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Hard to Be Really Green 

Let's scrap the city's weak, pale-green environmental standards and actually take the total environment into account

Wednesday, Jul 5 2006
Now that S.F. media impresario Al Gore has burned a tanker's load of jet fuel toting his PowerPoint presentation around the globe, and compelled a million or so moviegoers to drive to asphalt-surrounded, high-voltage-air-conditioner-cooled cineplexes to see An Inconvenient Truth, we can all agree global warming is a problem.

After that, however, environmentalists concur on little beyond a vague imperative: Earthlings, change your evil ways!

So do we buy hybrid cars? Or are eco-lame vehicles such as the 31-mpg Ford Escape Hybrid SUV mere enviro-distractions?

Shall we build new Las Vegas hotels with PVC-free carpet and low-throughput showerheads? Or are these so-called "green buildings" an example of green-washed showboating that misses the bigger picture?

Should environmentalists fight gas-guzzling, plant-paving sprawl? Or is suburban expansion unavoidable? What about smart growth; is it an unworkable panacea?

And most important: Does all this confusion mean that if environmentalists get what they want — a national consensus accepting the problem of global warming — it might not help Mother Earth much at all?

San Francisco could quell this environmental discord, and move America toward actually reducing greenhouse gas creation, by taking what might initially look like a step in the opposite direction. We could scrap what may be the city's boldest, most successful environmental initiative, a 2004 law requiring all new city-owned structures to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's stringent "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design" (LEED) standard, which rewards developers for amenities such as passive solar climate control and nontoxic carpets.

This program is laudable, yet too narrow in scope. The way the standard is now written, buildings that ultimately contribute to global warming get to be labeled "green."

In its place, we should adopt a standard that looks beyond individual buildings, and takes the city, the country, and the planet into account. That would mean putting greater focus on rewarding buildings that enhance the health, natural environment, and quality of life of a city, region, and continent by emphasizing urban design while considering architectural design. This standard would reward population density and ease of nonautomobile access, while still taking into lesser account Earth-friendly carpet, faucets, and such.

In 1970, San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto's proclamation launched the first Earth Day. Expanding the city's 2004 green-building initiative to put more emphasis on smart growth likewise might serve as an example for the world. We might help make Al Gore's environmentally ambiguous, yet ultimately commendable, efforts more worthwhile.

Breaking the spell of shortsighted environmentalism is a bemusing parlor game.

One example: "Sustainable" Whole Foods Market organic asparagus that's jetted in from Argentina and electronically cooled during its weeklong trip to the checkout means a diner consumes ladles full of energy with every bite.

Another example came to me last Monday at 8:30 a.m. as I listened to a presentation by the Downtown smart-growth think tank San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) describing a soon-to-be-built, $10 million "urban center" dedicated to educating the world about green-minded city design.

Funny thing about the proposed urban center, though: It won't be topped by the sort of 24-story Downtown condominium tower SPUR advocates as the best way to give people environmentally sensitive walking access to jobs and other city amenities. Instead it will be a puny four stories of exhibition, meeting, and office space.

"We're not in the condominium business. And we couldn't get the capital, and we're having too hard a time getting the capital we have, and the site is too small," explains SPUR President Jim Chappell.

Another irony: The SPUR center will be trounced in the San Francisco green-building stakes by a new California Academy of Sciences building complex now under construction in Golden Gate Park. The new academy will be relatively poorly served by mass transit. It will be astride a new 800-car parking garage. And the academy's leaders recently aided a campaign to block a measure that would have closed a portion of the park to automobiles on Saturdays. Nonetheless, the academy has a reasonable chance of earning a LEED "platinum" rating, the highest possible, by putting grass and solar cells on its roof, among other amenities. The project in April received the silver Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction at a ceremony in Bangkok.

"They were traveling to Bangkok to accept an award for the ecological design of the building at the same time they were fighting to keep cars in the park. The irony was just huge," says Tom Radulovich, executive director of the urban environmentalist nonprofit Livable City, who's also a member of the academy's Community Advisory Group.

Thanks to LEED criteria that give an advantage to buildings not located in a dense, urban grid, the SPUR building will be on Mission Street near SFMOMA, next to 32 transit lines, yet can only hope to qualify for a "silver," third-tier LEED rating from the Green Building Council.

The LEED standard was developed in 1995 by a group of environmentally minded building organizations in need of a consistent standard that might pierce what was then a cacophony of unverifiable claims that constituted the early green-building movement. The standard swiftly took hold, dictating how buildings are erected in San Francisco and nationwide. Even the U.S. Army has a program of constructing buildings according to LEED.

In 2004 the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring that new city-owned buildings meet the LEED "silver" standard. It was a small, uncontroversial item on the board's calendar that had outsized effect. The city now employs 35 LEED-accredited architects, engineers, and other professionals, to make sure buildings satisfy as many "green" categories as possible from a LEED-approved checklist. They're overseeing projects such as the Laguna Honda Hospital and a Port Authority warehouse conversion on Pier One at Fort Mason.

Mark Palmer, San Francisco's municipal green-building coordinator, has done a remarkable job during his five-year tenure corralling various city departments, and different types of building professionals, to work together to make sure buildings meet LEED's "silver" designation, in accordance with the city's 2004 green-building ordinance.

The rating system is divided into a half-dozen categories, including sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy consumption, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and a category for innovations that don't fit into the other boxes. Buildings that earn enough points are certified, with superlative projects earning bronze, silver, gold, or platinum designations.

With success has come criticism. LEED's shopping-list approach doesn't necessarily produce a coherent, Earth-saving final project, some critics say.

"What was shocking was that many agencies and cities so quickly embraced it as their tool, not realizing that it was not regional, did not do life-cycle analysis, and was focused on corporate buildings," Architectural Record quoted Bob Berkebile, founding chairman of the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment.

The system is too difficult to implement, putting it beyond many builders' reach, others complain.

"This is becoming the realm of the perfumed princes, which have the time, energy, and money to do this," says Auden Schendler, director of environmental affairs at Aspen Skiing Company, and a frequent LEED gadfly.

Worst of all, LEED is strangely welcoming toward urban sprawl.

Many LEED "points" — such as building orientation, location, and open-space considerations — can only be earned outside a dense urban grid. "The real critique is that the ideal LEED building would be a three-story building in a suburban office park," says Radulovich.

The defects can be traced to the rating system's origins attempting to come up with a simple checklist for builders to follow. In the go-go 1990s, suburban office parks were where the action was.

SPUR, for instance, wouldn't have obtained a single extra point had it added 24 stories of Downtown condominiums, even if those apartment dwellers would have been able to walk, rather than drive, to work, to shopping, and to most everything else they need.

"It just doesn't work that way," says Bill Worthen, an S.F.-based architect who works full time helping builders earn high LEED scores.

The Green Building Council is currently devising a new specialized LEED "neighborhood" standard, which will incorporate some smart-growth ideas.

But the new category is aimed at subdivisions, rather than the urban infill that holds greatest promise for sustainable development.

So it's up to San Francisco to bridge the gap.

The city's laudable green-building statute could be amended to put a greater emphasis on density and access by modes other than automobiles.

If such a standard became widely adopted, perhaps the attraction of a San Francisco "green" rating would be sufficient for organizations such as SPUR to unite donors, developers, and other partners behind the idea of building a multi-use, high-rise, smart-growth building, instead of a mere four-story visitors' center.

And if this kind of green-building cachet enjoyed success similar to the LEED standard, we might see more hotel, office, and apartment developers scouting Downtown locations, instead of suburban ones, so that they can advertise themselves as green.

"All we're trying to do is make the buildings you're trying to build better," says Worthen, on the current LEED standard.

Where more fitting than San Francisco to make the leap from superior buildings to a better world?

About The Author

Matt Smith


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