Greetings everyone from the 2011 annual Greenbuild Conference and Expo, hosted by USGBC (the organization responsible for the LEED building sustainability rating system).
This year's Greenbuild conference is being held in Toronto, Ontario. The conference is packed with representatives from all walks of life within the green building community including everyone from engineers/architects/designers to owners to policy-makers to investors to attorneys and the list goes on. I’ll be writing the next few days about what is happening at the conference and lessons that I learn along the way.The first education session of the day was actually a panel discussion with four real estate investors & developers that addressed the question: "Is sustainability an important investment criterion?" Ultimately, everything done on a project to achieve sustainably-minded goals (or not) tends to be largely driven by the potential for the client’s ability to see a return on their investment in the project. The question addressed here was whether or not an additional investment in sustainable initiatives makes good business sense. The panelists seemed to agree that, when properly implemented, the data is available to show that investment in sustainability initiatives contributing to reduced energy consumption, reduced water consumption and reduced waste generation during the use phase of a building can lead to a return that tends to justify the investment. The three investors in the panel seemed focused primarily on the ROI perspective, but the developer was quick to point out that sustainable attributes in a building should not be looked at solely from an ROI perspective, but also from the perspective that considers them as attributes that are attractive to potential tenants. He raised the point that when an appraisal is done on a building, its value goes up for things like granite countertops and crown molding but no metric is in place in the appraisal process to assess the added value of things like an efficient HVAC system. Appraisals aside, however, there is value that can be added to a project when it is, say, LEED certified because certain tenants/clients demand that performance for moral or policy reasons. All panelists agreed that the bottom line of real estate investments is profitability- if a project will not be profitable, then the conversation is over before the questions about sustainability can even be raised. Once the questions are raised, however, factors considered are ROI and attractiveness to a particular client. So, to address the opening question, it appears that that profit is the driving investment criterion however sustainable initiatives often contribute to higher profit from a variety of perspectives/drivers and are important criteria in that sense.The second education session I attended today was a presentation by researchers at Yale, the University of Virginia and The Catholic University of America. Two research projects were discussed, the first of which examined the difference in LCA (life-cycle assessment) impacts of modular-type construction versus traditional on-site construction in residential and small-scale commercial buildings. It is commonly assumed in the AEC industry that modular construction is the least environmentally impactful method of constructing buildings due to efficiencies available in the process of constructing building modules under a controlled manufacturing-type environment. The research presented showed that in some cases modular construction does have lower impacts, but the variability in the processes used in both modular and traditional construction exceeds the difference in the impacts. The researchers learned during their project that, because of all of the variability in the processes used, the question should not necessarily be whether modular or on-site construction has the lowest impact, but rather there should be an assessment of the major contributors to the impacts of each method so that improvements can be readily made. In the case of modular construction, a major contributor to the environmental impact of a finished building is the energy usage at the fabrication facility (these facilities tend to have very poor envelope systems and are therefore highly inefficient). In traditional on-site construction, a major contributor is employee transport to/from the jobsite. If efforts are made to reduce the impacts of these major contributors, both processes have a lot of potential to reduce their overall impacts.The second of the research projects presented in the session compared the impacts of a traditional building demolition to those in instances where the building is instead deconstructed and the materials salvaged and reused. This researcher found that, although the impacts associated with only the demo or deconstruction phase are much lower in the case of demolition due to increased efficiency, those impacts are much more than offset by the reduced impact associated with the virgin materials/products saved through the reuse of materials.It should be noted that both of the studies presented in the session included materials impacts but seemed to focus on small buildings of light-framed wood construction. I would be curious to see whether and how the conclusions change for larger buildings of primarily concrete or steel construction, which are materials that are much more energy/impact-intensive during their manufacture than wood- I would expect the materials impacts to begin to drive the discussion rather than impacts due to transportation and energy usage.This afternoon I'll be attending a session addressing government incentivizing of green building, attending the opening keynote presentation which will discuss natural disaster resiliency in design, and perusing the massive expo halls. I will post later on these experiences.