When It's Greener To Build

Whether with lightbulbs or buildings, many of us in the green building world are in love with conservation and efficiency. Of course, if the goal is reducing our footprint on the planet, better than doing something efficiently is to not do it at all—whether it’s turning on a light or making a building. The mindset of efficiency in the green building movement contains, at its logical extreme, a latent distaste for buildings themselves.

This tension cuts to the core of our mindset as green builders. To get a glimpse of this, let’s examine a contrary question: “Is it ever greener to build than to not build?” Purists who believe in leaving the land untouched might reply, “No.” But surely this position is too extreme—should we only use existing infrastructure? Should we not have a built environment?

Our architecture, no matter how efficient, will always exact some environmental costs. But concern about resource consumption should be a lens through which we examine buildings, not the definition of green itself. We should also consider our fundamental ethics of building: Why do we build? In what ways is the

act of building green?

When there is a need for a building, and the design and construction team remains loyal to the expression of that need, we see ecological and humane buildings rise from the earth. They provide homes that keep our families safe and warm. They contain schools for our children to learn, centers where we can heal, and places to work.

We each have our favorite human-made or wild examples of architecture that affirm the reasons why we work in a creative industry, why we design and build. At the heart of the building process is a crafting of materials, energy, and motion that can render us awestruck and in love, as artisans and as occupants. In this way buildings have the power to evoke not only the highest emotions that we are capable of, but they forge a connection between those emotions and the most mundane aspects of life, a connection that nurtures the entire community of life.

Resource efficiency and other green measures express one aspect of that connection, but they are not the whole. We see this in buildings that do everything right according to conventional green measures but that fail to inspire or nurture, often because they honor only one-dimensional values, such as profit, convenience, or efficiency. Perhaps the same buildings would be “greener” if their designers did not undervalue the human need for harmony with both the natural and constructed environments.

When we build with awe for life at the forefront of our process, we inherently build in a way that supports life. Therefore let’s adopt a mindset not of being green by doing the least harm, but of being green by honoring our bond with the earth at every step of the building process.


Published September 28, 2007

Roberts, T. (2007, September 28). When It's Greener To Build. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/when-its-greener-build

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October 15, 2007 - 2:17 pm

Seems to me that it is almost always better to build if the net resource efficiency result is beter than not building. But often even this consideration has ignored the lifelong and beyond impacts of the "to build or not to build" question.

Akin to the world of medicine: when to operate? Best is to NOT operate. But sometimes it is the only way to save a life, save an organ or save a functionality (e.g. the ability to walk unaided) etc. But what about allowing death to take its course in respect for new life or other life or the like?

We use rating systems to compare a subject building to a benchmark, but aside from LCA and the Community Sustainability Assessment I don't know of a single tool to use in this matter. And I know of only biomimicry or spirituality as frameworks in which to find a context for this kind of conversation.

Ah, the tough questions are always the best ones!

Bill Marston, AIA & LEED-AP

New conference - Urban Ecovillages Toward Ecocities
Nov. 9 -11, 2007