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Why today’s best is the jumping off point for tomorrow’s goals

Published on Written by Posted in LEED
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user johnthescone
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user johnthescone

I’ve got the Olympics on my mind. In addition to indulging in the theatre of the absurd that the live tweets about “dangerous face water” in Sochi afford, I’ve been having fun getting ready to watch a few world records fall.  Watching world records fall, even in sports I know very little about, is fascinating to me. I like the mind-set it puts me in, and I think our industry would benefit hugely from the race to the top mentality that dominates most competitive sports. By way of example:

Polish speed skater Zofia Nehringowa was the fastest woman on ice in 1931.  Nehringowa’s historic (and it seems to me, still pretty damn fast) 62.0 second 500 meters was the world mark until it was narrowly eclipsed the following January when Austrian-born Liselotte Landbeck clocked a new world record - 58.7 seconds. It might not seem like a huge difference but technology, training and human competitiveness combined for a 5% year over year performance improvement. Pretty impressive in my book.

But, if you fast forward to what Korean skater Lee Sang-hwa did in Salt Lake City in 2013, things get absolutely astonishing. Sang-hwa’s 36.36 second 500 is almost twice as fast Nehringowa’s 1931 record. Bonnie Blair’s 1987 world record (39.43 seconds) would barely qualify for the Sochi games and she’d have a tall hill to climb to the medal podium. Clearly Olympic speed skaters today are fast – really, really fast.  Sang-hwa averaged just under 31 MPH for her record skate.  That’s fast for me when I’m on my bike and she’s on skates.

So are Nehringowa and Landbeck slow and what does this have to do with buildings?

Late last year we released LEED v4. Whenever we launch a new version of LEED, we’re invariably faced with the question about how much “harder” it is.  There are any number of ways to answer this question.  The bluntest of measures, and in my opinion the most misleading, is a straight calculation of the credits that were earned by a LEED 2009 project and a determination of whether the strategies employed by those projects meet the new requirements of v4. This is silly. The 2009 project set a goal and accomplished it but there’s no reason to believe that they couldn’t have achieved a different goal if they had been presented with it (Sang-hwa was asked to skate 500 meters – obviously she could have skated 510 meters if that’s how far the race was).

I’m also frequently asked the question of what a v4 platinum building “does” to a v2.2 platinum project. To that, I offer thinking that draws from the Nehringowa/Sang-hwa relationship. Leadership is always leadership but we have to embrace -- not fight -- its inherently temporal nature. For the buildings industry, I think Stewart Brand said it best: “More than any other human artifacts, buildings improve with time—if they're allowed to.” Because my mind was on preservation at the time, I mistakenly took Brand’s thought to be an argument to get out of the way. I know now that I was wrong. Here’s the fun part about the buildings industry that’s different than sports – the idea of a race today between 24 year old Sang-hwa (a skater in the prime of her career) and Nehringowa (who would be 113 years old today if she hadn’t passed away in 1972) is absurdly unfair. But, with Brand as our muse, that same competition could be fair when considering a 2001 vintage LEED building (or a 1901 vintage building for that matter) and one being built today. 

It’s expected that world records in sports will fall. Additionally, it’s hugely exciting as a triumph of human determination. Since 1931, the 500 meter speed skating world record has been set 48 times by 19 different women - often times more than once per year (sometimes more than once a week). So, with thanks to Mr. Brand, let’s adapt his thinking with a slightly more forward-leaning Olympic-themed twist to answer the question of what v4 does to older LEED projects:   more than any other human artifacts, buildings improve with time—if they're expected to. V4 sets the bar higher and should be an inspiration for all those who have walked down the path before.

Were she alive today my guess is that Nehringowa would be astonished by the accomplishments of her contemporary peers in the sport. At the same time, I can’t help but also think that the competitive fire that burns in Olympic athletes would make her want to rewind a bit and avail herself of the expectations, technology and knowledge that’s made it possible to do what Sang-hwa has done. Most buildings aren’t constrained by 113 year old ACLs in their knees – what’s their excuse?

LEED O+M plays a key role in measuring our progress as does the technology and capability of emerging tools like the LEED Dynamic Plaque. That said, the key ingredient to making the most of these tools isn’t the existence of the tools themselves. The key ingredient is setting the right expectations and embracing a culture of continuous improvement where today’s best is the jumping off point for tomorrow’s goals. 

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    Brendan Owens made 10 contributions in the last 6 months

Brendan Owens

VP, LEED Technical Development U.S. Green Building Council

2 commentsLeave a comment

Partner, 7group, LLC
Hear, hear Brendan; it's all about the trend!
Sustainability Consultant, AHA Consulting Engineers, Inc.
Great essay on why we want to keep trying to push harder to accomplish the next level of achievement, or quality, in everything we care about. Thanks for that inspiration and especially the reference to Stewart Brand who first challenged many of us to strive beyond our comfort zone. Let's keep sharpening our tools.

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