Who Will Green the Machine?
Reporters who cover environmentally efficient construction may have spit up less coffee than most when word broke that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize without effecting any peace. He looks as though he can, and most landlords get to market their buildings as “green” if the structures look capable of saving energy.
This flimsy reverence for appearances has given way recently to a fresh concern for substance, but its mechanics still clog the systems that produce new buildings or repair old ones. Even though the United States Green Building Council has incorporated performance measurement into its rating system and cities like New York are readying laws to require checkups on older buildings, the question of how to make a structure use energy more intelligently comes down too often to appearances. One hears distressingly often that “the trades” will resist technology to make air-conditioning run quieter, or involve renewable materials in frame construction. This, like most catchalls, uses demonstrably false claims to hide an uglier reality.
The truth is that a Roach Motel of corruptible contractors and inspectors still infect the construction process in most cities around the world. Hiring impartial experts becomes unlikely, dispatching inspectors everywhere becomes impractical, and politicians still keep score in square footage built rather than in megawatts saved.
This is changing, but so far the misgivings seem to adapt. New York City building commissioner Bob LiMandri told a green-minded seminar last month that his team would start inspecting energy efficiency along with everything else. But everyone knows that inspections lag the demand for them already. A more radical call would have involved partnering with the local utility or the state department of energy to cut power to anyone who wastes it above a legislated threshold. But the construction community would not easily swallow such medicine.
It’s stubbornly hard to think about buildings, parks, streets and subways as part of a larger ecosystem because buildings in particular seem like a way to keep score in tax receipts: the city or district with the newest or priciest buildings wins. Motivated players can dangle construction jobs and reap votes on the promise that a building will exist: the premise that it will exist efficiently is harder to attach to a single person.
More’s the pity: as we await the crunch in commercial mortgages, the idea of an efficiency angel hovering over the sector seems magnetic. Maybe we can declare Barack Obama Hardhat of the Year.
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