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Strong coffee and weak signals: what’s the future for green building?


By: Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED AP - Friday, July 27, 2007
Source: Yudelson Associates, Inc.

Green building is rocking right now, with USGBC membership up 40 percent this year alone, and LEED registrations moving rapidly toward 10,000 projects. The World Green Building Council meeting in Toronto attracted some 300 people, with WGBC chair Kevin Hydes of Stantec Consulting predicting 100 country green building councils by 2010. At the 2006 Greenbuild conference, USGBC CEO Rick Fedrizzi set some "stretch" goals: 100,000 LEED-certified commercial buildings and one million LEED-certified homes by the end of 2010, up from less than 1,000 and 100 right now, respectively.

This is all the good news. What else might be on the horizon? One professor at Purdue University, Beverly Davis, put forward the concept of "weak signals" that can forecast momentous trends. One of the classic examples she cited would be the way Starbucks picked up on the trend 20 years ago toward people wanting to drink really good coffee (remember the awful taste of MJB, Folger’s and Maxwell House?) and the trend toward one-person businesses that needed a place for millions of independent practitioners to meet. Starbucks' stated goal now is to have one store for every 2,500 people, a goal that would have seemed totally out of reach even 10 years ago. (That would be roughly 120,000 stores!)

Her recommendations for managers who want to stay on top of trends: read everything that could possibly pertain to your industry (and I would add, everything else that relates to design, development and global warming, for starters); stay on top of trends in every sector of the business; trust your intuition; be open to disruptive ideas and innovations (where will the iPhone take us?); be aware of your own biases ("the future will be like the past, only larger, or smaller"); and have an ongoing process to identify and monitor weak signals, with the ability to prioritize actions for your company or organization based on what you find out.

What are the weak signals that could spur momentous changes in the green building world? Here are a few that occur to me:

  1. The trend in venture capital to focus on renewable energy, carbon mitigation and energy efficiency technologies (these grabbed almost 10 percent of all new venture money last year). This could mean that concept-busting innovations might be coming a lot sooner than you think. Consider solar powered roofing systems that deliver electricity at 10 cents or less per kilowatt-hour and what that could do to building design and zero-net-energy homes and buildings.
  2. The availability of software, sensors and intelligent networks that make buildings so smart they can identify their problems and come up with fixes, so that we can achieve these 50 to 90 percent reductions in energy use that are part of every scenario for controlling global warming.
  3. The continuing trend to cheapen and miniaturize communications technologies, along with an increasingly mobile workforce, means that we can make buildings half the size we think we need and still accommodate workforce and productivity needs.
  4. LED lighting is moving rapidly to replace even compact fluorescents, with half the power consumption. This will allow the further downsizing of mechanical HVAC systems, opening the way for new HVAC technologies to serve buildings' needs.
  5. Nano-technologies will revolutionize every aspect of building technology, from self-cleaning windows (no more guys suddenly materializing outside your windows ladies, watching you put on makeup at 10 a.m. in your office!), to self-cleaning façades, windows with R-10 values (instead of R-2 now), wall paints that insulate and so on.
  6. Building information modeling that will enable integrated design to happen in real time, so that you could know the energy use of every possible building design change in minutes, instead of weeks.

Social trends, technology trends and the new economy of Internet 2.0 and 3.0 will certainly change the future of green buildings in ways we can scarcely predict now. Write to me or comment on this article if you'd like to be part of this ongoing dialogue.



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