On Monday, New York–based project contractor and developer Skanska USA announced that it has become a charter member of the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI), a nonprofit organization designed to develop and maintain Envision, a sustainability rating system for civil infrastructure projects. We caught up with Skanska’s chief sustainability officer Beth Heider, AIA, at Greenbuild happening this week in New Orleans to discuss the new rating system, upcoming trends in the industry, and the business case for green buildings.
What are the technologies and trends that will become more prominent in green building in the next five years?
First of all, the Well Building Institute on Monday rolled out its new certification. It’s a really nice companion to LEED. The [U.S. Green Building Council’s] LEED rating system focuses on energy and environmental performance. Through the LEED air quality credits, you begin to get at the human side of things. The Well Building certification focuses on a whole variety of other dimensions—quality of light, nutrition, wellness at large. We’re progressing from well-built buildings to well-built buildings that really support the human condition. The second thing goes beyond the drip line of the building to look at infrastructure scale solutions. The ISI is to the USGBC as Envision, their rating system, is to LEED. Skanska announced its charter membership this week with ISI. Our intent is to help in the development of that metric, which is about where LEED was two years after it was introduced to the market, say around 2002. A corollary to that is we’re working with USGBC and ISI on aligning and harmonizing those two systems for projects like airports and arenas, where both systems are relevant. Beyond that, we’re looking at district-scale solutions, exploring what the business conventions need to look like when we begin to cross over conventional boundaries.
Why did Skanska throw its support behind developing Envision? What makes it a revolutionary system?
I served on USGBC’s board for six years and was involved in writing two strategic plans—the second while I was chair. In the earlier days, we didn’t really address the social part of the triple bottom line of sustainability. Just last week, they announced three new credits in the LEED system talking about social equity and sustainability. The Envision system looks at the triple bottom line of sustainability right out of the blocks. The system itself is somewhat different—it helps guide the decision-making process. One of the really exciting dimensions about it is that this isn’t a story of dueling rating systems. It’s a story of complementary rating systems that will help us address a huge challenge that is laid before us in building infrastructure—but not only infrastructure because it needs to be replaced and is worn to the end of its life, but to create solutions that bake resilience into our cities.
Skanska recently co-sponsored a report by the World Green Building Council. What conclusions did that report draw and based on what evidence?
The 2014 report was done in the same vein as the report conducted in 2013, which was the business case for green buildings, about a variety of parameters where green building helped with the investment asset value and energy consumption. One of the findings in the 2013 report, based on research from earlier reports, was that productivity or the human component of any office enterprise is 90 or more percent of the cost of doing business. We can marginally improve energy and a variety of other things in the built environment, but if we forget about how the built environment impacts the human asset, we’re losing a terrific opportunity in terms of enhancing workplace productivity. The 2014 report did a deeper dive into it, looking at a number of dimensions of what enhances workplace productivity, [such as] biophilia—our desire as humans to be surrounded by views, daylight, natural elements, plants, or even materials that are evocative of nature. It also looks at the importance of acoustics.
What do you think is the biggest weakness or area to be improved upon in the green building sector?
We’re beginning to see Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and that’s not kindergarten math—that’s advanced algebra. The products that go into building are oftentimes very complex. Where are they sourced? How are they transported? The industry, just as the nutrition industry before [putting] the nutrition labels on the food that we buy, is not geared to provide that information right now. The cascade effect of getting the supply chain engaged in providing transparency in building products is a huge opportunity and not an insignificant challenge for the marketplace. We’re building projects that are progressively more energy efficient, and we’re buildings tighter and tighter boxes. If we fill them up with materials that are toxic, we’re creating the perfect gas chamber. Understanding what’s in materials is very important.
Do you think there will be a time in the future when green building and regular construction are synonymous?
We have famously said at USGBC, we will have done our job when we work ourselves out of business. Yes, there is absolutely the potential for the time when good building design will be what we espouse today. I don’t know what that time horizon is, but I’ve seen an incredible advancement. It’s not a linear advancement; it tends to be up and down but there are inflection points that allow for terrific advances in a short period of time. That comes, oftentimes, from market signals.
This interview has been edited and condensed.