LEED and Yoga TWO: Language

As previously mentioned, we’ve gained comfort in the beginner exercises LEED has presented to us, and now it is time to stretch a bit more. There are several nice new poses in LEEDv4. Some are just refinements of the moves we know, and a few are brand new to us. Language is one of the most evident refinements, and language of green buildings is changing not just in the LEED system, but in policy work, in the A+E realm and in common speak.

One of the things I admire most about the USGBC is that they are capable of assessing what they’ve seen and learned to-date and critically applying that knowledge in updates. They have also placed the system on a continual improvement cycle. This is what a living system must do and what each of us will need to do in order to continue to build greener. As we learn, we change and as we change we learn.

The work on LEEDv4 began with the USGBC team seeking to understand the end goals of green building achievements. They were likely inspired by some of the work of the Living Building Institute, and their Living Building Challenge which has set positive outcome goals since day one. Is the end goal to reduce energy use? That’s a “do less bad” statement. Instead the LEED Impact Categories now define this goal as “Reverse contribution to global climate change”. This broader statement allows many paths to head in the right direction, and clearly states a positive intent, with no limit.  As just one of seven Impact Categories, each of which sets strong, positive goals and allows a diversity of methods of achievement with no limit to improvements, we can understand our end goals and the need for many methods of approach in order to make the substantive changes we seek.

Simple Celebration of Rainwater

Simple Celebration of Rainwater

One of the best examples of language change in the LEED system is the switch from “stormwater management” to “rainwater management”. Okay, be honest, how many of you are rolling your eyes right now? But remember that language is terrifically important. Stormwater connotes occasional, even aberrant overage of water that we want to get rid of. All water is part of a closed planetary system and we must understand it as a resource and manage it accordingly. We all have heard the phrase “there is no away” in relation to garbage and dumps (now “refuse” and “landfills”, also language changes that bring us to more accuracy) and this applies to rainwater as well. In calling this resource “rainwater” we understand that it is a gift falling to our project site and that we can choose to use that gift or dismiss it in some way. When we see it as a gift, we take it seriously, figure out how it can be used well right away, or saved for future use. It’s money in the bank.

Even more importantly this basic term encourages us to cross the silos of engineering and design and landscaping…rainwater becomes a connector as this resource can be used for cooling towers, for toilet flushing, for decorative architectural detailing to celebrate rainfall, and for rain gardens. It can be captured and filtered to support the building users. It becomes wanted.

In New York State government, there was a massive change in terminology a few years ago when the DEC moved into a “beyond waste” approach to dealing with garbage. This was after the term had already changed from dump to landfill and that language upgrade spurred additional re-writes of terminology in many documents from “waste” to “materials management”. Feel how that changes our perception of the resources formerly known as waste. They are materials that we must manage, meaning that waste is truly that – a pity and a failure of the system. Can we manage our resources to reduce that failure? Yes. Can we then manage that failure so that it becomes a system benefit by re-use or recycling? Yes… each step toward understanding resources as commodities we can and should manage is imperative.

This is one piece of language I would encourage the LEED Steering Committee to change in the next version of the rating tools. Currently the system still references development of a CWM (Construction Waste Management) plan. This should more appropriately be a Construction Materials Management plan…CMM. This small terminology change would align with language in policy work, at least in NY and at the Federal levels, expand the meaning to help us treat all of the materials in question as valued resources, and set the stage for management of everything brought to and from new, demolished and renovated building sites.

Speaking of the importance of language, I used the term “commodity” in the previous paragraph with a bit of fear of that word. “Commodity” implies bought and sold goods. Most of the resources that need better management can only be completely well-managed when we recognize that they are of common value for the common good. Safe water and clean air are most readily understood in that way, though Nestle as well as many natural gas and hydro-fracturing companies have certainly commoditized water to the great detriment of aquifers and communities. Energy has nearly always been a commodity managed by private utility companies, but oversight regulation is starting to change that and our access to RE technologies has made many individuals their own power company, reducing the third party “commodity” control. We now additionally recognize the connections between nature’s other resources, from wood and metal to the bio-services of ants, as valuable common services and resources that we can manage with broader understanding. And this is tough. So perhaps I must be careful of the use of the word “commodity” or we need to work to make that word more about the resource value rather than the profit margin.

Some other language changes I see in LEEDv4? Instead of “fresh air intake” it is now “outside air”. This helps us understand that we cannot assume that outside air is fresher or cleaner than indoor air and we must act accordingly to ensure we place intake louvers away from places where cars idle or vinyl siding off-gasses in the sun.

“Alternate Fuel Vehicles” are now referenced as “Green Vehicles” in LEEDv4, so we can begin to see that it may not just be about fuel choices, but about carpooling or approaches to vehicles that we have not yet considered. Again, we need to leave room for our learning to inform the future changes.

Each improvement in the language we use can change how we address the issues at hand, especially when the newer language helps us to reduce our siloed approaches in design, construction and operations as well as innovation and manufacturing. The end does NOT justify the means, and yet we must always begin with the end in mind.

So again, enjoy the stretch, breathe in and out, and become greener.





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