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The Origins of the Green Building Movement

By September 7, 2022October 14th, 20223M DI-NOC
Green Building

Written by guest author and 3M™ DI-NOC™ guru, Brent Williams.

So-called “Tree Huggers” have been alive and well for as long as anyone in the design business can remember. But design professionals with an eye on sustainable practices came together for a common cause in 1993 when the United States Green Building Council was originally founded. I have more insight than most into these folks, dating back to before their earliest organizational attempts. One giant in the sustainability movement has passed on, but all have left their mark and created a movement that carries on to this day… and I feel a personal moral responsibility to continue their teachings.

One of the greatest blessings in my life was studying under Asher Durman at the University of Tennessee School of Architecture and Design in Knoxville, Tennessee. I’d spent my early twenties as a musician and entered design school later than most students, so this afforded me the opportunity of true mentorship by one of the most amazing scholars that I’ve ever known.

Asher occasionally called himself a tree hugger. He wore Birkenstocks long before they were cool and truly lived out what he taught. We met in late 1982, as I had enrolled in one of his design labs. I had a couple of memorable years under his tutelage and will never forget the lessons I learned. Dr. Durman was studying the life cycle of building products before most knew why it mattered. He instilled in me a passion for green building that burns in me still.

Asher left the University of Tennessee in 1984 for a professorship at NYU. I helped him load his signature Toyota “jelly bean” van. He didn’t have much to haul because he truly was a minimalist in every facet of life. Asher’s priorities lay elsewhere. My mentor taught me to understand and appreciate how buildings could be made with less and what it took to intelligently design every square foot to maximize value to the occupants. He wasn’t simply smart – he was a brilliant visionary, a true one-of-a-kind.

United States Green Building Council

Professor Durman was also a charter member of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). Their purpose was and is to promote sustainable design in architecture. Our now widely known LEED classification process was a result of this organization’s hard work.

If you’re unfamiliar, LEED is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. The USGBC is the organization responsible for all releases of LEED certification, from version 1.0, issued in 1998, all the way up to our current version, 4.1. Essentially, this system outlines a point classification system that rates buildings, systems, and components on their combined efficiency. Each new version has advanced the body of knowledge and practice surrounding emerging green technologies.

In its simplest form, LEED is a system of points attributed to almost every aspect of a building. The envelope of a building refers to the exterior: walls, doors, windows, etc. Your interior floors, walls, and even your choice of wallpaper all weigh into that final score. The products that you choose therein all receive a rating according to how sustainable they are.

LEED sets the standard for green building design and construction across the country. These guidelines keep us on track and up to par when it comes to the latest products available for both energy efficiency and green buildings.

Low-embodied Carbon Materials and the GBI

What is now referred to as low-carbon embodied materials are essentially an offshoot of the work of this group of dynamic idealists. They initiated the process of dissecting the life cycle of products for building design. In other words, understanding how much carbon is used to manufacture, transport, implement, and remove a product equates to its true carbon footprint. Let’s not forget how energy efficient that product may be once put into place. It all matters. Hence, the scoring system provides a structure to help everyone in the design process understand the balance point of every element in a design.

The entire design world is working toward sustainability. But in some cases, the better choice isn’t always the fully sustainable one. If it takes more carbon energy to provide and discard that product than implementing a manufactured product, is it really better for the earth? This question is an enduring paradox… the “best” isn’t always better.

Do the research and use common sense

Often, architects will stick with what they’ve always done without digging into the truth behind the veil. The career itself often leads to traditional means that produce traditional ends. It’s sad but true.

When it comes to redesigning an older building, disposing of marble or other products that don’t break down easily simply doesn’t make sense. Why would you use energy to remove a timeless finish like marble pillars in the lobby, only to discard that quality element into a landfill? Especially knowing that those same marble pillars could become trendy again in a few short years.

Instead, you can use an architectural finish to cover those elements in the built space without shutting down the building. Closing off the area for days on end can often mean losing valuable operational time. Some will argue that because architectural finishes are made with PVC they aren’t sustainable. That’s a fact.

But look at the whole picture. Think LEED’s scoring system.

We can’t afford to be short-sighted. Eventually, as a design community, we will get closer to building fully sustainably. But we aren’t there yet. Moreover, we have tens of thousands of buildings already erected that will need refurbishing from time to time.

If it’s going into a landfill – that isn’t truly sustainable. If it isn’t biodegradable, it may not be the ideal choice. Even then, there are situations where a sustainable product may not be the most low-embodied choice. However, we must make considerations for those scenarios in which we are refurbishing versus building for the first time.

Green building movement

There is an old saying in the construction industry: “he who has the gold, makes the rules”. Sad to say, the green movement is similar… it tends to ebb and flow with the flow of the green. By green, I mean the money.

I can’t help but think of my old friend Asher as I contemplate where we are in green building and where we are going. We are getting there, albeit slower than some of us would like. But the point is, we must keep learning and evolving. To overcome the damage we’ve already done to the environment, we have to think more broadly, more creatively and more adaptively.

The solution lies in understanding that all of this is a process. When studying the life cycle of a building, we have to include both new technologies and traditional ones. And when the occasion arises to refurbish an older building, we may be wiser to intelligently compromise. It’ll make all the difference in the long run.

If deploying a manufactured product that contains PVC is the best possible choice when considering all material options, then don’t be afraid to use it, properly and in the correct amount – to offset other issues. Do your homework… Dr. Durman is watching.

Make Your Building Greener with NGS

Watch our webinar, “Total Transformation: Take Any Architectural Surface from Blah to Ah” To learn how you can reduce waste, landfill impact, and the cost of remodeling with 3M™ DI-NOC from NGS.


Photo by Justin Main

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