Forgive Me Father I Dont Have the Money

As with everything in the sustainability business, the hurdles in the building process aren't technological. So what are they? Often, it comes down to money.

Here's a case study that illustrates the tensions that can arise between green champions and contractors: The building is either in the design phase or designed and ready to go. The green champion says: "Look, I know your budget is fixed. But for just 10 percent more, spent now, for some better heating and cooling equipment, window upgrades, and some other minor efficiency tweaks, you could construct a building that would use half (or one-third of, or 20 percent of. . .) the energy over the fifty- to one-hundred-year (or longer) life cycle of the building. And the return on investment for that is under ten years!" Between the lines of such talk the message typically is: "Don't you understand what I'm telling you? It's so frickin' obvious! Why don't you simpletons use life-cycle analysis?"*

But the contractor says: "I understand the benefits. I beg your pardon, but I'm not stupid. I understand life-cycle analysis. But my budget is fixed. I don't have any more money. I can't get any more. What do you want me to do? I just don't have the money."

*Life-cycle analysis is a technique that takes into account the costs associated with a building or product over its whole life, not just in the production or construction phase. If you do the life-cycle analysis on a new car purchase, for example, you might decide to get something with better gas mileage.

Green designers rightfully point out that the decisions you make and the money you spend in the first tiny fraction of a building's life influence that building forever. But if you don't have the money, you don't have the money.

There is a way around this challenge of up-front costs, and leave it to Harvard to have found a solution. Tom Vautin, Harvard's associate vice president for facilities and environmental services, realized that the university wasn't installing the best equipment with long-term energy savings owing to up-front costs. And he recognized that the issue was purely economic: buildings with long lives should have the best, most energy-efficient equipment. What Vautin did, for purely financial reasons, was set up a revolving loan fund. Project managers who wanted, say, an extra $50,000 for a 96 percent efficient boiler instead of an 86 percent efficient boiler could dip into the fund during building construction and pay the money back out of the energy savings compared to the energy budget for the less efficient boiler. The fund is at work at Harvard today. It ensures that the buildings are the best they can be, and it has the added benefit of protecting the climate every time it gets used. (In the real world, where I dwell, even an elegant program like Tom's can hit a wall. The most prominent barrier in many companies is management's refusal to recognize the savings—for example, your budget gets lowered to the new energy-efficient standard. This happens all the time with "performance contracting," where firms do efficiency retrofits for free and plan to get paid out of savings. Clients sometimes dispute the existence of the savings. Just like at the Nell. D'oh!)

Another up-front cost reality manifests itself through a process called "value engineering," a term that is just about the sum of all problems in building design. Value engineering (which, Amory Lovins points out, doesn't add value and isn't engineering) is a cost-cutting exercise conducted just before the building's design gets final approval. It typically involves eliminating things or downgrading materials or systems with reference only to first costs, never to longer-term benefits.

At a building project at Aspen Highlands, we value-engineered out some windows in a building because we couldn't afford them. When our staff occupied the building, it was so hot and stuffy that they couldn't function. So the next year we retrofitted the windows into the blank walls at about three times the cost of the initial installation.

It cost a lot more to put the windows in after the fact, but if you wanted windows, that was the only way it could happen! Ironically, if we could go back and do it again, we'd have no choice but to do exactly what we did . . . because we didn't have the money! (Though, to be fair, we've changed since then. If I presented the case to our CFO Matt Jones today, he'd find the money.)

The reality here is that the idea that it shouldn't—or doesn't—cost more to build green is hogwash. Green construction is still relatively new. As a result, it is a departure from business as usual. The second you depart from standard practice, you are spending time figuring out the new process—with meetings, consultants, and product suppliers. With the first meeting on greening (and there is never just one), you are already adding cost to a project. Plus, by building green, you're building something better. That costs more, too. Always. But it's worth it, and eventually we'll figure it out.

Renewable Energy 101

Renewable Energy 101

Renewable energy is energy that is generated from sunlight, rain, tides, geothermal heat and wind. These sources are naturally and constantly replenished, which is why they are deemed as renewable. The usage of renewable energy sources is very important when considering the sustainability of the existing energy usage of the world. While there is currently an abundance of non-renewable energy sources, such as nuclear fuels, these energy sources are depleting. In addition to being a non-renewable supply, the non-renewable energy sources release emissions into the air, which has an adverse effect on the environment.

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