Green buildings represent a challenge not only to the authority of architects and engineers, but also to the codes and standards prevailing in the building industry. In many cases, building code officials in cities and counties are unaware of new technologies, putting the burden on the design professional to make a case for evaluating a new idea on a "performance" vs. code-prescriptive basis. In a performance evaluation, the proposed design is assessed to see if it provides the same level of protection of public health and safety as the prescriptive standard. This may occur with such simple technologies as water-free urinals or with complex approaches to building fire protection and energy efficiency.
As an example, in 2002 one engineering design firm in Portland wanted to harvest rainwater from a building roof and reuse it for toilet flushing in a college dormitory, something the students favored. The design included a water treatment system using sand filters and ultraviolet light to destroy pathogens, so the finished product was basically safe enough to drink. As the first such project in the city, the code officials were a bit nervous. So they only allowed the first-floor public restrooms to have the recycled water, not the dorm rooms! And, they made the project put a sign over each toilet, proclaiming "Rainwater — Do Not Drink!" Since the toilets had no tank, but only a valve flush, this seemed a bit much!
Progress occurs in slow increments; these same code officials relaxed their restrictions with each successive project, so that in 2007 rainwater harvesting is now part of the tool-kit of engineers in the Portland area. Ironically, Oregon still prohibited water-free urinals at the end of 2006, largely owing to opposition from union plumbers, so efforts to conserve water in building projects there still face obstacles.
The point is that green buildings often butt up against a well-entrenched system for designing, constructing and operating a building. That system needs to change dramatically if we are to achieve the full benefits of green buildings. If even simple systems like rainwater harvesting take several years to achieve acceptance in each jurisdiction, how will we ever be able to make green buildings deliver, in a timely manner, the energy and water savings we all agree they need? How will dramatically different new technologies gain acceptance and critical mass for marketplace success if the battles have to be fought one project, one city and one contractor at a time? Local officials need to work closely with architects, engineers, contractors and the building products industry to make needed changes in conventional practices.
One final note: often the authority that needs to be questioned is not external, but more subtle, namely, the internal pressures on architects and engineers to be far more conservative in their designs than required by circumstances. This is the pervasive authority of rules of thumb, sales engineers, engineering handbooks and the collective experience of more senior architects or engineers in a firm. Their experience tells them, for example, to oversize HVAC systems to avoid future complaints from building occupants or the possibility of lawsuits over the adequacy of building design.
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