The Adolescence of Green Building Techniques

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LEEDS Green Building

Green building, the construction of environmentally friendly, energy efficient structures built using sustainable materials seems to be entering its adolescence, an age where the struggle to attain maturity is beset with roadblocks. As with past changes that carried a heavy societal component, green building is seen as something that is good to do.

The problem seems to be how to implement a reasonable method of encouraging green building without draconian practices that either requires it at all costs or that unduly delay the implementation of green initiatives.

The former could potentially stunt green building, indeed the entire construction industry, by mandating building codes with requirements that, in the end, add substantially to the cost of construction. The latter could keep the green movement in stasis in order to protect certain interests.

How do we move forward and what is holding us back?


The Environmental Protection Agency, created in 1970, was given the following mission[i]:

  •  Establish and enforce environmental protection standards.
  • Conduct environmental research.
  • Provide assistance to others combating environmental pollution.
  • Assist the CEQ (Council on Environmental Quality) in developing and recommending to the President new policies for environmental protection.

The EPA has a large number of positive outcomes to show that it has been effective in its mission. However, the EPA also has an unfortunate history of writing rules designed to protect the public safety and the environment without showing its due diligence or communicating the benefits effectively.

For example, in 1998 the EPA published a rule regulating mercury emissions. Because the agency did not present a compelling case for doing so, it was left open to challenge.

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the mercury emission rules were shown to have apparently been created in a vacuum. There was no cost-benefit analysis performed before the rule was published and it was later learned that the power industry would have to cough up $9.6 billion annually for a benefit of $4 to $6 million per year.

The argument here isn’t that we shouldn’t regulate mercury emissions; it is that the advantages and disadvantages, as well as the potential costs, needed to have been discovered and communicated while the rule was being created. The case that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages should have been developed.


The LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), developed by the US Green Building Council, is voluntary today. It has become a widely used verification program that certifies certain building materials, construction practices, and operational methods by their energy effectiveness.

LEED has become a successful and sought-after certification by offering carrots to attract applicants. These carrots come in the form of tax abatements and credits, density incentives, expedited permitting, utility credits and other incentives for the building owner[ii].

Over the past few years, there has been a movement to integrate a standard such as LEED into the mandatory building code, thereby enforcing compliance instead of voluntary participation. In other words, the government is getting out the stick.

Is this the best way to encourage green building? It might be if handled properly but this is the government we are talking about here…good at creating sticks, not always so good at growing carrots.

Due to the way the EPA and building code administrators handle regulation, the construction industry becomes the horse that can be lead to the Green Building water but cannot be forced to drink, so we push his head into the water until he gives in or goes under. Something that is “good to do” becomes “required” without learning lessons from past mistakes in regulation and implementation.

Delaying Tactics

Opposition to green building provides a different sort of roadblock. Those who do not want to impose such requirements on the industry find ways to delay the approval and implementation of these types of laws. For instance, in Pennsylvania, a law was passed that pretty much barred future updates to the building codes.

In other states, home builder’s associations have tried to delay or completely stop building code updates, including any green building initiatives, through political machinations including taking over administration or requesting prolonged waiting periods for implementation.

Green Building through Leadership, Not Command and Control

How do we move forward?

First, the government must learn to advocate, to make its mandates attractive to the industry. Secondly, the construction industry must pay attention to the societal pressures that are increasingly calling for green building choices if not regulations.

Finally, both must engage with each other and with owners to develop reasonable regulation that is easy and cost-effective to follow. Green building can then mature from a movement to a culture.


[i] From the EPA website ( accessed April 19, 2016.

[ii] From The HPW Legal Blog ( accessed April 19, 2016.

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