Brendan Owens

I sat there watching my daughter whack away at one of the screws in her toy workbench with a hammer. “Honey, that’s not going to work. Try the screwdriver. You have to use the right tool for the job.” It was one of those seemingly endless, for me, number of parenting moments where what was at the time unwanted, pestering advice from my own mom or dad comes slamming back into my consciousness – reminding me not only how lucky I’ve been but also what a jerk of a kid I must have been. To her credit, Harper took the advice pretty well and after making some progress with the screwdriver offered up a note of thanks.

Picking the right tool

Picking “the right tool for the job” isn’t necessarily something our industry has always been great at either. The case that has been on my mind lately, and the issue that spurred this blog post, is the relationship between a standard, a building code and a beyond code rating system.

You might live in a jurisdiction whose progressive vision for a greener built environment led directly to regulatory standards and codes that leaned on USGBC’s LEED rating system. In 2002, the city of Normal, IL, instituted a visionary and unprecedented requirement that all buildings in a specified business development district were required to achieve LEED certification. It was hugely exciting for us. Normal validated the enormous amount of work that had gone into LEED and this was the first use of LEED as a regulatory instrument. But, life is full of unintended consequences and as more jurisdictions adopted similar ordinances the limitations of LEED as a regulatory tool started to show.

It became clear that progressive jurisdictions across the United States were rummaging through their toolbox for a hammer (a regulation) and only found a screwdriver (a rating system). You can hammer in nails with a screwdriver — it’s possible — but it’s hugely inefficient and, when you have a bunch of nails to drive, frustrating as hell. But this wasn’t market activity we wanted to stifle (it’s transformative and inspiring — jurisdictions where green building practices are mandatory? Yes please!) we just needed to stock the toolbox differently. 

Stocking the toolbox

In 2005, USGBC partnered with ASHRAE and IES to give the industry the hammer it needed with Standard 189.1. In a parallel effort, ICC began development of the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) in 2009. As you might recall, confusion ensued. In 2010, ASHRAE, ICC and USGBC reached an agreement to align 189.1 and the IgCC and since that time we have been advocating for adoption of the IgCC (with a preference, in USGBC’s case, for adoptions based on 189.1 technical content).

Unfortunately, in the majority of adoptions we tracked, policy makers continued to hammer in screws. Instead of using the code as a regulatory instrument, jurisdictions attached incentives to compliance with the IgCC, reflecting the fact that 189.1, the IgCC and LEED weren’t designed to work as a system. Instead, they grew and continue to interact organically, leaving regulators to piece things together as they can. There’s evidence that much good has come from this well-intentioned but imperfect policy work to date (big tip of the cap to Washington, DC, for doing it right). Still, it can be better. It can always be better.

This constant drive to make things better is why I’m so excited about the newly announced agreement that brings AIA, ASHRAE, ICC, IES and USGBC into strategic and tactical alignment on the relationship between 189.1, the IgCC, LEED. Each organization is going to do what they do best and work together to create a cogent, ordered and intentional structure that formalizes the previously ad-hoc “push-pull” dynamic between standards, codes and rating systems. This framework, built on a suite of tools designed to do different things but intentionally developed to work as a system, addresses the critical need for a coherent and common message regarding the interrelated aspects of 189.1, the IgCC and LEED. 

This framework has been developed in a way that plays to each organization’s unique and complementary skill set and envisions a partnership between five industry leading organizations (and I’m sure more to come) focused on meeting the needs and exceeding the expectations of their collective members. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, this framework is envisioned to accelerate broader market transformation by coordinating the feedback loops that exist from the “push” associated with regulation and the “pull” associated with leadership programs. 

There’s a fantastic Amory Lovins quote: Optimizing components in isolation tends to pessimize the whole system — and hence the bottom line. You can actually make a system less efficient while making each of its parts more efficient, simply by not properly linking up those components. If they’re not designed to work with one another, they’ll tend to work against one another.

The history we’ve created around green standards, codes and rating systems is a fantastic case study of the problems associated with incomplete systems thinking. AIA, ASHRAE, ICC, IES and USGBC are now working to create a single, holistic system that uses the right tools for the job. We’re going to hammer nails with a building code and screw in screws with a voluntary rating system. The goal of this whole partnership is a more coherent, cohesive regulatory and beyond-code environment for the industry that delivers a litany of benefits — more better/safer/healthier buildings and places, more/better/safer/healthier jobs, and better/safer/healthier/more productive people.

I started this blog post with some thoughts about tools but I want to end with this Steve Jobs quote: “It's not the tools that you have faith in — tools are just tools. They work, or they don't work. It's people you have faith in or not.” These systems are built and operated by some of the most dedicated and intelligent folks I know. Things will be bumpy no doubt. But, I am confident that we’ll ride the bumps and overcome them; I have faith in the folks we’re working with to get this work done. Thanks in advance for all that hard work!