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By the end of Greenbuild, I was exhausted/troubled/elated with all sorts of conundrums swirling around in my head — not to mention a few partly written blogs, abandoned in favor of the next conversation... ... I had wanted to write about the 'executive roundtable' that happened that Wednesday — and responses to the twitter-submitted question "what single thing would have to change to make buildings actually regenerative?" (as in, way past 'less damaging' — past neutrality, even). I was encouraged to hear the execs express what I see as core issues (summarized and/or quoted below — no, I didn't record who said what):
  • Waste and consumption is ridiculously cheap. If energy costs go up to the tune of $150/barrel for oil (or on-site renewables became radically cheaper), and/or if a cost is attached to emissions (not just air — also sewer and solid waste), we could get there.
  • Our financial accounting systematically discounts the future. "We're trapped in a paradigm of net present value (NPV) — one of the worst tools known to man.... We need a new tool — 'Net Future Value'... and to start to reconceptualize buildings to see them as multigenerational assets."
  • Corporations have to focus on shareholder's financial return above all else. Yes, the technology is there to do zero energy buildings but "for a profit making business with shareholders expecting a return they cannot generally be duplicated over and over."
On the last point, the phrasing I found interesting — because later they were asked how to tell green from greenwash — and one of them said "you'll know a business has credibility when they stop talking about one-off projects and demonstrate [that performance] across the board." I put these two quotes together, out of context, because what I think it points to is that if we're really going to take green to the scale that is needed, we can't kid ourselves that we can do it all within the current economic rules-of-the-game that stack the deck against stewardship and the future. (Don't get me wrong, the Green Building movement is doing an incredible job within this context, but that doesn't mean the system works — rather, it's a testament to the smarts, creativity, passion, and perseverance of folks making change despite an imperfect market designed to thwart their best efforts). At another session, the speaker reminded us that our economic system is a social construct — it's a story we've created, and we can revise that story. Let's not forget that, because ultimately if we don't find a way to align individual and corporate financial success with the wellbeing of future generations and the environment, we'll find ourselves without either.

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Comments

1 This commentary gets to the h posted by HalLevin on 11/30/2009 at 11:18 pm

This commentary gets to the heart of the matter. But beyond economic(monetary) accounting, there is also a need to assess the non-economic qualities of a building - is it aesthetically pleasing, user friendly, and easily maintainable to ensure a long life? Does it enhance the local environment or, at least, avoid unnecessary and excessive harm? Is it safe for the intended occupants? These and all sorts of other characteristics of "green" buildings are considered in LEED and other building design and/or performance rating systems, and the certification is an effort to recognize and reward some of these features. But the trade-offs between the qualities rewarded by green building ratings and certifications and the economic (monetary) values, whether "net present value" or "net future value" still wants us to reduce everything to economic (monetary) terms. I keep putting "monetary" in parentheses after "economic" because economy in the most basic sense is far broader than the monetary accounting system. Creating "net future value" accounting is a good idea but is also falling into the monetary accounting trap. To illustrate, the value of commuting convenience, for example, of a walk or short public transit ride to work rather than a long, single-occupancy vehicle commute on polluted, congested roads is more than the monetary cost of the alternative trips. It is fundamentally about time, health, pleasure, and comfort, none of which are accounted for adequately in monetary systems. Similarly, a building that works well now for the occupants and the operators and that everyone likes enough to want to take good care of and continue to use indefinitely most likely will have qualities that will not be adequately evaluated by a monetary accounting system.

2 Nice and concise reporting an posted by Chris Moline, LEED AP on 01/02/2010 at 06:40 am

Nice and concise reporting and rumination. Thanks for the info.

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