USGBC CEO Mahesh Ramanujam Calls for a Storytelling Strategy to Educate Everyday Americans about Green Buildings as Climate Solution

The latest report from the Geneva-based United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a dire warning about the need to act to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. As part of that assessment, IPCC called for a “rapid and far-reaching” transformation of the world’s buildings. For those working in building design, operations and construction, heeding that warning requires a renewed focus on the development of green buildings.

Distinct generations and regions feel slightly differently about environmental concerns but all worry about the future.

For 25 years, the U.S. Green Building Council, Washington, D.C., has helped shape the concept of high-performing green buildings through the LEED green building rating system. With more than 100,000 projects already engaged with LEED, the certification provides a clear path toward sustainable design, construction and operations. In addition, the introduction of LEED v4.1 is underscoring the importance of performance monitoring.

Certifications, like LEED, are driving market transformation, but the IPCC report makes it clear everyone must get involved and increase the pace of a sustainable transition. Accelerating transformation will not only require engaging the professionals working in design, operations and construction, but also the people and tenants within the offices, apartments, schools, hospitals and other building types. By drawing clearer connections between buildings and the impacts they have on individuals, the industry can continue to motivate the far-reaching transformation that is needed. Understanding this connection between people and buildings will be vital. Therefore, this connection was a core part of USGBC’s latest Living Standard research.

To examine Americans’ views on environmental issues and how the green building industry can be better positioned as a global solution, USGBC commissioned a global public-opinion research firm, ClearPath Strategies, to conduct a nationally representative survey of 1,600 people and 10 focus groups. The qualitative and quantitative study went further than the familiar audience for LEED and green building. It included millennials, community opinion leaders—such as government officials, business owners, philanthropists, etc.—and young parents. USGBC found the public overwhelmingly agrees the environment is an urgent concern for humanity and people want to live in a healthy environment, but there are roadblocks for meaningful action.

“What we’ve just begun to understand—and I can tell we’ve barely scratched the surface—is how many people out there have a unique perspective on sustainability and how many people we still have yet to reach,” says Mahesh Ramanujam, USGBC’s president and CEO. “This new research questions our conventional wisdom and experience.”

The idea of saving the planet tends to be too overwhelming, too abstract and too distant from peoples’ realities. But they do see it as a critical issue and one that re- quires action. When presented with various ways to save the planet, respondents focused on actions they can easily take on an individual level, like recycling and reducing waste and energy use.

Although the environment remains an important issue to many, the research revealed a series of contradictions that underscore the need for clarifying the relationship between buildings and people. Despite the fact that green buildings can help achieve these individual goals, such as recycling and reducing waste, Americans rank living in a green building quite low. Furthermore, 51 percent say they would be willing to spend more money on food, products and rent if that meant living in an environment that set them up for a longer, healthier life. Yet, only 11 percent associate words like “green building” and “green space” with creating an environment that supports the goal of living healthier. Simply put, Americans do not recognize green buildings as an environmental solution.

“When people think about the environment, they rarely think about buildings. For some, buildings are merely aesthetically fulfilling or there to serve a specific function,” Ramanujam explains. “The look and logic of buildings tend to be at the forefront of our minds while their long-term impact on our health and wellbeing is not.”

How much of an impact do green buildings have on the following criteria?

The success of green buildings has mostly been confined to the industry it- self, but with a growing need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and address the challenges associated with climate change, USGBC believes it is time to start telling a better story to the general public.

Ramanujam observes that “for too long, most of us in the green building community have simply been talking to ourselves. We are not reaching the broader population effectively enough to change their behavior or decisions on the scale necessary to combat climate-related risks.”

Although the industry grapples with ways to elevate the importance of green buildings in the minds of Americans, from a business perspective, demand for green buildings has been steadily increasing. The Dodge Data & Analytics World Green Building Trends 2018 SmartMarket Report indicates nearly half of 2,000 building professionals surveyed expect that the majority of their projects in the next three years will be green buildings. Design and construction companies understand that using LEED and other green building strategies allows the industry to do well by doing good.

“For people to do more and create big, lasting change, conversations need to center around human terms,” Ramanujam notes. “The green building community can mobilize and inspire this change by connecting the work we’re doing to health outcomes and demonstrating how green building can evolve to best meet public demands. How those solutions are communicated is critically important.”

About the Author

Sarah Stanley
Sarah Stanley manages the development and execution of media and communications activities for programs of the U.S. Green Building Council, Washington, D.C.

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