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Green is not what you think

4 min read

Ask Americans what they envision by green building and the property they describe will likely be a ground-hugging campus, newly built, festooned with cutting-edge technology. Then show them a 12-story central-city high-rise built in the mid-1960s and they may instinctively recoil at its plain exterior, small footprint (often paved), and visible age.  Yet, when properly compared, that refurbished 202 is much greener than the new campus, because “green isn’t what you think it is.”  Instead it’s three things:

Green = Vertical. While the ‘greenest’ planet might be the one with fewest people in it, unless the modern Malthusians take up Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal we’re not going to be living in a less populous America any time soon.  The people have to live somewhere, and that means as a nation we must expand our aggregate built environment.  Where do we put the new people?

Out, or up, and by every metric, up is cheaper than out.  Up reuses the same land, essentially building homes in the sky.  Up reuses the same roads, the same train/ bus/subway transportation infrastructure. Up is walkable, because the elevator’s reach into the third dimension makes it a commuter’s most efficient mode of transport.  Up uses one man’s ceiling as another man’s floor, and one woman’s wall as another woman’s insulation. Up also aggregates building scale, enabling mixed-use and in-building amenities.  Perhaps most importantly for developers, up is already developed and more easily rezoned than fighting the greenfield rezoning sieges.

Up is green.

Green = Old.  For all that the last two decades have brought us in truly wonderful new materials, we do tend to give short shrift to the embodied energy of our two most plentiful building products: wood and brick.

If wood did not exist, would you believe it possible?  Entirely organic, flexible yet strong, incredibly lightweight (it floats in water), high R-factor, easy to manipulate and assemble, low-tech and low-skill, durable even against weather. America’s housing stock (90% of it wood-framed) is so plentiful and high-quality America abounds in wood.

Similarly, consider the humble brick. It too is entirely organic, low-tech (clay subjected to heat, pressure, water, and time in some combination), even more weather-durable (if brittle), easy to assemble (with mortar), and reusable.

‘Bricks and sticks’ matter not just as a phrase but because they represent embedded energy: the total energy required to create them as building products.  Demolishing a building means sacrificing that embedded energy and creating waste to be disposed.  Yet, when we calculate life-cycle costs and payback estimates, we treat demolition/disposal as close to zero financial cost and embedded energy cost.

Our incentive system generally does likewise: unless a brick is historic, no one gets a tax credit for not replacing it, and in a legacy quirk of the LIHTC system the same improvement or upgrade that would receive a 9% credit in a new-build earns only a 4% credit if in an acquisition-rehab.

Old is green.

Green = Maintained.  A friend of mine who worked for many years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation once told me that the foundation no longer supported drilling new wells in rural Sub-Saharan Africa because roughly half of them were defunct due to lack of maintenance.  And as Tim Padfield, a global expert in building air and moisture circulation systems, aptly coined, “Complicated structures will never be built accurately enough to realize the intentions of their designers.”

All property managers know that a great system poorly maintained will do far worse for a building than a simpler system kept in good trim – and that is an unglamorous business that involves regularizing systems inspection and reporting, regularizing maintenance, training incoming staff on proper maintenance, and having replacement parts always on hand.  Yet we give no tax credits for replacement parts; we offer no bonus for maintenance-staff continuing education in green/energy maintenance to on-site personnel.

Maintenance is green.

Green = unglamorous.  Because we are evolved hunter-gatherers, we are easily distracted by the shiny and the new, and our affordable housing development systems, with their elevation of new production as the metric of performance, reward brass-ring thinking.  Most QAPs’ DNA rewards brass-ring thinking: to win awards (or either LIHTC or industry accolades) one should aim high, spend up, add everything, pile up the Total Development Cost and then pile up the soft sources to match the uses.

There’s another way to look at green – extending the life of a building and enhancing the quality of people’s lives within that building are greener than discorporating it and starting entirely anew.

Vertical, old, and ugly may not be glamorous, but it’s the greenest thing there is.

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at dsmith@affordablehousinginstitute.org.