A Green Building Game Changer

Marion Smith

By Marion Smith, AIA, LEED AP, Engine House No. 1
and USGBC-Missouri Gateway Chapter Founder

As we celebrate the 20-year anniversary of our local USGBC Chapter this year, it has been a good reminder to reflect on what the green building movement looked like at the founding. Before our U.S. Green Building Council St. Louis Regional Chapter (now USGBC-Missouri Gateway), those of us interested in sustainable design and construction were groping and doing it clandestinely when owners weren’t on board –especially if it had little or no financial impact. Many others were interested but didn’t know how to begin. The co-chairs of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) St Louis environmental committee (John Hoag, Greg Polanik, Tom Tyler and myself) wanted to expand participation to include the entire design/construction industry but found it difficult to get other disciplines to join us. I was fortunate to work on one of two sustainable projects at Christner, Inc. with Croxton Collaborative Architects, who had designed the National Audubon Society’s headquarters. In some ways, we were way ahead of the industry, looking at the sources of power and its effect on the environment, recommending a gas condensing unit for the Illinois project because of the high sulfur coal used by the Illinois electric utility for generation versus an electric unit for the Missouri project where the utility used a harder, cleaner burning coal from Colorado.

During this time, our USGBC-Missouri Gateway Chapter was a game changer! It convened membership from a diverse array of design and construction disciplines and offered a checklist to those who didn’t know where to start. It gave sustainable design a much higher profile, which also attracted owners. Although sustainable design is a very holistic concept, USGBC’s LEED Green Building Rating System provided steps to evaluate strategies for incorporating sustainable practices into design and construction. At first it was a single bean counting approach to sustainable design. For example, I remember people putting in bike racks in places where no one would ride a bike to get a LEED point. And I felt that there wasn’t enough recognition of the embodied energy in reusing an existing building with existing infrastructure.

From a one-size-fits-all beginning, USGBC has furthered its mission to guide design and construction to protect safety, health and sustainability in the design and construction industry. The point structure was revised to place more weight on credits that have greater positive impact on climate and health. Different strategies for different applications were developed. While it began with one rating system LEED Building Design and Construction (BD+C) for new buildings and existing buildings undergoing major renovations, the suite of rating systems expanded to include Interior Design and Construction (ID+C), Existing Building Operations & Maintenance (O+M) which focuses on the sustainable practices employed during the ongoing use of the building, Neighborhood Development (ND), Homes, and Cities & Communities. And the new LEED Zero program certainly is holistic, not prescriptive. For as many buildings that are LEED certified, there are many more that are designed and constructed using those standards without being formally certified so the impact is even greater than recorded. Has USGBC, LEED, and our local USGBC-Missouri Gateway evolved over these 20 years? Absolutely! Will it continue to evolve? Most certainly! We still have a long way to go – and we hope you’ll join us in our work to make every building a green building.