Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Value of Value Engineering - Part 5

Recap - Parts 1-4
Alright, this is the end of the Value Engineering series. For those who've been reading all along, I hope you've enjoyed the series. If you didn't, please let me know. This approach was an experiment on my part anyway, and in truth, I'm not 100 percent sure how it's worked either!

Anyway, to recap the past four posts, I've talked about paradigm shifts, easy buttons, LEED, sites & place, water and last week energy. Materials & Resources is the next category, followed by the last one in the Rating System, Envrionmental Quality. And then the "big" finish.

How many gallons of gas does it take to build a building?
With respect to materials, LEED is most focused on recycled content and local and regional availability. Little attention is paid to durability and overall longevity of a building. Yet how durable and maintainable a building -or even a material, is, is paramount when considering a building sustainable. It is also important to consider the impact raw material extraction has on our environment. Or how about materials which contain what are known as "Red List" materials and chemicals, because of health and toxicity concerns, materials such as poly-vinyl chloride –used in clothing, upholstery, membrane roofing, Chlorinated Polyethylene and Chlorosulfonated Polyethlene –used in rigid vinyl products, and Chloroprene which is Neoprene, and more; there are 13 Red List items.

Further, with respect to any toxic materials, the list is endless, and can cause both short and long term health issues. Wood products used for cabinetry containing urea formaldehyde in the resin products, often in schools where our children spend a good portion of their lives. Or flooring materials containing high levels of toxins or VOC’s or both. And more.

For the most part, we are not building for longevity nor are we mindful of the materials going into our buildings. With respect to longevity, at best, some of our "modern-day" and "technologically advanced" buildings have a life-span of 25 years before they just look old and tired. Granted, you can refurbish them, even completely gut and renovate them, but at a cost.

Each building also has an embodied energy factor, that being the total amount of energy embodied in any material in the building, from its point of extraction as a raw material, through its manufacturing process, through its shipment to and installation at the site, through its required maintenance/upkeep throughout its lifetime in a building (think carpet cleaning, VCT floor polishing, re-painting walls and etc), through to its end demise, if it is removed and disposed of at any point. To give you an idea of embodied energy in square foot terms, a new building’s embodied energy runs around 15 gallons of gas per square foot; an existing building anywhere from 5 to 15 gallons per square foot. Put in these terms, we waste a lot of gas on building.

What is the value in any of this?

You want VOC's with that? You sure? They're free.
Indoor environmental quality encompasses a lot of what is embedded in the other four categories. It is directly affected by how beautiful –or not beautiful, a site is –that is, the views you see out the windows, can you open the windows for fresh air. It is effected by air quality and thermal comfort –we feel better, are healthier and more energetic in buildings with adequate fresh air and thermal comfort, i.e.: we are not too hot or too cold, but just right (that is all of us, not just a certain portion of a building population). It is also affected by the material choices –color, how they hold up, the toxins they release or don’t release, which can cause us to feel just not right. And believe it or not, as comfort decreases, environmental impact often increases, as we find inefficient and wasteful solutions to improve our physical environment.

What is the value in any of this?

The next LEED category
Beauty, inspiration and spirit is not a LEED category -yet. But each is the culmination of what our built environment can be. Our built environment is us. It is our legacy, it is a direct reflection of who we are, a snapshot of us at any given moment. Unfortunately, we are more often than not right now surrounded by ugly and inhumane environments. Vast parking lots, strip malls, vacant lots in cities, billboards, huge freeway interchanges, sprawling suburbs with no place, and more. In reality, do we really find any of these aesthetically acceptable? And, if these things are needed in our modern society, is there a way to make them aesthetically pleasing? I believe there is.

Building sustainably has the power to inspire change, to effect well being, to strengthen values, to connect us locally and globally, to connect us to Earth, and to change how we live, work, play and feel.

Will the real Value Engineering please stand up!
LEED is a step towards integrated design. And integrated design does cost more in some respects, but the value is longer lasting. Beauty, inspiration and spirit cost more, but again, the value is longer lasting. We cannot continue to build as we have been. We must not continue to build as we have been.

No longer can we build with little disregard for the site, only building to required codes, and not considering how our site is part of a larger whole. No longer can we build with little regard for water use, depleting lakes, rivers, aquifers and reservoirs. No longer can we build inefficient buildings requiring far more energy to operate than necessary were climatic and other factors taken into consideration. No longer can we build without durability in mind, or without thought to where materials come from and the potential environmental destruction caused. No longer can we build without indoor environmental quality in mind –we are humans, we are soulful beings and we have an inherent connection to each other, to place, to light, to views. No longer can we use materials made from toxins which are harmful to those who make the material, to those who install the material, and to those who then live each day with the material, breathing in VOC’s, formaldehydes, and particulates. No longer can we sacrifice quality, longevity and legacy for first cost. No longer can we operate under the pretense that if it’s good for the environment, it’s bad for the bottom line. And no longer can building be primarily about making money. It must also be about making meaning.

What is the value in all of this? Priceless. This is true value engineering.


patricia said...

Very thought-provoking post...should there be a LEED category for beauty/inspiration quality?

And longevity...another important issue to take into consideration.


Sara Sweeney said...

Patricia -

Thanks very much for your comment. I hope over time, we do move in this direction -thinking more about beauty/inspiration. I really do believe it would impact us in ways we can barely imagine. It's like the study that was done showing that trees in urban environments have a significant effect on crime and murder rates, and general well-being.

The Living Building Challenge ( does have the beauty/inspiration category. Following this rating system would result ina truly regenrative/restorative building -something we can all aspire to.