | BD+C Editors

ProForm Studio Bike Pro review.

Oslo opera house and public space

Courtesy Pixabay

November 01, 2019 | Transportation & Parking Facilities | BD+C Editors

Two recent reports (October 2019) explore whether car-free downtowns really work, based on experience in Os...

Peloton bikes at Weinstein Properties, Bexley Triangle Park, Raleigh, NC

Peloton bikes at Weinstein Properties, Bexley Triangle Park, Raleigh, NC. Courtesy Weinstein Properties


September 04, 2019 | Multifamily Housing | BD+C Editors

Peloton will no longer sell its bikes to apartment communities.

Suffolk Smart Lab in New York City, 2019 Giants 300 Report, 3 ‘Giant’ AEC market trends for 2019-2020  Photo: J. Michael Worthington, Jr., courtesy Suffolk Construction

The rise of data and data tools, like the Suffolk Smart Lab in New York City (pictured), is leading to more research projects among AEC firms. Photo: J. Michael Worthington, Jr., courtesy Suffolk Construction


August 15, 2019 | Giants 300 | BD+C Editors

We’re starting to see a shift toward custom research, thanks in part to the influx of data, data tools, and...

Amenities war no more? Research report explores multifamily market

The skylit 75-foot, three-lane lap pool at Hub, a 54-story rental tower of 750 apartments (150 affordable) in Brooklyn, N.Y., designed by Dattner Architects. Photo: Evan Joseph, courtesy Dattner Architects

July 31, 2019 | Multifamily Housing | BD+C Editors

Multifamily developers show no signs of pulling back on specialty spaces and unique offerings in an effort...

Annual mortgage payment plus property tax per average square foot of housing in US cities.

Source: World Business Chicago

April 30, 2018 | Multifamily Housing | BD+C EditorsRobert Cassidy

It's inaccurate to focus on property taxes as a percentage of home value without acknowledging the actual c...

MIT’s Simmons Hall, designed by Steven Holl

MIT’s Simmons Hall, designed by Steven Holl

January 05, 2018 | Big Data | BD+C EditorsDavid Barista, Editorial Director

At a time when research- and data-based methods are playing a larger role in architecture, there remains a...

Overlay Init

Your card will be charged: 0