The Difference between Green and Sustainable

“The current state of our green, sustainable building “movement” may amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”

The idea of energy efficient, healthy buildings has been around for a long time, so why is it just now that the concept of “green” or “sustainable” building is entering the mainstream and catching the attention of fortune 500 companies like Wall Mart, Dupont, and Home Depot? There are probably several reasons; Global Warming, rising energy costs, the growing awareness and liability costs associated with “Sick Building Syndrome”, declining oil reserves, and concerns about our limited water supply. The list goes on, but whatever the reason or reasons, sustainable building is a concept whose time has come.

Which begs the question, what is IT? The ultimate definition depends on how one defines “green” as opposed to how one defines “sustainable”.

My personal definition of “green” is relatively simple. A home’s design is “green” if its serves to reduce many of the harmful impacts buildings have on our environment and our home’s inhabitants. So “green” home design revolves around four key issues:

  1. Designing for energy efficiency including the use of renewal energy sources such as wind, geothermal, and solar.
  2. Creating a healthy indoor air environment with adequate ventilation and making material choices that minimize volatile organic compound (VOC’s) outgassing within the home.
  3. Specifying building materials and resources that are sustainable, have low embodied energy, and produce a minimal amount of upstream environmental impact.
  4. Providing for the efficient use of water via appliance, faucet, and shower head choices and in arid climates by xeroscaping and recycling grey water and capturing rain water for landscaping and other non-potable uses.

However, the words “green” and “sustainable” are often used interchangeably, and sustainable has a more precise meaning that is often obscured, distorted, and diluted by the commercialization and marketing of the green “movement”. In the context of our built environment sustainable takes its meaning from “sustainable agriculture“, or “the ability…to produce food indefinitely, without causing irreversible damage to ecosystem health”. If we accept this as the basis for the definition sustainable building everything changes. For example, a 5,000 SF home with a HERS index of 70, bamboo floors, and Energy Star appliances may be “green”, but it is NOT sustainable. In the context of Global Warming and even the most optimistic projections of Peak Oil and Gas, only a home that meets zero energy standards can be considered sustainable.

The Laws of Sustainable Housing

Borrowing from A. A. Bartlett‘s Laws of Sustainability, here are my own Laws of Sustainable Housing.

1st LawU.S. urban sprawl and the growth in home sizes and the associated levels of energy and resource consumption is not sustainable.

2nd LawRetrofitting over 100 million thinly insulated and poorly constructed homes in American to a condition of sustainability will be a monumental task.

3rd LawIn the context of Global Warming and even the most optimistic projections of Peak Oil & Natural Gas, new and retrofitted homes should only be built to a net zero energy standard.

4th LawThe size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average size and resource consumption of our homes are inversely related to one another. In other words, if the population increases the size and resource consumption of our homes must decrease to achieve a sustainable balance.

5th LawThe U.S. cannot sustain average home sizes that are more than twice the average size of other developed countries.

6th LawAll countries cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity (fossil fuels, etc.).

7th LawThe importation of such a large percentage of our energy carrying capacity makes the current U.S. standard and pattern of building extremely vulnerable.

8th LawThe benefits of suburban sprawl accrue to the developer and auto companies; the benefits of poor energy efficiency and standards accrue to energy companies and utilities; but the costs are borne by us all.

9th LawInadequate U.S. building energy standards are contributing to a rapid depletion of our natural gas and other fossil fuel resources. This is true not only within our borders but via our high level of imports, it is true worldwide.

10th LawNet zero building energy standards will be necessary to slow the depletion of fossil fuels in a pre and post Peak Oil and Gas world.

11th LawConverting our existing housing stock to a much higher energy standard will be completely negated by even a modest growth rate in new homes, however energy efficient those new homes may be.

12th LawSmart residential growth and development is an oxymoron.

13th Law – Building should restricted on prime agricultural land. The highest and best use of land is for agriculture, especially considering the current average 1,500 mile farm to table food delivery paradigm and the need to transition to a more local food supply system.

14th Law – Energy shortages due to peak oil and gas will slow and then eventually stop housing growth and force the transformation of our existing housing stock.

15th LawPeople living in slums don’t care about sustainable housing.

16th LawThe addition of the phrase “sustainable housing” or “sustainable development” or “green building” to our vocabulary is not sufficient to ensure that our built environment becomes sustainable.

17th LawThe current state of our green, sustainable building “movement” may amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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14 responses to “The Difference between Green and Sustainable

  1. Albert A. Bartlett

    This is an excellent set of laws and observations. They represent a good understanding of the problems of sustainability. I really like the distinction between “green” and “sustainable.”

    Albert A. Bartlett
    Professor Emeritus of Physics
    University of Colorado at Boulder

  2. Pingback: More Musings on Sustainable Building « The Sustainable Home Blog

  3. I find myself citing several parts of this piece frequently, thanks again John. – maxmsf

  4. Pingback: » Linkorama

  5. You pay such close attention to vocabulary, esp. the exact meanings of greenness vs. sustainability. I wonder if all this jargon doesn’t grate on the patience of average people, who still resist the call to protect the environment. So who is the spokesperson who can rally the whole world to the cause? How can we trust thinkers and writers who won’t even learn punctuation: ; ,” “, .” “. ?

  6. Excellent site and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. It’s taken me literally 2 hours and 39 minutes of searching the web to find you (just kidding!) so I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor 🙂

  7. Very helpful for my research project

  8. There already exists a standard for the most energy efficient buildings–Dr. Wolfgang Feist’s Passive House. It reduces energy use by about 90%.
    Unfortunately nobody in the US knows about it
    except people at the PHIUS.

  9. John, If i may, this is perhaps the most insightful piece that i’ve read coming from the US. Considering that the whole world is looking at whether the US is going to go deep green any sooner than later, especially under new leadership, this is nothing short of inspirational. I think I’m going to quote you at every chance I get from now on. We in India are also fighting the same battle on the green buildings front, the argument of energy efficient vs. green vs. sustainable vs. absolute greenwash!
    Thanks again for this and keep them coming.

  10. Henrique de Morais Ribeiro

    Dear Author,

    Very interesting piece of paper on green issues. It is going to be useful for the present and future generations onwards.

    Yours cordially,

    Henrique PhD student
    University of São Paulo

  11. Im sure many of you are like me and one of the first things you do in the morning is head here and check out the new post. Along with seeing the new posts, I’m also always checking out the blog roll rss feed and watching them grow, or shrink sometimes. In one of my past …but all in all excellent site. Keep it up!

  12. Pingback: Enduring Landscapes: Setting Forth Themes for this Blog « CT Yankee in Oregon

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