For green homes, should energy trump everything else?
Pam Worner runs a business near Seattle helping home builders adopt “green” building practices. She’s fond of the phrases “tangled up in green” and “I don’t care what your countertop is made out of.” There’s a lot packed into those sayings—the first pinpoints a classic problem with green building, while the second suggests a solution.
“Tangled up in green” gets at the overwhelming array of eco-friendly building options. A given structure might have high-efficiency appliances, state-of-the-art insulation, a solar water heater, eco-certified hardwood floors, a permeable driveway, indigenous plants in its landscaping, easy access to a light-rail station and grocery store, and on and on. All these elements are well and good, but some are energy-efficiency features, others save water or improve its drainage, and another protects tropical forests halfway around the world. And some are definitely more significant than others.
“I don’t care what your countertop is made out of” reflects Worner’s conclusion about what building features are most important. If climate change is the biggest environmental threat to human welfare, then reducing energy use is the most important goal of green building—by far. This is the consensus view among green building experts (for a good explanation of the energy-trumps-everything argument, see Auden Schendler’s book Getting Green Done). A countertop made of recycled paper is nice, but a highly efficient furnace is going to pay much higher environmental (not to mention financial) dividends over the years. If homeowners can cut energy use, Worner figures, they don’t have to sweat every small thing.
So far so good. When I spoke with Worner at a Built Green trade show in Bellevue, Wash., last week, these struck me as helpful but orthodox ideas. But then she continued.
Her company, Green Dog Enterprises, advises construction companies to approach green building by helping their customers answer the question “What does green mean to you?”
What it means to customers turns out to be a lot of different things. The top priorities that they give often include indoor air quality, foreign-oil dependence, global warming, polar-bear habitats, rainforests, supporting local businesses, and reducing auto-dependency. Those could point to all different sorts of building features.
“You can’t do everything,” Worner said. “Most of the certification programs give equal weight to lots of different things. That gets really difficult, because you can’t do all of them. And sane homeowners would not want to do everything. You’ve got to help people feel good about what they’re doing, and that means helping them do what gives the biggest bang for the buck on what matters to them.”
But you steer them to the “right” priorities … right? You explain why energy efficiency matters more than anything else?
“That’s the ‘greener than thou’ condescension creeping in,” she said when I asked about this.
This seemed to contradict her energy-trumps-everything position. What if my personal “green” preference is exposed beams in my house from virgin old-growth trees? (Hypothetically, of course.)
“I’d say great. Let’s talk about salvage,” she said. Turns out there are divers who retrieve logs from the bottom of the Columbia River, where they fell off barges decades ago. If you’ve got the money, there are more sustainable options than you might think. Worner’s business helps builders and customers sort through those options (it also provides verification for several building certification programs).
“Greener than thou” is another of her favorite phrases. It’s her label for the environmentalist scolds who remind well-meaning homeowners that they’re always falling short in some regard. “Ah, I see you’ve done X, but why didn’t you think about Y?” your eco-jerk friend might say. Who’s motivated by that?
“People will only take a second step if they feel good about the first step,” she said. “So we should be in the business of making people feel good about what they do. That means getting rid of the guilt and the judgment. We have to meet them where they are. That’s what any kind of social change and behavioral change is about.”
Meeting people where they are sounds nice, but what if where they are is fretting about their countertops? Shouldn’t a responsible green-building professional direct clients toward the features that make the most environmental difference?
Worner advocates pointing customers to rebates for high-efficiency furnaces, tax credits for solar water heaters, and other federal and local incentives. So there’s a balancing act involved—not belittling the green steps the customers want to take, but steering them toward high-impact features as well.