The Other 99%

The Other 99%

There are 4.9 million commercial buildings in the US.

In 2009, more than 275 projects achieved LEED-EBOM certification. Compare that with only 12 certified projects in 2004, 11 in 2005, 17 in 2006, and 27 in 2007. (Stats taken from the Center for Sustainable Systems) For me it's very hard to hold those numbers in my head at the same time. And while I know it's not really a fair comparison to pit the entire commercial building stock of the US against a program that's only 6 years old, I hope I'm trying to make is clear. Existing buildings are the key to sustainability, if we are to achieve it in this country.

But this is a challenge so large, how shall we meet it? With the literally billions of square feet that need to be retrofitted throughout the country how can we possibly come up with a strategy to handle it all. When it comes to scaling sustainability I believe there are two core principles that our industry must utilize in order to do our part to solve the national energy crisis.

Stress what matters to most clients...ROI

When discussing scaling green building, there is often a discussion around education. The argument goes if building/business owners simply understood sustainability more clearly they would of course embrace it en mass and we'd rapidly grow a market that achieves wide scale. Sadly, I believe in our day and age everything is politicized and "green" is seen as something only some folks will be interested in. The job of greening America's building stock is a big one, and we cannot afford to make green building something only folks in blue states are interested in. We simply cannot afford to align the green building as a movement, liberal (i.e. Al Gore), or otherwise. Doing so will marginalize 49% of Americans and immediately inhibits scale. The scalable market for sustainable measures isn't found in the passionate few who think about sustainability every day. It's found in the greater population of business and property owners who don't. If we want green to scale to those folks we have to make the simplest most compelling argument possible. ROI - simple return on investment. There is a very real link between sustainable retrofit/renovation and cost savings. Exploiting that link and making green building not simply something that is done for altruism and prestige, but in the pursuit of profit is the only way to grow the market.

I know this strategy is limiting. By focusing our efforts only on those measures that are most profitable we limit the scope of what a green retrofit can be. However, given the enormity of the task at hand...we must get to work now...

Profitability is also the "gateway drug" to larger sustainability efforts by property owners and managers. Once business and property owners begin to see the benefits of simple efforts toward greener operations, the doors will open to a wider world of possibilities. We didn't get to this lousy building stock overnight...we can't expect to correct it overnight.

The Perfect Cannot be the Enemy of the Good. (Or, Incremental Change is OK)

When it comes to the greening our existing building stock we have to recognize as an industry that every building won't be able to employ every measure of sustainability in our tool kit. That doesn't mean we do nothing. It means that we attack the problems we can with every client every, every time. Affordability, return on investment and durability of retrofits are key selling points. At this point the most compelling argument for this kind of retrofit is being made in lighting technology. Lighting currently consumes about 25% of energy in commercial buildings. But promising new LED sources/fixtures along with improved lighting controls are becoming proven technologies that can be widely deployed at relatively little cost. We can right now, reduce the impact of lighting in the commercial buildings of the United States by incredible sums. I recognize that simply retrofitting a lighting system doesn't turn a brown building green, but if it makes a dent, we should take a swing.

One last thought...incremental change to system as large as the US commericial building stock is probably preferable to wide scale change anyway. Imagine if you could have waved a wand in 2005 and put the best CFL replacement lamp in every single building in America. Later this year we'd be disposing of them in favor of even better LED alternatives.

It is a testament to the brightest thinkers of the green building community that they want to design and build structures with a minimum or a net positive effect on the planet. I applaud those efforts and want to see them continued. But unless as an industry we can go after the other 99% of buildings in the US, we will not have solved our energy problem, we will only have some examples of buildings and technologies that could.


Build2Sustain is dedicated to sharing information about sustainable renovation and retrofit, particularly in commercial spaces.  We look to foster conversation and appeal to business owners with transparent processes and a realistic focus on ROI.