The assignment: Write a mock letter to the editor responding to this New York Times article: Some Buildings Not Living Up to Green Label (published August 31, 2009).

The class: Sustainable Development Techniques

How the class works: The professors invite working professionals to speak to the class each week. After the lecture from these guests, a short discussion ensues. The guests design the homework questions. The following week, the class discusses their responses with each other and the professors.

Dear Editor,

Buildings, as a category, consume more energy than any other category in the United States. The USGBC: U.S. Green Building Council (GBC) took the right steps by mandating an energy efficiency minimum to receive LEED certification. As it increases the standard building designers and owners need to reach to achieve the image of “green” or environmental responsibility, we should look for ways to make green building design cheaper and easier.

I have a few suggestions for how we can make that happen, but first I want to encourage your newspaper and its readers to send a message to their Congresspersons: They should pay attention to the fact that buildings consume the most energy of any category of energy use and include a section in climate change legislation that reduces buildings’ impact on the environment and their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change legislation will not be effective unless it mandates and encourages changes in buildings and how they use energy.

So how can we make LEED certification (or other similar certification programs) easier to achieve? First of all, do not reduce the ease of certification. This will have an ill effect on climate change and reverse the positive advances LEED and its certified buildings make.

  1. Certify buildings who meet the minimum energy efficiency requirements with a new label. Some building owners or developers may not care to receive full certification or medal, or create green roofs or offer alternative transportation to building workers, but would rather be recognized for making bona fide improvements to their energy systems and use. Hold the buildings to the same reporting standards as all other certification levels.
  2. Support and fund research that will be used to continually refine the certification process and identify the best and worst energy system changes and upgrades. The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the New Buildings Institute have researched LEED-certified buildings to gauge their energy use and determine how effective the buildings are in reducing energy use (not all buildings were able to reduce energy use).
  3. Offer short-term rewards when people make long-term changes that provide long-term benefits. Provide instant or near-instant tax rebates when residents who live in or own “energy poor” buildings and make upgrades that are proven to increase the building’s energy efficiency by a minimum amount. When people can see immediate benefits, they may be more likely to make the changes. Make the rebate requirements easy to understand – consult with retailers like CVS and Walgreens who provide some rebates immediately to their customers after a purchase is made. However, consult the best universities and researchers to ensure the program managing this system will not allow rebates for window installation when home insulation negates any positive effect the new windows would provide.
  4. Continue to provide support and funding for “green jobs” that will further these legislated programs. Jobs like researchers, product development, engineering; also, new jobs like “energy efficiency inspector” and consultant.
  5. Mandate programs that reduce the Top 10 energy wasters in offices so that individual workers must play a part in their building’s energy reduction. This might mean automatic computer suspension overnight and on the weekends, or eliminating paper intensive processes, or installing automatic hand dryers and lights. These programs should apply to every building with at least 10 workers. Be imaginative, though, to work around corporate resistance; perhaps a cap & trade element would satisfy some building lessees.

Please continue writing about this issue. I want all workers to be aware of how they use energy and contribute to their building’s energy use and how it relates to carbon emissions.

-Steven Vance

I believe that most letters to the editor are written in mind for the newspaper’s other readers. Many letters to the editor are indeed directed at the editor, the article author, or the newspaper as a company. I chose to write my letter in the former style because if I was going to be published where 800,000 people might read what I wrote, I want it to be something they will find interesting and can have a personal response.

Why did I write what I did? Two LEED experts at Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, Illinois, came to speak to my class about their research project that analyzes energy and water usage for 27 LEED-certified buildings in Illinois (find buildings on the USGBC’s website). The twofold purpose is to provide a report back to the study participants about their consumption, but also point out exactly what the NYT article mentioned: there’s a disparity between LEED certification and energy efficiency. Should LEED standards be more stringent about energy reduction (for existing buildings) or efficiency (for new buildings compared to other buildings in its class)?

It turns out that U.S. Green Buildings Council will soon require that new buildings must meet a certain minimum number of points in the Energy Efficiency category. I agree with this change, and my suggestions in my letter to the editor complement that change and encourage making energy efficiency easier and something that individual homeowners and workers will take part in.