The Many Facets of Green Building Innovation

The Many Facets of Green Building Innovation

At the Shanghai World Expo last week, innovation was on my mind. How do we promote the changes we need to implement in buildings?

The process and adoption of innovation are the result of several forces at work, not all of them necessarily aligned: The need to customize the product to fit the specific needs of the client and the need for scope, scale and speed (the urgency on the environmental side drives the urgency on the innovation and uptake side). 

There are a couple of nice pieces on having to do with innovation as it relates to reducing the environmental impact of buildings and meeting the needs of building occupants.

Pike Research just released a new study on lighting markets, which shows that over half of the lighting energy in the U.S. is STILL incandescent(?!). Talk about a need for innovation.

Marc Stoiber writes about the bizarrely-termed process of “reverse innovation” (yowza, if ever there were a term destined for Dilbert, sort of like a "pre-meeting" . . . it’s not Stoiber’s term, by the way), which in reality is simply innovating for your target market, rather than retreading a product designed for one market and trying to foist it on another. Stoiber contrasts Ford’s disastrous attempt to address the Indian market by stripping down its existing platform to bring down the cost with Tata Motors designing an entry-level car, which essentially involved creating a completely new platform that was appropriate for the Indian market in terms of price and features.

LEED is often criticized as an overly simplistic American platform that is inappropriate for adoption in other countries. Some critics have illustrated this point by applying LEED criteria to indigenous villages that have existed for centuries with essentially no environmental footprint as “only” achieving LEED Certified. This example does make a valid point, even though it is misapplied. The valid point is that LEED has much farther to go before it reaches true sustainability, but the problem with the example is that it puts LEED in a context in which it was never meant to exist, sort of like comparing a motorcycle with a bus. 

Maybe the world would be a more sustainable place if there were 80 percent fewer people living in mud huts, but modern buildings are facts on the ground (increasingly so) that must be dealt with. LEED was designed to reduce the environmental footprint of modern residential and non-residential buildings and in that regard it has been fantastically successful. In fact, just recently the Italia Green Building Council just adopted LEED as its preferred certification standard for Italy.

But as we come closer and closer to the “wall” of the planet’s ecological carrying capacity, we will need to take a harder and harder look at the LEED platform to ensure that it continues to be a vehicle for innovation and not an impediment. I’m not concerned that this will be the case and I’m really interested to see what comes out of the impending “Beyond Platinum” review of LEED to envision LEED in 10-20 years.

The other point of innovation is understanding the group for which you are innovating. Johnson Controls has just released a fascinating study of the desires of so-called Gen Y workers, currently ages 18 to 25.

Based on a global survey of over 5,000 people, including 3,000 Gen Y’ers and over 1,300 Gen X’ers and some late Boomers, JCI’s OXYGENZ study revealed some interesting insights about the desires of this group, which should help (or freak out) corporate HR and real estate departments alike. 

One of the more intriguing preferences is that Gen Y’ers see work as an extension of themselves and desire to have a little less compartmentalization between work and social life so that the ideal job has meaning both substantively and socially.  They want the physical equivalent of MySpace (their own desk) and a "Chat Room" for creative interaction, both socially and work-wise. 

This is clearly a mass customization challenge for existing buildings and one that is likely to be imperfectly rendered initially. One thing is clear: Rabbit warrens of cubicles and window offices are likely to be on their way out over time.

So, how do we mass customize?

We need scale, scope and speed in the reduction of environmental insults generated by buildings, and these things only can be produced through efficient platforms.  However, these improvements will not be consumed unless the platform is appropriate for where and how it is being applied. Perhaps it is focusing on establishing the platform in terms of principles and process, as opposed to substance, that ought to receive more attention going forward. 

Leanne Tobias writes about an emerging and long overdue process spearheaded by The Green Standard to begin standardizing green product claims, in this case through the LCA-based Environmental Product Declaration platform, which is very big in Europe. As I’ve written before, the emergent Green Products Association is another group trying to standardize the green product field. Here’s hoping that these efforts can lead to increased clarity and movement in this area.

This week’s Look-Grandpa-I-picked-up-the-$20-bill-you-said-was-fake-but-it's-real! award goes to the International Finance Corporation for receiving Platinum LEED certification for its Washington, D.C., headquarters (pictured above). Supported by the Leonardo Academy, the IFC project is only the second platinum award under the 2009 version of the Existing Buildings Operations & Maintenance (EBOM) standard and the first in Washington DC. The project achieved an Energy Star score of 89, which puts it in the top 11 percent of all similar buildings in the U.S. and its water-saving measures reduced annual consumption by over 1 million gallons. Now that’s what I call an investment in the future.

A Grandpa’s Honorable Mention goes to the EDF Climate Corps program, which just announced its new crop of 51 MBA students who will be tasked across 47 companies with a mission to ferret out energy waste, mostly in buildings. 

Rob Watson is the executive editor of You can reach Rob at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter@KilrWat

Image of International Finance Corporation Headquarters CC licensed by wikimedia user AgnosticPreachersKid.