Thoughts on construction law from Christopher G. Hill, Virginia construction lawyer, LEED AP, mediator, and member of the Virginia Legal Elite in Construction Law

Build2Sustain- Renovation Realities

Sara Sweeney, Ecovision, LLCThis week’s Guest Post Friday at Musings is a real treat. Sara Sweeney is a registered architect, LEED AP and GreenFaith Fellow in religious environmental leadership. Her 18-year architectural career reflects her passion and commitment to sustainable building design and stewardship of our natural environment. She is the founder of EcoVision LLC, a solutions-based research and consulting firm, grounded in sustainable design practices, environmental stewardship, and building science. Sara returns for her second Guest Post Friday appearance and we’re glad to have her back.

My Fellow Build2Sustain Advisory Board member, Yahya Henry, made some poignant observations in a recent guest post on this blog. What caught my attention in particular was his observation that:

Depending on whom you ask and what the latest headlines are, sustainable, by definition is not universal. Looking up a definition for the word, I viewed at least 10 sub-definitions; no wonder there is some confusion as to what it is and what it is not. The built environment is flawed in this instance. Pressure is on developers and general contractors to deliver a ‘green’ project and to help curb our carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Therefore, anything is being done in the guise of “sustainability.” This model is not sustainable.

I agree with Yahya. I am also growing increasingly concerned that in our quest for sustainability, we are losing the forest of the definition through the trees. If we collectively don’t know what sustainability means, then that in and of itself could make it unsustainable, especially if we have polar opposite definitions of what it means.

Take coal as an example. Many feel that coal generated power is unsustainable. Mining coal can cause massive environmental destruction, and burning it emits toxins into the air, from CO2 to mercury, and is accused of being the primary cause of a changing climate, to name a few reasons. To others, such as those who work in coal rich areas, coal represents sustainability. Sustainability of their lives, of their families lives. Upper management and corporate heads of the coal industry aside, to a miner, or anyone that works in the dredges of the coal industry, the loss of the industry is potentially a threat to their sustainability. Yes, there may be “Green Jobs” available, and yes, perhaps these jobs offer a healthier work environment than what a mine offers. But unless the jobs are a lateral or advanced move career wise, and not a demotion per-say, I can understand the potential reluctance.

The same potential exists in the building industry. Again, we have the potential for polar opposite definitions of what sustainable means. To a sustainably minded architect, a LEED Platinum building may be considered sustainable, the focus being on environmental stewardship. To an Owner, a building which does not have increased first costs, comes in on budget and saves money in long-term operating costs may be considered sustainable, the focus being on fiscal responsibility.

These are both extreme examples, but presented to make the point that there are many sides to the definition of just what sustainable means. And in my mind, the Build 2 Sustain project is taking on the challenge of defining sustainable from these many –perhaps all, vantage points, at least with respect to buildings. It seeks to understand all related points of view so as to arrive at some conclusion and/or common ground, something which must be done and which I do not feel has been done yet to date. In addition, through real-life case studies which will be documented and recorded as they happen, Build2 Sustain will present a level of transparency yet unseen, versus merely relying on collected data and studies recycled into yet another report or an after the fact case study PDF download, to make the case for sustainability. In effect, it will be a sort of Renovation Realities on a grander scale.

We who advocate each day for a sustainable and responsible built environment need this project. We also need to be humbled a bit. As I’ve said before, building sustainably is not easy. It is a different way to approach designing and building. And frankly, it does cost more, especially if the integrated design model is not followed and instituted at the very beginning (and just because one uses LEED does not necessarily mean this model is being followed/instituted either). To constantly state otherwise is irresponsible. I am privileged to be a part of the Build 2 Sustain project and an advisory board member and look forward to embarking on the project and trust the outcome will be of great benefit to us all.

UPDATE: For more of Sara’s great thoughts on this topic, check out her post at the Build2Sustain blog.

As always, your comments are encouraged. Also, please subscribe to keep up with the latest Musings.

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17 Responses to Build2Sustain- Renovation Realities

  1. Tweets that mention Build2Sustain- Renovation Realities | Construction Law Musings- Richmond, VA -- Topsy.com says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Christopher Hill and Raquel Bedell. Raquel Bedell said: RT @constructionlaw: Build2Sustain- Renovation Realities http://su.pr/9MGNBG (thanks to @sarasweeney for the great post!) #B2S […]

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  3. Great post and insights as always Sara.

    One thing that strikes me is the cost question … I hear people talk about building green “costs nothing”. I agree with you and do not buy it. That is a sales pitch that ultimately costs credibility.

    The better path, and one that connects to the models of developers, builders, and financiers, is to talk about return on investment, especially when tied in to energy efficiency for example.

    The last thought is that I see the Build2sustain discussion evolving more towards development as opposed to construction per se. Transit oriented development ties on so many levels to these questions – difficulties in funding roads and acquiring right of way, urban sprawl, excessive energy costs and pollution, deforestation, CO2 emissions … so much of these points focus on getting unhooked from our cars.
    .-= Timothy R. Hughes´s last blog post .. An Aggressive Bidding Environment … the Perfect Storm for Claims =-.

  4. An interesting take Tim, and a great avenue to explore. B2S is in the infant stages but much is being explored. I hope that you will continue to check in.

  5. I am definitely intrigued – I had a chance to chat with Yahya for a while this morning and I am definitely intrigued, great discussion points between there and http://www.aribra.com going on …
    .-= Timothy R. Hughes´s last blog post .. An Aggressive Bidding Environment … the Perfect Storm for Claims =-.

  6. There certainly are. And if today’s advisory board conference call is any indication, it will be a great project.

  7. Thanks for you comment Tim! The better path is to indeed focus on ROI. However, even that path can come up short. What needs to be addressed -and what I do not feel has been addressed adequately yet, is project budgets and Owner commitment. For example, far too often I see RFP’s come in requesting LEED and/or other energy efficient attributes/technology. Then you read what the budget is, and based on the SF of the project, you realize that the overall budget for the building -and let’s say it is a mixed use development of retail and office space, as well as meeting space, is something like $150.00 a SF. Well, right there you realize the budget is off base absed on the LEED certification level listed in the RFP, and the Owner likely has little understanding of the integrated design process, or LEED. Does this $150.00 a SF account for certification fees, project registration, commissioning, building envelope upgrades and more? Unfortunately, usually the answer is no.

    I also see far too many studies advocating that green costs no more. When you download the study and read it, you find it was a 100 million dollar, 300,000 SF project -or, about $330.00 a SF. Well, you can do a lot with that kind of budget. And it’s not the budget most construction projects have.

    Sometimes I feel like I harp on this subject quite a bit. But I also feel it is irresponsible for the design and construction professions to claim that it costs no more to build green than it does to build conventionally. It is different in ways, and we must understand the differences so that when a project is in the early gestation period, these differences can be budgeted for properly. Then the ROI will really make sense.

  8. Good consultants help their clients understand and plan their projects with realistic budgets and expectations. It is really clear Sara that your handle on the topic and also helping to shape expectations serves your clients and their projects well!!
    .-= Tim Hughes´s last blog post .. An Aggressive Bidding Environment … the Perfect Storm for Claims =-.

  9. Twitter Comment


    Fantastic Post by @sarasweeney concerning the cost of green renovation [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  10. I think that sustainability is definitely place based. What are sustainable goals in an urban environment are quite different from those in agricultural areas. In the urban/suburban centers, as Tim notes, it is about planning and locating transportation facilities to serve that population. As much as NYC is maligned, the subway system makes getting around simple. Much of the planning discussions now center on creating smaller urban centers, with all the amenities, within the larger urban environment. And I agree with Sara, we have to keep jobs in mind when we talk about sustainability. It would be fair to ask a large segment of the population to put their lives on hold until the new green sector jobs came on line to replace the one they lost in manufacturing or mining.

  11. It feels like to me that the real meat of this discussion is centering around transit oriented development in the future and avoiding sprawl …
    .-= Timothy R. Hughes´s last blog post .. Cowboys Practice Facility Collapse: NIST Finds Serious Design Flaws =-.

  12. […] on Integrated Practice, integrated practice, integrated project deliver… 2 Tweets Build2Sustain- Renovation Realities | Construction Law Musings- Richmond, VA A Guest Post Friday post by Sara Sweeney of EcoVision, LLC. Sara discusses sustainable building […]

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