Rethinking Green: Blockbuster Report in Environmental Building News Measures Impact of "Driving to Green Buildings"

The Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s Peace Prize for environmental activism reminds us that the environment has become a pressing political topic in recent years. The critical question is what kind of practical changes such publicity about global warming will affect.

Helping to further environmental action, Environmental Building News has published a ground-breaking piece about our need to rethink our most basic conceptions of green building. In a September article entitled “Driving to Green Buildings: The Transportation Energy Intensity of Buildings,” EBN introduces some surprising data, revealing that even green buildings have too long ignored the effect of their location on their environmental impact. While promoters of green building design like Ed Mazria at Architecture 2030 have long focused attention on the energy consumption of buildings themselves (Mazria claims that buildings consume nearly half of all of America’s energy resources), the EBN report is significant because it pushes us to think more holistically about environmentally-responsible design. The EBN’s report therefore calls for a paradigm shift, urging us to hold developers far more responsible for the energy that will be consumed in transporting people to their buildings.

EBN’s innovation in this report is to apply transportation energy intensity, a measure more commonly used to measure the efficiency of freight transport, to measure the energy used to move people to and from buildings. As revealed in their report, for an average office building, the energy associated with transportation to and from the average building is 30% more than the energy use of the building itself. For an energy-efficient building, the gap is even more startling, with transportation energy use exceeding building energy use by 140%.

EBN presents myriad solutions to the challenge, detailing the ways in which factors like population density, transit availability, mixed-use communities, parking management, walkability, connectivity, bicycle accessibility, and transportation efficiency can impact a building’s transportation dependency. Their goal is to increase the options for mass transit, pedestrian, and bicycle commutes, thereby limiting the number of people who must get in their cars to get to work.

The report has far-reaching implications for the way that we think about the environmental effects of all aspects of the built environment, emphasizing building location and transportation access as critical environmental considerations. That said, EBN also acknowledges that many developers will see the question of transportation as a land-use issue that falls outside of their control. To counter this perception, and increase a sense of accountability for a project’s transportation energy intensity, EBN encourages new metrics that will more realistically quantify environmental and energy effects for developers. As EBN notes:

. . . [I]f one could define the baseline transportation energy intensity for a building type and attach a number to that, it should be possible to modify that value by a series of adjustment factors—much as is done with energy performance ratings of buildings. These adjustment factors would be based on the measures covered in this article: distance to transit, presence of bicycle pathways, traffic calming.

This kind of holistic thinking about environmental impact is one that has long been the focus of the CNU’s attention. In fact, the article makes reference to the influence of new urbanism in shaping the kind of energy-efficient environments EBN’s article embraces:

While most measures to reduce building energy use relate just to that particular building, most measures to reduce the transportation energy use of buildings relate to the broader land-use context. They help to achieve what is often called transit-oriented development (TOD) or smart growth. (The terms new urbanism and neo-traditional development are also used, though with slightly different connotations.) Among the goals of these development paradigms are communities, towns, or urban areas that are pedestrian-friendly and accessible with minimal use of the automobile.

As noted in Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change, a report recently released by the Urban Land Institute, coming decades will provide immense opportunity to implement smarter growth patterns:

The report cites real estate projections showing that two-thirds of development expected to be on the ground in 2050 is not yet built, meaning that the potential for change is profound. The authors calculate that shifting 60 percent of new growth to compact patterns would save 85 million tons of CO2 annually by 2030 . . . . Implementing the policies recommended in the report would reverse a decades-long trend. Since 1980, the number of miles Americans drive has grown three times faster than population, and almost twice as fast as vehicle registrations. Spread-out development is the key factor in that rate of growth . . . (from Smart Growth America, with link to full report).

Given the sense of urgency conveyed in both “Driving to Green Buildings” and Growing Cooler, future development will hopefully follow the energy-efficient lead advocated by both EBN and the CNU.


You're right -- this is big

Kudos to Environmental Building News for such rigorous research showing that the biggest factor in a building's environmental footprint usually isn't the building itself, but its location and how much driving users to do reach it.

As revealed in their report, for an average office building, the energy associated with transportation is 30% more than the energy use of the building itself. For an energy-efficient building, the gap is even more startling, with transportation energy use exceeding building energy use by 140%.

It's time to incorporate these transportation metrics in the environmental review process (EIS) for large public buildings and highways and other infrastructure projects. See the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post Intelligencer's blog for Council Member Peter Steinbrueck's proposal to make consideration of a project's climate-change impact, including its transportation efficiency or inefficiency, part of the city's approval processes. As long as Seattle avoids creating a too-restrictive approval process (which could restrict building and send housing and other real estate prices higher) and sends a message that it welcomes green development that takes an urban form, this could be a very positive step.


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