The Key to Green: Education

By Doug Widener
Executive Director, USGBC-Chicago

American buildings turn out to be extremely wasteful both during and after development. A typical commercial construction site, for instance, generates up to two and a half pounds of solid waste per square foot—that’s over one million tons of garbage for a project the size of the John Hancock Center.

Completed structures in the United States annually consume 40 percent of the total energy, while toilets alone flush away five billion gallons of water each day. Poor planning worsens the situation by shifting land usage away from natural habitats, affecting not only the long-term ecological health of a region, but its economic health as well. Urban sprawl, pollution and the impending threat of global warming demand green building practices which can substantially reduce these negative environmental impacts. By reversing the trend of unsustainable building conventions, green buildings become more efficient and cost-effective to operate and have been shown to increase worker productivity.

While the green building movement is gaining momentum—around five percent of all new construction is green—it is estimated that, within the next quarter century, humanity will construct more square feet of new buildings than have been built in our entire history to date. Given this short time-frame and the significant environmental footprint cast by the built environment, green building practices must become the rule, rather than the exception. In recognition of this need, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Chicago Chapter is currently engaged in a comprehensive strategic plan process which will set ambitious goals for the USGBC-Chicago to be the recognized regional expert for green building resources and education.

As a part of this plan, the independent 501(c)3 affiliate of the national non-profit organization is building on its solid reputation by expanding its mission and programs to wider audiences in more diverse portions of the region. USGBC-Chicago raises awareness of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system and provides assistance through a variety of educational and research initiatives, programs, events and resources for the local green building community. Annually, the Chicago chapter offers nearly 100 events and programs for over 5,000 individuals, from building practitioners, to policy makers, to homeowners.

For green building to become the standard in the region, the benefits and strategies of green construction must be communicated to the men and women who work in the construction trades. Green Building Nuts & Bolts, a pilot program in partnership with Wilbur Wright College, provides contractors and construction workers with green building basics.

LEED is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings, and the LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP) program recognizes those individuals from across the building industry who exhibit demonstrated knowledge of green building practices. LEED AP’s often serve as leaders on green building project teams and are an important resource for helping to integrate green building initiatives into their respective fields. Locally, the City of Chicago, other local governments and many commercial and non-profit organizations have established goals for increasing the number of their professional staff earning LEED AP accreditation. The Chicago chapter supports this effort through free, monthly LEED AP Study Sessions that prepare practitioners for the LEED AP exam. For more diverse audiences—from interested members of the general public to persons pursuing green building projects—the LEED Extra Credit sessions provide an opportunity to explore LEED credits in greater depth through monthly roundtable discussions. The intent of each session is to explore a particular green building concept and technique through real world case studies and stories from the field.

USGBC-Chicago also provides a full calendar of events and programs targeted specifically for regional policymakers and elected officials. The biannual green building trolley tours—run on bio-diesel—showcase a variety of governmental, private and commercial green buildings. The Chicago chapter also offers a policy-forum series where state and local officials present timely topics on green building initiatives and other environmental policy.

Educating professionals and policymakers will help green practices take hold now, but USGBC-Chicago recognizes the need to keep the trend going. To ensure the future of green building, the Natural Talent Design Competition provides college students an applied learning experience in the principles of sustainable planning, holds design competitions and awards green building scholarships. The Emerging Green Builders program represents a coalition of students and young professionals intent on integrating future leaders into the green building movement on a regional basis. Students from universities across the region participate in special sessions and programs throughout the year.

The global climate crisis and local issues like urban sprawl and pollution speak to the need for a more sustainable relationship between the built and natural environments. As the benefits of green building become better understood, more comprehensive and broad-reaching education is needed to expose new audiences to green building practices. Nationally, USGBC launched LEED for Homes in January 2008 and is currently piloting LEED for Neighborhood Development. Combined with the existing LEED portfolio, there soon will be a LEED green building rating system for the entire array of building projects and constituents. Locally, the Chicago chapter plans to increase and diversify its membership and programming to address these new audiences. Specifically, the chapter has set several priority audiences for further development, including: suburban and regional officials, home builders, home owners, building managers, contractors, regional non-profit environmental groups and educational and health-related institutions. To broaden its regional demographic, USGBC-Chicago will launch a series of regional branches in Chicagoland. The four branches, which will focus on North Cook/Lake Counties, West Cook/DuPage Counties, Fox River Valley/Aurora and the South Suburbs will extend USGBC-Chicago’s programming reach to all parts of the region.

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