US Green Building Council Wants Structures Labeled for Air Quality & Energy Efficiency

Nutrition Labels as Universal Home Labels. Image credit:Jetson Green

Measuring a building's environmental performance is sensible, assuming stakeholders, including tenants and owners, can agree with and understand metrics and measurement protocols. Among the many obstacles to understanding: there are multiple building types, in widely varying solar gain and weather extremes to be represented. Another is that no building owner wants a data billboard or clashing color swatch on the wall. Houston doesn't even have a zoning code, for heavens sake. Those sorts of obstacles aside, the USGBC is pushing for whole-building performance metrics (pdf file), and for taking it to the next level - every building gets a label that indicates environmental performance. I won't discuss proposed metrics or label protocols, as they don't yet exist; but, I will outline the US political context as affects prospective acceptance.People will make unconscious comparisons.
Remember the long-ago EPA proposal to have states force people to ride share where ambient air quality standards were not being met? While the Feds were beating a hasty retreat on that one, states came up with voluntary ride-share lots, and express lanes for multi-rider vehicles and hybrids.

Who can forget the Dept. of Homeland Security's color-coded terror warning system? It became and remains a joke due to the condescending and non-specific nature of the symbolism. Varying shades of green indicating overall environmental performance has the same communication vulnerability as "yellow alert."

No one pays attention to a label unless trusted third parties certify results and there is an easy, fast way to get at the underlying information. The nutrition label simile doesn't quite make it - no third party certs, and no link to details and methodology.

The more attributes represented by a simple index or label, the faster it loses value over time, and the greater the need for access to updated information. Regular updates add cost; and, there would be fights over who should do the certifications ( a huge job), who should host the publicly accessible data, who updates the labels and how often, whether results are applicable for tax assessment, and so on.

Who pays?
Let's assume USGBC works it's way through the above mentioned obstacles. Maybe they can recommend a bar code above the door bell that can be shot with cell phone camera, linking the owner of the phone over to website(s) that provide detailed information and market context. And arrange for a GPS display of green-rated building location by rate class.

If the scheme is intended to effectively mitigate against climate change, which means it must include all existing buildings and not just focus on newly built super-LEEDs, there will be short term winners (high LEED rated buildings perhaps); and there will be losers; and, then, there will be big losers.

Unintended social consequences are possible.
Assuming there will be above-average performing buildings available, property values of the most energy inefficient comparables will plummet, once the most efficient buildings are labeled; while those with the poorest air quality ratings will theoretically lose tenant interest, slowly driving down rent and perhaps property value. Such trends could potentially retard redevelopment of decaying inner city neighborhoods. Red lining becomes "green lining?"

Over the long-term, cities with the lowest average performance ratings on office buildings might lose private investment dollars and jobs to those metro areas with higher rated buildings. Astute owners, developers, and politicians will see this coming - then begins the push back.

Optimistically speaking.
How can the goal of measuring and communicating environmental performance become politically acceptable and fair to all stakeholders? Here are my ideas.

Unfunded mandates won't fly. To make this happen, a building's "mark" must offer real benefits and the underlying information regime should be designed with the help of economic development pros. Ideally with political accountability.

It doesn't have to be a physical building label. A virtual one, tied as "data" - to address and tax numbers - would be fine. Let's let the old sticky paper metaphor die. Show it on the Garmin GPS device and building owners would be happier as well.

Beware the tax trap.
Tax increases, if you haven't noticed, are a political kiss of death lately. No Federal politician or NGO leader with common sense would indicate the possibility of an increase being needed.

Incentives, whether by outright tax reduction, or with a tax incremental financial district (TIF), reduce government revenue streams - temporarily in the case of a TIF. Municipalities are all in tough times with budgets.. That leaves the owners or developers and tenants holding the cost-increase bag.

I don't have the answers about the exact tax related incentives needed. But, I do know that these things have to be carefully mapped out, engaging those who would experience the impacts. Economic development planning is not something that green NGO's are well known for their successes at. Certainly not a forte of USGBC. For all these reasons, I can't imagine this moving forward any time soon on the basis of a simple tax break or fee for existing structures. And I'm certain that small business owners who happen to own buildings are going to scream about being told they must label their structures. Scream loudly at Town Meetings, probably.

Resolving such issues is what elected officials are elected for. They have to become engaged.

Finally, for a more positive take on the nutrition label simile, see Lloyd's post: Nutrition Labels For Houses
Additional USGBC posts.
USGBC Gives Itself LEED Platinum For Its New Headquarters :
USGBC Working Towards a Greener New Orleans
Clinton Foundation & USGBC Unveil "Climate Positive" Cities ...
U.S. Green Building Council Launches Catalog of Top-Tier Green ...


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