Rick Fedrizzi, co-founder of the United States Green Building Council and father of the LEED standard for evaluating buildings’ environmental impact, spoke at Cornell Thursday about how sustainability initiatives could spur economic growth while creating a healthier global environment.
Fedrizzi said that sustainable buildings are at the “center stage” of the planet’s environmental issues, due the fact that the world’s population is increasingly growing around centralized urban areas.
“Energy, water, waste materials, human health, all of the social implications of climate change –– all these things matter,” Fedrizzi said. “But when you consider that the great majority ... of the world’s population is now living in cities that only occupy two percent of the world’s land mass, using up two-thirds of all energy [and] producing more than two-thirds of all [carbon dioxide] emissions ... buildings are the way that we can at least do something dramatic.”
Fedrizzi compared LEED to the nutritional facts found on food packaging: the certification could be an easy way for individuals and organizations in the construction industry to evaluate a building’s potential for sustainability and show how making a building sustainable could be economically advantageous.
“When we look at the idea of sustainability through the lens of green building,” Fedrizzi said, “you build green, it saves energy, it saves money, it creates jobs, it improves infrastructure and basically we grow [the] real estate market in an entirely different way.”
According to Fedrizzi, by 2050, America will require almost seventy quadrillion BTUs of energy — approximately seventy-three quintillion joules — to remain sufficiently powered. By focusing exclusively on renewable and nuclear energy, Fedrizzi said that number could be reduced to around sixty quadrillion BTUs.
But Fedrizzi added that the most drastic reduction of energy use would occur by focusing on the potential to reduce energy consumption through creating green retrofitting jobs, which would upgrade existing buildings to make them sustainable.
“In doing so, you can drop the energy demand to about 30 quads of energy by the year 2050,” he said. “We also know that there’s a solid economic case in all of this. And the more that I can prove that we are absolutely creating value, creating jobs … [and] that we are able to do all of this in the name of a healthier planet and a healthier human population, then I think we’ve got no problem moving [green building] to a ten trillion dollar market.”
Such a move toward sustainable building practices has been ramping up at Cornell, where the Board of Trustees, as part of the University’s Green Building Initiative, has required all new buildings on campus that cost more than $5 million to achieve at least LEED silver certification — the third highest rank attainable — since 2011.
Prof. Sheila Danko, chair of the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, agreed that pursuing LEED certification made sense for Cornell, but said that it was not a one-size-fits-all undertaking. Additionally, Danko said, some organizations, including some governmental institutions, have questioned the appropriateness of LEED.
“[It’s] a really important question . . . that’s being asked a lot right now,” Danko said. “Why should we go through this? Why should we pay all of the extra money and expend the extra time and energy to do this? It costs money to hire people to document . . . these things.”
For a building to be considered for any LEED certification, Danko said, its owners are required to do “a lot of extra work,” such as compiling checklists of quantifiable environmental performance, calculating water use and air quality, recording materials used for construction and documenting how the building was constructed.
After the owners of the building have produced all necessary documentation, they must calculate how many points are potentially achievable under the LEED standard and submit a request to be certified for that number of points.
“The process is very labor intensive,” Danko said. “To document the fact that you did it in such a way that somebody else can review it critically and assess whether or not you met [the LEED standard] — that’s where all the extra work comes in.”
Still, Danko said Cornell decided to pursue LEED certification to raise societal awareness around green projects and to start a dialogue with the community on what it means to pursue environmental sustainability.
“To a large extent, it’s about the value of communication; it’s about raising awareness; it’s about walking into a building and seeing the seal [and] going, ‘Oh, I think I know what that means,’ or ‘What does that mean?’” Danko said. “That might not be appropriate for some other institutions. It’s not that they’re wrong and we’re right for doing it — for us at Cornell, it is about educating the populace.”
Prof. Ying Hua, design and environmental analysis, a member of the United States Green Building Council, said she is working with students on campus to explore how occupants of sustainable buildings become aware of what standards like LEED actually mean.
“This is a good way to communicate with building users . . . to introduce this as something special about this building and to give people a reason to learn more,” Hua said. “LEED is not just an evaluation system, but quite an effective education tool.”
Hua is also working with students from Cornell University Sustainable Design, an interdisciplinary group that promotes environmentally friendly structures, to create course material that other colleges could use as a framework for integrating sustainable building practices into their curriculum.
According to Danko, the University pursued the maximum number of LEED points possible — equivalent to platinum status — for the new Human Ecology Building, located behind Martha van Rensselaer Hall. Although the building’s construction standards fell short of the goal, it achieved gold status, the second-highest standard.
Fedrizzi, who toured the campus before his speech, said he was “blown away” by the LEED-certified buildings in the College of Human Ecology, adding that they have created a more pleasant working environment for students.
“I’m looking at these hallways filled with sunlight and these natural wood finishes,” Fedrizzi said. “When you start to look at just what’s happened on this campus ... you see that the transformation is really beginning.”