Reinventing Green Building to be Smart, Simple and Sustainable

This book is a “must read” for people in the green building industry. It is well written, with good references and a clear message, certainly one of the most useful green building texts available. You hit the nail on the head!
— Eric T. Truelove, PE, GGA, LEED AP BD&C, Madison, Wisconsin
In thinking about how to replace the jury-rigged LEED system with new approaches that would have broader appeal, I looked for analogies far afield, including in the world of fine art. One that especially appealed to me: in creating a rating system, use sculpture as a model instead of painting.

Painting vs. Sculpture

Consider LEED's creation like a painting: start with a blank canvas, layer on green paint, one coat after another, somewhat like a Jackson Pollock painting (but without its redeeming fractal characteristics), pouring gallons onto a blank canvas, throwing red and brown on for effect, until the original straightforward idea—green buildings embodying best practices—becomes lost or very muddled.

In Reinventing Green Building I take a sculptor’s approach (see Figure below): start with a marble block, i.e., one containing all good ideas for green building and then chip away at anything that doesn’t directly deal with the “Big Three”—energy/carbon, water and waste—until what’s left is a clear image, much like one we’ve all admired for the past 500 years, Michelangelo’s David, a work of art almost everyone appreciates and understands.

Future green building rating systems should be designed more like sculpture than painting! Credit: (c)

Future green building rating systems should be designed more like sculpture than painting! Credit: (c)

Designing a Disruptive Innovation

If we’re going to replace LEED as the major green building system in the US or, alternatively, offer a green building system that has the potential for large-scale adoption by “the other 99 percent,” what should the replacement look like? LEED is ripe for disruption by what Harvard Business School’s Robert Solomon calls a Minimum Viable Product, containing “the minimal set of functionality that a user would find useful—and is willing to pay for.”

A true MVP or disruptive innovation may look like a “leapfrog product,” way smarter than LEED and super-easy to use. It might be an iPhone compared to 2006’s flip phone. Remember the Motorola Razr? It ruled the mobile phone world in 2006 and yet became obsolete by 2008 after the iPhone’s 2007 introduction.

Or, it might meet Clayton Christensen’s definition: a disruptive innovation is one that offers “simple solutions with less functionality and much lower prices than established competitors.” There are many situations where new technologies have overtaken and completely replaced legacy systems in short order. Think of examples like Uber and Airbnb. It’s clear that incremental improvements won’t do the trick, and that we can (and we must) reinvent green building with a far more disruptive approach! 

In the last blog post, I suggested three key characteristics for a new rating system designed to meet most buildings’ needs, something that bears repeating here. To meet market needs, a successful new system must be:

1.     Smart (readily incorporating new technologies for building design and operations).

2.     Simple (easily implemented by building operations personnel).

3.     Sustainable (it must deal with key sustainability issues).

 But in addition, the system must address four other key issues, by being:

1.     Owner-friendly—our future green building system must clearly meet building owners’ needs for sustainable operations, not the ambitions of some in the environmental community to create the ultimate green building “leadership” system.

2.     Cost-effective—the future green building system must meet cost-effectiveness criteria for building owners and facility managers, in that it must deliver better results than they could achieve on their own.

3.     Built for rapid uptake—the future green building system must be able to certify 25 percent of US building area during the next 10 years, which means it must be embraced. immediately by end users and not have to be “sold” to them by architects or consultants

4.     User-friendly in its delivery—the future green building system must deliver results quickly and fairly and should not depend on extensive third-party reviews, 700-page technical manuals, or thousands of arcane interpretations from a remote bureaucracy.

What do YOU think should be the characteristics of a successful green building rating system?