The Green Building Movement Is Dead. Long Live the Green Building Movement!
If I were being dramatic, I’d say that the green building movement is dead.
That, of course, would not be technically true, as there are so many amazing projects and wonderful people working hard to make a positive difference in the world through changes in the built environment. But taken in the context of the rate of climate change and, by comparison, the building industry’s sluggish response to actually addressing it, it often feels that it might as well be true.
Despite the great efforts of so many of us—working hard for so many years—if we are honest, we have not shifted dramatically the way most buildings are designed, built, and operated to keep pace with what is required. A mature perspective is one where we can sit with the simultaneous paradox of the incredible progress our movement has ushered in while also acknowledging that we are all falling short on what a sustainable future requires of us.
Too much equilibrium, not enough punctuation
The green building movement has had moments of extreme promise, where we have come together to push for significant change and provided noticeable shifts in our industry. These shifts, however, are often spikes of activity followed by a new period of stasis, where the movement has been stalled by the realities of just how hard it is to stop the inertia of how people develop and redevelop the built environment—which is responsible for so much of humanity’s impact on planetary health.
In biological terms, these spikes are that of “punctuated equilibrium”—a phrase describing the theory that evolutionary development is marked by sudden, rapid changes followed by longer periods of stasis (generally until something else shakes things up).
We already had the tools back when it was still possible to make a difference
The oil crisis in the 1970s launched the energy conservation movement and kick-started the focus on solar buildings and alternative construction. And then the 1980s and 1990s happened.
By the early 2000s, we saw the emergence of the U.S. Green Building Council and LEED—which rippled through the building industry and began to create coherence in setting targets and a common language for many in our movement (with similar organizations and rating systems emerging around the world).
Other moments of innovation and intervention continued. 2006 is notable for the launch of both the Living Building Challenge and the 2030 Challenge, both of which raised the bar further and pointed toward radical leaps forward that were needed to address the now clear and present danger of elevating carbon in our atmosphere. We now had the tools and know-how to imagine fossil-fuel-free, Red-List-substance-free buildings that could put an end to combustion in our lifetime—back when it was still possible to avert many of the impacts of climate change. The roadmap was set.
And there are now hundreds of net-zero-energy buildings, Living Buildings, Passive House projects, and 2030 Challenge-compliant projects showcasing a better way of building around the world, along with thousands of LEED, BREAM, and Greenstar projects of all levels built. This was remarkable in such a short time—yet, as we now know and the science has confirmed, at the scale really needed, we have dramatically fallen short.
Still chasing points
And in the last few years, we have entered another lull, just when our movement needs to be at its most effective. All of the laudable, yet isolated, efforts to do greener and greener projects without a more concerted global, industry-wide effort show how our theory of change and timescale of innovation are not in alignment with the magnitude of the new reality of the climate data.
Climate change is upon us in devasting ways around the world already, and the prognosis by the scientific community is getting worse every year. As a movement, we are nearly leaderless, still chasing points, still patting ourselves on the backs for our last net-zero project and closing our eyes to the larger challenges that face us in the coming decade and beyond. And we’re still competing from firm to firm with bragging rights. Without significant change—now—our industry has no future, and civilization itself is in great peril.
We need a massive, punctuated equilibrium moment that dwarfs what has come before.
We need to evolve quickly.
A building-by-building approach is inconsequential
For my part, I have come to the realization that no matter how many cool Living Buildings I work on with my small firm—McLennan Design, which I started after leaving ILFI—it is inconsequential. And so I have now joined forces with Perkins&Will (the world’s second largest architecture firm) as their new chief sustainability officer to figure out how we can scale the rate and quality of change on hundreds rather than dozens of projects. Like McLennan Design, Perkins&Will is ready and interested in doing so much more.
Yet clearly, this too is not enough—and the time has come now for a larger, concerted effort bolstered by a true sense of urgency to fully decarbonize all our buildings by all the leading architecture, engineering, construction, and development firms of conscience, somehow working together more cohesively in a way that they haven’t before.
A movement reborn
The green building movement needs to be reborn as a truly collaborative enterprise of change from firm to firm—focused on rapid decarbonization and the elimination of fossil fuels within this decade. No more natural gas. No more internal combustion engines. We must envision, design, build, and retrofit the future needed within the timeframe required to avert the worst scenarios of a warming world.
How we do this I am not yet certain, but in my new role with Perkins&Will, I welcome exploration with all of our competitors and allies, as I am certain that it will take a movement reborn to address the biggest challenge humanity has yet faced.
I encourage all green leaders to reach out to me with ideas to build a larger coalition around decarbonization. Will you join me?
Editor’s note: Please use the comments section to engage in this conversation with Jason and the community.
Jason F. McLennan is principal at McLennan Design, chief sustainability officer at Perkins&Will, and the founder of the Living Building Challenge.
McLennan, J. (2022, November 7). The Green Building Movement Is Dead. Long Live the Green Building Movement!. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/green-building-movement-dead-long-live-green-building-movement