Kim Shinn, one of our 2012 Green Heroes, is a registered professional mechanical engineer and a Principal and Senior Sustainability Consultant with TLC Engineering for Architecture. He was first certified as a LEED professional back in the sustainability movement’s infancy in 2001 and has been actively involved in hundreds of LEED projects. He founded the Middle Tennessee chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and was later a member of that organization’s national board of directors. We talked with him about the past and future of sustainable building.
What was the biggest challenge early on in convincing builders and end-users to adopt sustainable construction practices?
Because it was something new and relatively unknown, people naturally wanted to attach more cost to it — not because they knew it would cost more, but because they didn’t know what, if any, additional expense there would be. It was a risk management/abatement strategy. We tried educating builders and owners about what was actually involved, but until they went through it themselves, with their own experience, the fear of the unknown kept many of them wary.
So has the shift toward more sustainability been more about cost or more of a cultural change?
Sustainability is frequently about getting the lowest life cycle cost solution — that is, factoring in the initial cost, plus the cost to own, operate, and maintain a building through its life. For an owner who is going to hold onto and even occupy a building for a long period of time, this was a pretty easy business case to make. After all, the initial cost of constructing a building is generally very minor when compared to the cost to use that building through its lifetime.
The harder sell has always been to building developers who want to use other people’s money to finance a construction project, get it built as cheaply as possible, then sell or lease it at a profit and then move onto the next deal. Why should they care about the cost to operate or indoor environmental conditions that make occupants healthier or more productive? As long as the building gets a construction permit, what would be the developer’s motivation to go above those minimum requirements, to do more than to simply not break the law?
The only thing that has made a difference to most project developers — who are rarely responsible for the long-term costs of the building — is if the people that they want to sell or lease to think that it is important to have a healthy, low operating cost building to own or occupy. Fortunately, there have been some real leaders among building owners who set an example in their communities. Here in Middle Tennessee, the State and Metro Nashville governments, Vanderbilt and Lipscomb universities have all adopted sustainable building practices because they understand the value proposition from the standpoint of owning and operating these buildings for a long time.
Private companies like Nissan and government agencies like the federal General Services Administration, who work with project developers under build-to-suit, long-term lease arrangements, take the same long view and, consequently, these projects are built using sustainable practice.
Ultimately, the choice to build and operate a building sustainably is largely about economics. There is little argument that these “green” buildings have the lowest total life cycle cost, and if a building owner is committed to reducing their costs to own and operate a building for 25 years or more, the smart economic choice is to build and operate sustainably.
Are green building practices — LEED certifications and the like — now seen more as a requirement than a luxury? Is it more of a have-to than a want-to now?
LEED certification has become part of the definition of a “Class A” building. Many businesses, large and small, have made a commitment to sustainable business practices in their own businesses and therefore want to be housed and operate in a building that is built to and operates in accordance with certified sustainable practice.
LEED is a leadership standard. It is meant to be applicable to the top 25 percent of the building market. By that definition, I guess you could make the argument that it is a “luxury.” However, who among us, either personally or corporately, has the goal to be lower than the top quartile, to be just average or, even below average? We all want to be in that top quartile, to be known as people and organizations that have the aspiration to be among the best in our communities and markets. So LEED signifies achievement of that higher performance, that aspirational goal.
While LEED is meant to be a better than code practice, we think that there is a lot of opportunity to “raise the floor” of building standards, to make all buildings better by incorporating sustainability measures into new building codes, and by requiring disclosure of a building’s actual historical operating performance at the time of sale or lease.
Going forward, what’s the future of sustainability in construction? Does it become something that’s not even discussed, it’s just understood? And does that come with a generational change as more Gen Xers and Yers become decision-makers?
I think the building design, construction and operation industry has already begun to assimilate sustainability as normal practice. For example, building materials like low volatile organic compound-containing paints, which were practically exotic at the turn of the millennium, are now so commonplace that the default specification is low-VOC. No one wants the smelly stuff anymore.
One of the goals of the sustainable construction industry is something called the 2030 Challenge. Simply stated, this Challenge has the goal of sparking a generational transformation. When conceived in the early 2000s, the Challenge’s goal was that, by the time a child born by the end of that decade became an adult, entering the construction industry in the 2030s, it would be normal practice to design, build and operate new and renovated buildings without the use of fossil-fuel based energy.
The post-Baby Boom generations realize that they are inheriting a world that has been operating on the premise of borrowing on the future resource capacity of the planet — in other words, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, generations have been writing checks on the later generations’ accounts.
And it is now pretty obvious to our younger generations that, with the exception of solar energy, we have only two truly inexhaustible resources: human spirit and ingenuity. So, they — and those of us that are still young at heart — are already putting that spirit and ingenuity to work transforming the way we design, construct and operate buildings, in ways that don’t impoverish future generations, and hopefully, even restore natural capital to our beautiful home, this little blue marble, the Earth.
- ALEX B FRUIN INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDACE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDANCE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; FRUIN, ALEX B TRUSTEE; FRUIN ALEX B INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC, CANDACE F TRUSTEE; STEFANSIC CANDACE F INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC CANDANCE F INHERITANCE TRUST
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- COOKE, ETHEN LANYARD TRUSTEE; COOKE, ETHEN LEWIS ESTATE
- JACOBS, JESSICA ALEXANDRA; JACOBS, ERIKA BESS