From November 14 – 16 San Francisco hosted the USGBC Green Building Conference and Expo – the world’s largest Conference for the green building industry. Only few days before, deadly hurricane Sandy hits the financial capital of the world – New York City. It caused death, destruction and incalculable economic loss. This made me wonder if there is even more pressure on the Conference to force decision makers for more aggressively attack on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that cause changes in our environment every single day. As if all eyes of the public gaze on to this event expecting some tangible answers?!

I felt very fortunate to be able to attend this event, as one of the US Green Building Council scholarship awardees. Center for Green Schools of the USGBC distribute scholarships for the Greenbuild International Conference every year. This is their way to invest in professionals, the future leaders in this field. It is an investment in tomorrow, in future engine of green development. Being the only European in this years scholarship program gave me an unique opportunity to understand approach to the sustainable design pulsing from this part of the world. Must say, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic approach of the people involved and the infectious energy that spread from the very beginning of the Conference. My own Greenbuild agenda started to fill out weeks ago before it started, by scheduling education sessions, plenaries, workshops and other events I wanted to attend. When one could clone himself, it still wouldn’t have been enough to follow the full scope of the program.

The opening plenary | We are right

The opening event kicked off with approximately 7.000 professionals, at Moscone Center – LEED Gold Building. Supported by a strong politicians line up that gathered Newark mayor Cory Booker, former governor of New York George Pataki and the governor of California Gavin Newsom made us all believe that efforts to wake up government are finaly paying off. But the real star of the event was president and CEO of USGBC Rick Fedrizzi that gave an inspirational speach putting it very clear that our world has changed in a way we have never imagined. He related the greenbuild movement with past significant, historical movements, such as LGBT and women’s rights movement, for which one also had to fight very hard. If we are to learn from history, we have to learn fast. He related green leadership and LEED with transparency; knowledge with information. At the end as a proof that „we are right“ as the mantra of the Conference says, he announced a 3 milion dollar support from Google that came just a few days before to the USGBC. The money should be used to support their further research projects and development of smart tools.

As the information plays a key role on today’s market in terms of deccission making and transparency, co-founder of Twitter Biz Stove was the right person to share thoughts on importance of it’s democratization. As he says, the technologies that provide us with the information make us not only the citizens of nations, but of the world. They enable us to strive for a change as one. Further on globalization he puts it very simple “People don’t care about sustainability when they’re starving to death. Sustainability isn’t central until we deal with poverty and hunger and human rights and women’s issues.” He also touched the issue of the future of the marketing saying that today’s consumers are attracted to the meaning. In the future companies will be investing in meaningful marketing campaigns – e.g. $ 4 million for something worthwhile and another $ 1million to tell people about it.

The plenary was a great start of the event, rounding three panels that emphasized a lot of challenges for the future framed with the fact that a green model is not just the best business model, but is also the best governing model.

Furthermore, as awardees we got to attend workshops with estimated professionals such as Kevin Carroll, founder of Kevin Carroll Katalyst Company, author and speaker for social change, Rachel Gutter, director of the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools, Senior VP of USGBC Kimberly Lewis, estimated LEED fellows and many others. Rachel and Kimberly took time from their busy schedule to speak with us about their engaging, inspiring green school project and their attempt to change the world where we learn with the mantra – „where we learn matters“. One truly exciting speaker, architect and LEED consultant and founder of H2 Ecodesign Holley Handerson, gave a lecture on becoming a LEED expert and finding a right path in career. She stressed the importance of different choices and experiments in life and tried to give an answer on finding a place in a big and growing green building industry. We further had the privilege to attend “women in green power” breakfest, where the greatest women leaders of the green industry were randomly sitting and chatting with us, while having a tasty San Francisco’s breakfast. Interesting discussions emerged at each table, especially after the panel that gathered amazing women involved in the green building movement such as Michelle Moore, Marge Anderson, Katherine Hammack, Elizabeth Heider and Romilly Madow vice presidents and executives of US Green and Energy centers.

In between these events and the closing plenary, we got to choose among 181 education sessions that presented latest projects, research activities and innovations in the field of green building design. It was very hard to decide which session to attend, since there were many events hosted by estimated speakers and presented important subjects. At the end, I decided for those that covered the area of green house retrofit which is closely related to my PhD project.

The session retrofitting to the success held by the presidents of three retrofit companies Aaron Fairchild, Jay Hall and Alistair Jackson gave an insight to the retrofit marketplace. They highlighted the importance of remodeling homes wreaped with the energy features, through the radically transparent process, so that people, buyers or sellers can be more involved in the building process and better understand what is being done. Interesting debates emerged after the session among the topics such as: what is the smallest retrofit green project, that can be branded as Green or how is it important to „test in“ and „test out“.

Quantifying the Environmental value of Building Reuse held by Ketie Spataro, Amanda Pike and Patrice Frey presented the report of the National Trust for Historic Preservation suggesting that the greenest building is the one we already use. Their study relies on the „avoided impacts approach“ and measures impacts that are avoided by not constructing a new building. The report uses Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to compare the impacts of building reuse and renovation versus new construction and demolition. Impacts used in the project are overlapping in all of the analyzed buildings and these are: climate change, human health, ecosystem quality and resources. Key founding of the study confirmed that: building reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than the new construction comparing buildings of similar size and functionality. Interesting point of the study is also that some type of renovations, e.g. remodeling a warehouse renovation into a residential home, uses so much new materials and products that at the end, they don’t make sense. At the end, the session pointed out emerging research points for the future, such as exploring net zero energy scenarios, improving upon LCA inventory data, and including location efficiency consideration.

Energy Efficiency in Buildings – triggering the environmental change – Director of The World Building Council for Sustainable Development Roland Hunziker, talked about triggering and motivation for change. The Council created a manifesto for 100 organizations to reduce their carbon footprint which is a significant document that sends a strong message to the market, in the time when we lack ideas to motivate organizations. 

A very creative session was hosted by Scot Horst, with the orchestra simulating the playing of a peace in different ways – when all the musicians play together and with the same vision versus the one when they play each instrument perfectly, but without hearing the one beside. It was a great comparison with the project management in building industry where the main goal is to make architects, civil engineers, urban planers and other involved to work together sharing the same goal.

In the meantime, companies all over the world came to exhibit their latest products and technologies for sustainable construction sector at the Greenbuild Expo. These „booths“ showed most advantageous technologies available on the market today, such as windows with integrated solar cells that are completely transparent (Pythagorus Solar Windows), materials for patios and walkways that enable storm water mangement systems (Grasscrete), construction materials of largely recycled and underutilized natural components (Ecor) etc. The lively atmosphere on the Expo floor represented the true spirit of the Greenbuild – a place where you are not only able to see products up close but also to speak face to face with the worlds best manufacturers in the construction industry.

Closing Plenary | Tantum quantum

The closing event rounded up everything that this Conference was about with inspiring speakers Jane McGonigal – American game designer, Scot Horst – Senior Vice President of LEED, and William McDonough – Architect, Designer & Sustainability Advocate.

Surprising speaker Jane who works in a completely other field than that of a green building design, reflected the idea of an integrated work of professionals from different fields. She gave a fresh insight of possible opportunities for involving diverse people in a climate change process. She named them gamers. The approach consists on the fact that there are 200 million players in the world – every day! On the other side, 100 million hours were needed for everything so far written on Wikipedia. For comparison, everything written so far on Wiki would be just 3 weeks of playing angry birds in the world! Therefore, she called upon the experts, professionals and other people involved to rethink this opportunity and to include these creative, curious and smart people that are out there each day. Because in the past some of the gamers actually solved problems concerning AIDS and cancer that scientists never did. When science fails, is it time to call gamers?!

Further on the Plenary Scot Horst called for a responsible design, responsible use of our resources, to use as much as we need, not more and not less. He emphasized that what we need is the limitless of resources and not the limitation of them. For this we have to connect with each other, look beyond those already involved in green building and try to convince more business owners, policymakers and communities on green sustainable projects that serve us for the better tomorrow. The final panel was orchestrated by magnificent William McDonough – co-founder of Cradle to Cradle. The originality of his speech and ideas sheaked everyone’s mind in the room. „Design is the first signal of human intention. So is it our intention to kill each other?“. The glass is neither half full or empty for him, the glass is always full of water and air, two essential human needs. But as he says: „I think the glass is not big enough since I’m a designer“.He tackled the problem material design and the issue of design quality. Doing the less bad is not good. It is not quality that we need. Bad is bad by the definition. What we need is a healthy design, and this is every humans right.

In conclusion, Greenbuild conference was a great experience that resheaked my ideas on green design approach, research and innovation from the ground. At the end, as pointed out during the Conference, our world has already changed in a way that we never imagined. Climate change is not a threat, it’s already out there. And if we want to make any difference fighting it we must work together up closely. Each one of us is an important factor in this chain of change and in a world where „big is getting small, and small is getting big“, because division doesn’t matter, diversity does. Working this way we must always strive to do more and to do good – not less bad and to keep in mind that we are privileged to be in this powerful, green industry that is commited towards creating better nations, a better world.

Text: Jasminka Ušanović