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Green Building Curmudgeon

On the Path to More Green Building

What lessons can we learn from government involvement in our behavior?

First Lady Michelle Obama has launched several initiatives to encourage parents and children to adopt healthy eating habits. Perhaps anti-smoking and anti-obesity programs can serve as models for energy-efficiency improvements.
Image Credit: Lawrence Jackson

We are in a very conservative, practically radical, political environment in where taxes, regulation, and almost anything that smells of “government” is beaten back as soon as it comes up. As energy codes become more rigorous, we see efforts to beat them back.

While there are plenty of laws on the books that aren’t useful or effective (except possibly to some narrow interest groups who helped enact them), I assume that most Green Building Advisor readers would agree that stricter energy codes are a good thing. I do wonder, however, how much actual improvement in efficiency we will see, and how quickly the improvement will come, due to more stringent codes.

Anti-smoking campaigns as a model

I am going to make an argument for more government involvement in energy efficiency, using anti-smoking efforts as a model. For many years, few people believed that smoking was harmful, and for a period of time it was even considered healthful.

Early anti-smoking efforts, mostly involving public service announcements, were not particularly effective at cutting down on the number of smokers. Tobacco company marketers managed to increase the sales of cigarettes, particularly to teenagers, until the government got involved.

Ultimately, restricted advertising, no smoking laws, package warnings, legal settlements, and higher taxes, together, reduced smoking. This has led to improved health and longer lives for many Americans. People noticed, government got involved, and things improved.

Diet and exercise

The next big health frontier is obesity. Childhood obesity is increasing health care costs and shortening lives. The First Lady is promoting healthy living and physical activity in an effort to improve diets and the health of children and adults. She is getting some heat for this from the far right who, apparently, think that promoting a healthy lifestyle is somehow anti-American.

Discussions about taxing sweetened drinks and less healthy snack foods have also come under fire. There are significant government incentives and subsidies given to the agriculture industry that helps promote the production of corn sweeteners and oils used in frying. A combination of high profits and expanded production of sweeteners and oils required market expansion to absorb them. This led us to super-sized fast food, and, ultimately, huge cup holders in cars to store enormous drinks while we drive.

People are just beginning to take notice. It will probably be several years before we see any government action in this area, but based on our experience with smoking, it is probably the only way we will start to see improvements.

Can we get some action on green building and energy efficiency?

We know that green, healthy, and efficient buildings improve occupant health and help reduce our use of fossil fuels, leading, ultimately, to lower levels of carbon in the atmosphere and improved health for everyone. But this is a big stretch for many people to make.

It took a long time for us to realize that smoking was bad for our health, and ultimately it took government action to get people to smoke less. We are in the early stages of the diet/obesity discussion, and who knows how long it will take to see appropriate action on that front.

The effects of poor building construction are even farther out of the view of the average American than smoking, diet, and exercise. I feel like those of us on the inside of green building are sort of like the medical researchers who knew about smoking and now know about diet and obesity and are trying desperately to get the word out and change policy for the better. We have a very long way to go to get people’s attention, and ultimately enough government action to incentivize or require high performance buildings.

I am hopeful that we will get there, but not sure how long it will take. Given how long it took to change people’s smoking habits, and how far we have yet to go in changing diet and exercise behavior, it may take quite a while.


  1. albertrooks | | #1

    Help can sometimes be welcome

    Thanks for brining this up. We hove found that the code process can be more participatory than expected. Our regional association: Passive House Northwest was invited to offer proposals to support incremental change to, and exceeding the 2012 IEC in the current WA state energy code cycle. So far members have attended 2 meetings of the Technical Advisory Committee, and offered a total of 7 proposals that are steps towards envelope efficiency. Of the 7, 5 have been denied, one has been accepted, and one is in final debate today.

    I have to say that the process has been good. The TAG is looking for good, well reasoned proposals with solid research and on-site practicality. As a Passive House Organization, we are really about "wholesale change", but certainly support incremental change. My feeling is that most current energy proposals will be fought by "industry" and that our PH org does offer an additional voice and some solid experience to counter efforts to stagnate imporovements.

    It's good to be part of the process! I authored the accepted proposal and am happy that I invested the time. I'm getting to know the process and the players. I encourage others to step in also. It's really interesting stuff!

    Creating a proposal is within the abilities of most of us. I've attached one of my favorites by Architect Joe Giampietro that cost balances regional sub-slab foam at 5". Joe's modeling showed that at 5" the instal cost was offset by energy saving based on a 30 year payback. It was considered, denied, but we think we stand a good chance of getting something like it passed on the next cycle.

  2. 5C8rvfuWev | | #2

    Yes, Carl, to all you (and albert rooks) said. As to when change will occur, I can't add a thing. But as to how it occurs ... the process of change was a core component of my career (in academics).

    Significant change in a culture requires two things: first, a problem which is perceived as serious and intolerable. Second, a solution which offers hope and a positive vision of "my own" (personal) future.

    Thiink of it this way -- if the Pilgrims/Puritans hadn't found the persecution in England intolerable, they wouldn't have thought of leaving. As it was, they risked their lives and gave up fortunes (in many cases) to come to a new world because they saw the opportunity it offered, even with great danger, as better than where they were. Another: FDR never would have gotten the New Deal through if it weren't for the Great Depression. Etc.

    About cigarettes: Lung cancer was approaching epidemic proportions; it wasn't pretty; treatment was nearly as bad as the disease; and lots of us were trying our damnedest to "quit." Legislation and public policy made it easier and more attractive to quit. However .... you live in Georgia like I do, and we know that there are legions of folk who exercise their (arguable) right to smoke.

    Policy follows perception -- when "we" convince people they'll be better off (in a way they value), safer, wealthier, happier ... politicians and policy will follow. Until then you "researchers" offer an option no one wants until, as Gregory Corson says in a blog reply, Manhattan looks like Venice.

  3. user-1141274 | | #3

    The Power of Personal?

    I agree that motivating change through big high level goals (such as helping the environment through reduced carbon emissions) is mostly unsuccessful - it doesn't resonate at a personal level - people feel disconnected from both problem and solution.

    However I am more optimistic that influencing and motivating through more personal goals can produce results and often more quickly.

    Change promotion has been a big part of my work in a business setting and I've seen many situations when solid business goals have not, on their own, led to quality execution and acceptance of change. But when personal benefits are also highlighted at the level of people personally impacted by (and often actually making) the changes, buy-in happens more quickly. Often the rate of change acceptance increases quickly as people become active proponents. They move from the coerced to the evangelist.

    So could a similar "make it personal" approach generate and accelerate momentum for consumer-driven change in the context of sustainable building? If we could start enough conversations with home buyers/home owners about, for example, the hit to their wallets of "business as usual" energy hog homes and the real dangers to the health of their children from "normal" content in their floors, walls and kitchen cabinets, could we spark personal concern and action? But the conversation must quickly shift to highlight the personal options/choices at their disposal to reverse these effects. To highlight solutions that, as JoeW put it, " offer hope and positive vision of (their) personal future".

    It may sound a bit cynical to tap into the "what's in it for me?" side of our nature. But personal motivation is powerful and if it could leveraged in enough "consumers" in the green building context, it could be a collective game changer.

  4. user-1087436 | | #4

    Hope, or the lack of it
    The professionals who write and comment in this forum will know far better than I the difficulties faced by rational building. It seems to me (a total amateur) that there are few grounds for hope, in this cause or any other. Darwinian natural selection seems to be doing its job quite well when it comes to snake handlers (Another one keeled over last week), but that's about it. Elsewhere, idiots thrive. The regression in New Mexico is cited. In the burbs, builders stuff fiberglass between clear-cut Canadian 2x6s and call it good. The Economist ("Shale of the Century") tells of the American bonanza in natural gas, as several billion years of hydrocarbon accumulation is fracked, banged, and gouged from the earth. ("Enough to last a hundred years!!!") In Congress, the new light bulb standards are under attack, and I'm sure they are still grousing about 1.6 gpf toilets and Americans' precious right to shed a kilo of ordure at every sitting. The only answer is the age-old formula: head down, eye on the task at hand, keep digging. Here's T.H. White:

    "The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then--to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting."

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Response to Gordon Taylor
    Thanks for sharing the words of T.H. White, Gordon. I appreciate the long view, and the philosophical perspective.

    And I have often shared the feeling you express with these words: "Elsewhere, idiots thrive" -- especially when it comes to the inability of American politicians to enact any kind of sane energy policy in response to the current threat of global climate change.

  6. user-1119494 | | #6

    Can't agree enough.

    What we need is an aggressively infectious meme for sustainability that will displace the one (grow fast, consume & waste) that served us well when our population was well under a billion.

    On the other hand, learning is fun and distracting...

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