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Can we design buildings that actually give something back to the environment?

Clive Pohl of Lexington’s Pohl, Rosa, Pohl architecture firm.
Clive Pohl of Lexington’s Pohl, Rosa, Pohl architecture firm. Photo provided

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Clive Pohl is a principal of the Lexington architecture firm Pohl, Rosa, Pohl. He is a proponent of “Natural Capital Accounting,” a method of measuring and assigning values to the world’s natural assets as a way to put a price on environmental destruction. Pohl Rosa Pohl just won a US Green Building Council award. This interview with Pohl has been condensed. You can listen to a podcast of the entire conversation.

Q: As a designer of buildings and one who has long focused on the nature of our built environment, do you concern yourself with climate change? And if you do, how does this concern figure into the work of an architect in 2016?

A: This issue is central to what we do as caring stewards of the environment. I took my role as chair of education for the U.S. Green Building Council Kentucky Chapter very seriously. Whether they invite it or not, I consider myself an educator to all my clients. For example, concrete, in its production, is very guilty of producing carbon, which gives rise to greenhouse gases, which in turn leads to ocean acidification, which in turn leads to the death of coral and other valuable levels of biodiversity in the ocean. So, all of us are directly influential, and architects perhaps in particular. Buildings make up 41 percent of the contribution to greenhouse gases. So, it’s a big piece.

Q: Environment and economy have long been on a collision course. It seems as though we can’t reap the benefits of one without diminishing or damaging the other. Is there a workable balance?

A: There absolutely is and the challenge for those of us who attempt to advocate for it is that it’s not yet applicable on every scale. Natural Capital Accounting is a mechanism by which we can measure and assign value to the benefits that are provided by leaving ecosystems intact. The standard on the region or national scale, the common measure of economic wherewithal, is the Gross Domestic Product. The GDP only measures our consumption and our commodities and says absolutely nothing about what is lost in that process. So, the Natural Capital Accounting mechanism attempts to add to the equation the value and the benefits of leaving ecosystems intact, which are vast.

Q: Does Natural Capital Accounting assign values to what you call externalities - air pollution, for example?

A: That’s exactly right. It’s a system by which we can measure, manage, and report. Inherent in Natural Capital Accounting is a notion of transparency, which is a key contributor to collective change. It accounts for things that we don’t immediately recognize as commodities such as aspects of our environment that have real value like air and water filtration or flood protection mechanisms. For example, rather than looking at a forest as a commodity that needs to be cut and sold, leaving a forest in place in fact has huge value in flood protection. If you remove the forest, the cost of flood protection is astronomical. The inherent carbon storage values of forests have to be recognized. Other things that are perhaps less obvious that do have value both subjective and quantitative include the pollination of crops. What is the cost of losing that? And the preservation of habitats. Those are the things that need to be valued.

Q: One can imagine pushback from industries that don’t want to be held accountable according to a set of values for air and water pollution. Are you seeing acceptance for this idea?

A: The UN and the World Bank are getting behind it in a big way as a mechanism for assisting poverty-stricken countries to understand and value their true wealth so that they can make good decisions about managing their natural resources. Natural Capital Accounting is typically applied at the regional or national level, but there are very similar mechanisms underway on the smaller corporate level. There’s a company called TruCost, which works with a mechanism for analyzing lifecycle value of various products. And the study that TruCost put together with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute looked at 10 different companies and came to very definitive conclusions that by pursuing best practices on an environmental level these companies realize reduced cost and improved product value, discovered new revenue streams, and mitigated their exposure to risk. The challenge is that these benefits are not widely recognized. They’re not immediately understood. So, it takes visionaries who understand the redefined notion of cost as a lifecycle analysis, as opposed to our standard definition of cost in our country, which is “first cost” (expense for the materials and labor used in production.)

Q: I would think one path to acceptance would be to develop protocols and standards that would define what is expected of everyone. Are these in development?

A: The System for Environmental Economic Accounts, SEEA, a system developed by the U.N. is filtering down on many levels. The mechanisms they use are a little difficult to understand at first blush, but they are decisively applying dollar values to subjective, ecological benefits. I’m not an accountant so my depth of understanding is not deep, but they use things like composite indices, which is a mechanism for aggregating and normalizing a whole raft of various kinds of data into one number. They use an adjustment to the widely understood gross domestic product number, which acknowledges environmental degradation as a component. They use fairly complex and eclectic dashboards to bring together various indicators because this subject crosses all boundaries. It recognizes, quantifies, and has established mechanisms for understanding our ecological footprint.

Q: How can these initiatives be made locally relevant?

A: The key component for anyone moving into this way of thinking is to simply value the natural resources of a given bioregion. The U.S. Green Building Council some years ago engaged in a mechanism for clarifying the impacts of bioregions in Northern America and elsewhere. So, if we value our bioregion, then out of that grows a desire to recognize and place value upon its natural resources. When you apply this way of thinking to issues like mountaintop removal and you begin to educate yourself about the return on that investment with a lifecycle definition of cost in mind, it becomes immediately clear that this is a huge expense with very little return. So, there are decisive and clear implications for our region that are exciting to many and frightening to many, as well. But our current environmental reality is that business as usual is not an option if we’re to create a sustainable future. It’s really that simple.

Q: Does Kentucky have the will to seek a new path, to find another way?

A: Absolutely. It’s underway and it’s making its way into the mainstream. Virtually every one of my clients, both residential and commercial, expresses at least a level of interest and some passion for pursuit of this notion. The Living Building Challenge for which I’ve been serving as an ambassador for a year now has grown fivefold. The number of registered and certified projects around the world has quintupled since 2009. That’s extraordinary. The renewables industry has in the last 10 years blossomed from a $40 billion industry to $200 billion today. In fact, growth in the sustainable realm is outpacing other aspects of the economy. So, there are all kinds of reasons to be optimistic. We now have several Living Building Projects in the State of Kentucky and for those who might not know, the Living Building Challenge is a regenerative rating system that really sets the bar higher even than the LEED rating system such that as a core requirement projects have to realize net positive energy production. In fact, 105 percent of their consumed energy has to be produced onsite meaning these are buildings and infrastructure that give back. They don’t consume. They’re contributors. And that is understood now to be not only possible, but economically viable.

Q: It must be exciting as an architect to be asked to design a house from ground up and to have an opportunity to apply the standards that we’ve discussed.

A: There is no shortage of resources that can be used to help educate homeowners about the value of energy efficiency and other green building measures. But with every client, I have to gauge the level of interest and curiosity. Because a home is such an intimate and personal experience, it has to be a collaborative effort. The best projects involve very engaged dialog about the esthetic precedents that excite them and me. They’re paying for the house and paying my fees, but if they respect my opinion as I hope most do, then we have a very healthy conversation and most are glad to be encouraged to think beyond their comfort zone. And it’s those instances when people embrace more efficient building assemblies for the purposes of lowering their energy bills and therefore contributing to reducing climate change. That’s when there’s real excitement and ultimately we minimize regrets because that’s the goal.

Q: It must be rewarding when one of those clients comes along.

A: It really can be. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.

Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.

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