catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 15 :: 2008.07.25 — 2008.09.12


A revolution for our time

I recently received a hat in the mail from ASHRAE. Emblazoned on the side in lawn green on beige is the saying, “Be Green: Save Time.” While I am not entirely sure what ASHRAE is getting at with saving time, this hat epitomizes for me this decade’s zeitgeist. It seems that we are living in a time in which people are finally waking up to the importance of environmental sustainability.  There are, of course, people who are using the trend of sustainability to further their own capitalistic ends. On the whole, however, I see in most people a thirst for information and knowledge about what they can do in their homes, offices, places of worship, chicken coops and lives to conserve energy, improve the built environment and save the world.

At present, I am in the midst of a 48-hour renovation, suitable for a reality TV show. I am working on my own house (the basement), and am cramming it into a weekend—not because it is more fun this way, but because that is all the time I have.  And, as with most reality TV shows, my budget is limited.   The space I am renovating is for my new home office, which is an extension of the main office of Fluent Engineering Inc., the company that my business partner and I officially kicked off this past May.

I am a Green Building Designer/Energy Engineer, and I spend a significant portion of my time working with owners, architects, engineers and other consultants to improve their buildings in the pursuit of sustainability.  I have worked in the green building industry for the past five years, and I continue to strive for and struggle to live more sustainably by balancing work and home life. This, among a host of other reasons, catalyzed my decision to leave my former employer and put my time and effort into forging a new company.  Despite my attempts to remain cognizant of sustainability in all areas of my life, I did not even think through the sustainability implications of my basement renovation; in fact, I did not even run a quick LEED Checklist.

LEED is the preeminent green building rating system that I deal with.  LEED stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental DesignLEED originated in the USA in the late 1990s and by 2004 had been adapted for use in Canada.  At its core, LEED is simply an accounting system. Although it is not a design guideline, it is often used as a decision-making tool.  This means that there are many different ways to design a LEED building, and even more ways to achieve LEED certification. A professor of mine once said “accounting systems change behavior,” and this concept has stayed with me.  The wide-scale adoption of LEED has essentially turned it into the de facto accounting system for determining how “green” one’s building is.  While there are many benefits to this wide-scale adoption, there are also drawbacks.  Sadly, LEED can be turned into a game in which achieving a specified rating (LEED is organized into certified Silver, Gold and Platinum ratings) is the ultimate goal. As consumers and caretakers of the earth, we must keep in mind the whole picture of sustainability, instead of dissecting the whole into its constituent parts for the sake of a particular certification.

That said, I reflected upon my renovation project and what LEED level I would achieve. In running the mental checklist, I would likely fall into a solid Silver level.  What most concerns me about this, however, is that I did not specifically plan to achieve this. Sure, decisions I made, such as using recycled paint were in line with my general thinking and habits I have formed as a result of my occupation, but my point is that achieving a LEED Silver level is not enough. My basement, for all intents and purposes, should not be considered truly “sustainable.” It still uses energy, it does not purify water and it contributes to waste generation.  In fact, to be totally honest it is not even close to being sustainable, no matter how many materials I reuse. Yet despite this, some of the small decisions I made are at the very least critical first steps towards sustainability, and this is the key. Although the problem is large, the solutions are human-scale.

To be true stewards of the natural world, we must seek to be sustainable.  Our first steps should be made in an intentional manner, but this must happen soon.  The first step may be a LEED-certified building, or one that seeks to use half of the energy of a standard building, or one where water is purified within.  Whatever approach we choose, we must make this first step before we can make the second along the path towards true sustainability.

Fortunately, there are many inspiring stories of people who are truly striving to make a difference. One of them is Father Thomas Berry. I was introduced to Berry’s eco-theology through my involvement with the St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish LEED project.  In Berry’s view, we must seek to develop a relationship between humanity and the natural world that is “mutually enhancing,” a notion that radically differs from typical ways of seeking dominion over the earth. This concept reminds me of Psalm 37:11, which says, “The meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.”  Another way of stating it might be that those who are arrogant will destroy the earth.

As I ponder the hat that I received in the mail, it occurs to me that “Be Green, Save Time” may be quite an apt saying, as we need to save our time on this earth.  If we continue to destroy the world with our arrogance, we are the ones who will lose out, as some form of carbon-hungry algae will likely evolve to take our place.

We need to approach these issues with both hope and pragmatic realism.  Over the last number of months I have learned that most people are tired of talk and instead want practical solutions, answers to questions about sustainability, best practices that can readily implemented, and information on how to improve the design and construction process of the spaces we inhabit.  I am not sure how this thirst will be satiated, but I hope that through my personal and business interactions I can be involved helping to fulfill this need for information, as well as play a part in a broader revolution that will someday be known as the “eco-revolution,” or perhaps simply as “the time when we all woke up.”

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