FM Frequency: How Green Is Green?

By Charles Carpenter
Published in the October 2010 issue of Facility Executive

What is sustainable? At first, this seems like a simple question. But is there a simple answer? The truth is there are probably just as many answers as there are willing and able respondents.

Here are a few examples that test this theory. Frederick Turner believes a sustainable relationship between humans and nature is misleading, as nature does not sustain. A lot of praise for Sun Chips’ compost friendly bag has been replaced with pandering over the amount of noise the eco bag produces. LEED Version 3 was introduced to improve what qualifies as a green building.

Sustainability has been often associated with two things: climate change and green buildings. Those two things have an interdependability as well. Unless a facility manager (fm) has just crawled out from under a rock (itself a kind of sustainable existence), s/he knows about the green building movement and has heard about global warming or climate change.

A Soliloquy To Sustainability

To LEED, or not to LEED, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of unsustainable building,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sustain,
No more; and by sustainability to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That earth is subject to: ‘tis a conservation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sustain;
To sustain, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that unsustainable death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the earthly disrespect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the trash and scorns of time,
Th’polluter’s wrong, the proud man’s waste,
The pangs of dispriz’d ecology, the Boomer’s delay,
The Biomimicry of office buildings, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When Earth itself might its quietus gores
With an ungreen environment? Who would burdens bear,
To grunt and sweat in an unsustainable facility,
But that the dread of something after death,
The overdeveloped country, from whose brownfield
No traveller returns, puzzles the Commons,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than stroll to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make environmentalists of us all,
And thus the native hue of sustainability
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of overexploitation,
And corporations of great pitch and moment
With little regard of currents turn awry
And lose the thought of sustainability.

Climate change is a tricky, divisive subject. While this article is not about to weigh in on either side, one thing should be evident. There is a finite amount of material for mankind to use on this earth. As the world continues to adopt a western lifestyle, its environment becomes awash with hitchhikers.

If hitchhikers make you think of smelly hippies along the highway, these hitchhikers are far worse. Hitchhikers are the things that often accompany the materials we use to create the things we use everyday.

In mining, these hitchhikers can be toxic metals that adjoin to the materials we are after and cannot be kicked out at the next rest stop. In oceanic shipping, hitchhikers are flora and fauna that travel in ballast water, only to be released in new territory. Hitchhikers, the same as viable water supplies or over fertilization, are part of the reason that sustainability accompanying the climate change discussion should receive credence.

A green building can be called sustainable, right? If a casino or a tobacco processing plant is a green building, can we consider it sustainable? If a building currently produces 100% of its electricity but uses twice as much as its neighbors, is that sustainable? Can a green mixed use structure like Antilia (a 27 floor building completed in Mumbai, India for the chairman of Reliance Industries) be considered sustainable when it amounts to the equivalent of a 400,000 square foot house (which just so happens to be the largest home in the world)?

Assuming a structure qualifies as a LEED building, does it lose any points if OSHA violations occur or workers are injured or even killed during construction? If the workers who build a green building are not paid a living wage, is that building sustainable? If the building is constructed in an area where none of its workers can afford to live or the materials it uses everyday have to be trucked in from miles away, is that sustainable? Does someone pay a LEED building a visit in five years to make sure someone has not abandoned the simplest green principles?

The answer to the question about something being sustainable is getting better. Life cycle analysis is playing a larger role in the materials people use. [For more on this concept, see the related Shelia Sheridan’s article, “Beyond Initial Price.”] Developers, the people truly responsible for sustainable buildings, are beginning to see the value of green buildings.

There are still some areas that need examining. Goods can be moved more efficiently via ship or rail than some goods considered local. In many cases, it is cheaper to replace an item than repair it; meaning items are entering the waste stream before recycling capabilities may be ready. In some communities, sound structures are torn down because ordinances, like parking, make the building unusable or unprofitable in its current form.

Some people are willing to look at what is really sustainable. Deborah Dunning has examined the concept of “greenwashing” head on and created The Green Standard, whose mission is to advance global sustainability through the ways products are developed, selected, and disposed of the end of their useful life. Texas State University is dedicating an entire school year to the subject with a program called “Sustainability: Science, Policy, and Opportunity” as part of The Common Experience.

Sustainability is about more than facilities. Being sustainable is more than a snapshot in time. If one is trying to preserve the earth, who is s/he trying to preserve it for? Mankind has done irreparable damage to flora and fauna, but that pales in comparison to what mankind has done to itself. He who lives in green houses should not throw stones…or pick up hitchhikers.