Good News from GreenBuild: Healthy, Sustainable Building is Here to Stay

November 23, 2011

by Mark Bishop, vice president of policy + communications

I’m getting tired of reading the news every day. Our global economy is in shambles, political discourse seems to be nearing an all-time low, and it feels like our environment doesn’t have too many friends. That’s why it was such a breath of fresh air to participate in GreenBuild, the US Green Building Council’s (USGBC) annual conference, last month in Toronto.

When I attend conferences, I like to walk away with some new base of knowledge, something that can help the work we do at HSC. And while I can point to the fascinating green technology displayed throughout the exhibit hall, or the numerous educational sessions highlighting the great strategies schools are using to improve sustainability, my main takeaway this year is much broader. It’s an understanding of the value that our work brings to our world, and a vision for where we’re going. It’s understanding that the economics and the politics of green schools work, and the movement has many friends.

Economics: When it comes down to it, we all need to make financial decisions that make sense. We need to build schools that we can afford, both in terms of the initial building costs and the costs of ongoing maintenance. Conventional wisdom tells us that in hard economic times, green building is a hard sell because it involves increased upfront costs with long-term payoffs that don’t benefit a capital budget. But conventional wisdom may have this backwards. I’m not sure if it’s despite of or because of the economic downturn over recent years, but green buildings have increased in new construction market share from 2 percent in 2005 to more than 35 percent in 2010. It may just be that when the economy is at a low point, investing in greener buildings and schools can be part of the solution, particularly because they tackle long term costs and reduce risk in future energy expenditures. Green buildings reduce energy and operation costs while creating more productive indoor environments for workers and students.

Politics: Federal and state politics are in disarray. I don’t know of many states where leaders are having an easy time promoting a common agenda. But green schools are proving to be a real exception. I have been so impressed by the Center for Green Schools’ work bringing together state political leaders – a group that includes the most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans – to identify common strategies to promote more sustainable schools. These leaders recognize the shared values of improving health and education while reducing operating expenses. Green schools may be one of the increasingly rare political issues that can bring people together and build connections rather than creating greater divisions.

Collaborating for the environment: At the opening luncheon, the USGBC’s President and CEO Rick Fedrizzi spoke eloquently about his philosophy on improving the environment. His belief, one that we share at HSC, is that in order to create a more sustainable future, environmentalists need to partner with businesses rather than merely oppose one another. It’s a model of engagement that requires respect and listening from all partners. We understand the difference between a profit motive and a mission motive, but recognize that these don’t have to work against each other, particularly around issue such as green building or green cleaning. We need new jobs and services, but what we really need are jobs and services that support sustainability for both the environment, our workers, and the businesses providing goods and services. From our perspective, this is how we can drive healthier and more sustainable schools. At GreenBuild, I met with scores of advocates, political leaders, and business leaders who see this connection and realize that working together is the best way to move forward.

Thanks to everyone at the US Green Building Council for creating such a valuable experience for all of us at GreenBuild. I left feeling encouraged that green, healthy building is here to stay and that more and more students, teachers and school staff are experiencing the benefits of these thoughtful building and maintenance decisions. That’s good news from any perspective.