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Green building takes hold, but wasted energy abounds

The green building movement can point to some incredible successes over the past two decades: Cities are now dotted with skyscrapers and apartment buildings that argue for the value in building green. Structures have been erected that have been certified for using net zero energy, waste and water. 

But despite pockets of significant progress, millions of homes and buildings continue to squander energy as homeowners decline to make improvements that could save both natural resources and money.

"We've come a long way," said green building advocate Jason F. McLennan, CEO of the International Living Future Institute. "And we have a long way yet to go."

Let's start with the good news: America has seen a boon in environmentally conscious projects since the LEED green building standards were put in place 13 years ago. The voluntary rating system - LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design - has effectively established a worldwide standard for green construction. A combined 49,000 commercial projects and residential units have been certified by LEED since its launch, and another 131,000 are in the pipeline. LEED also accredits 153,000 professionals as leaders in the green building movement, and the U.S. Green Building Council, which established the LEED standards, has worked with Bank of America, Target, Verizon Wireless and other companies to create environmentally friendly structures. 

"We've transformed a lot of the way things happen whether you do LEED or not," said Scot Horst, senior vice president of LEED at the U.S. Green Building Council. "If you're building a new building you're going to be much more connected with how water functions on the site, how the building is oriented to the sun. You're going to do a lot of things that make these complex systems work well together."

There are some pretty cool features to be found in LEED-certified commercial buildings, including smart light sensors; rainwater collection and reuse capability; solar panels; and advanced air filtration. (LEED certification comes in four levels: Certified, silver, gold and, for the greenest buildings, platinum.) But it's not just about adding some cool features to the same old box-like structures. 

"A lot of what is important has to do with design as opposed to features," said McLennan. "Better insulation, paying attention to where the sun is for heating and cooling, designing a building that doesn't need to use as much energy."

While most green experts view LEED as a positive, it does have limitations. Paul Fisette, a sustainable building expert at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said that knee-jerk fealty to LEED standards can be counterproductive - ensuring that a school building has natural light, he noted, can result in students struggling with glare.

There is also debate about cost when it comes to building green in the first place. McLennan said that the costs for green building have gone down and that builders can achieve silver or gold LEED certification for the same cost as a traditional building. "This is why it's taken off," he said. Horst, of LEED, said that the argument for building green is "easy" for new structures: "It doesn't cost more, and the reason we can say that is because what we're looking for is ways to eliminate and downsize systems that are redundant."

But Fisette suggested the rhetoric can sometimes get ahead of the reality.

"Anybody who promulgates LEED or any of these standards will tell you that it doesn't cost more, but my sense is that it is a little bit more [expensive] to have a LEED certified house or one of these homes that's certified," he said. "Human nature really is based on things like, 'I have an extra $5,000 to spend, where am I gonna put it? I can go with a LEED certification or a granite countertop.' And they go with the granite countertop."

Still, Fisette said, green development should appeal to a rational consumer, since the initial costs are more than made up for within a few years.

"It's an easy sell if the person who is going to do this work can present it in a logical way that the homeowner would be a fool not to do it," he said. Fisette added that an investment of less than $5,000 would allow the average homeowner to reduce their energy use by 30 percent.

Fisette suggests starting by having a weatherization specialist use a blower door test that reveals the leaks in a home. Both the federal government and states offer subsidies and tax breaks for those who want to weatherize their homes: There are grants and no-interest loans available, for example, for those who want to replace leaky windows.

He added that while attention to the greenest buildings is important for raising awareness, the most important progress needs to come from updating older structures.

"The incredible number of houses out there that leak like sieves or are poorly insulated - that's the low hanging fruit," he said.

Horst, who acknowledged that there is a "capital question" when it comes to making older structures more green, said that LEED and the green building movement is concerned with making buildings work well as a whole.

"A building is really an organism - or it's like a car, really, but everyone is really custom," he said. "Trying to get them really well put together like it's a well-working organism or car - that's the goal."

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