fertilizer for green design

by Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA

we are a well-meaning but seriously undereducated group, trying to make decisions beyond our capabilities

part 2 - USGBC computer programs that offer hope

In 1998 I wrote a series of articles about construction waste, indoor air quality, and sustainable design. These are three aspects of the same issue, i.e., how construction affects our environment. I hinted that architects are incapable of performing accurate, reliable evaluation of even a few products, let alone of an entire building. There is an overwhelming amount of information regarding energy consumption, pollution, climate change, and related subjects; unfortunately, it is useless to most of us.

A typical reference will tell you that a cubic yard of concrete has a certain amount of embodied energy, and another will say that a particular product uses a rare material. Most of the building evaluation systems I have seen are subjective, requiring the user to decide the "green-ness" of a variety of items.

I do believe that sustainable living is important for our planet and the life it supports; I do not believe that many design professional are able to make rational decisions in this area. At present we are a well-meaning but seriously undereducated group, trying to make decisions beyond our capabilities.

Before you start firing off a bunch of nasty e-mail, consider some of the other decisions required in designing a building. Take, for example, a steel beam. Many architects I know cannot determine the structural properties needed for a uniformly distributed load. Throw in a point load, and most of the rest drop out.

Let's take that a step further. Assuming you correctly calculated the section modulus and selected a beam that would fit in your design, how do you specify the steel? It's a safe bet that you don't go to a mine, select the ore, watch the smelting process, and conduct your own tests for modulus of elasticity and compressive strength.

Now consider the environmental impact of your decision to use a steel frame instead of concrete masonry. If you can answer that, even though you can't size a simple beam, your crystal ball is better than mine.

help is on the way

In April I had the privilege of meeting someone from Sustainable Products Corporation. This organization is trying to establish standards for green design, something we desperately need - just as we need ASTM standards for steel. Next month we'll look at some interesting developments in sustainable design, based on life cycle cost. Until then, I'll leave you with an interesting thought. Sustainable Design Corporation, with far more resources than any design firm, performed an environmental evaluation of a single chemical. The cost: $1,000,000.

2000 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA
on the web at www.NorthStarCSI.com 

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