April 22, 2010

Beth Duckles, assistant professor of sociology

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(Editor's note:  "Ask the Experts" will resume weekly publication in the fall. Until then, please enjoy this edition originally posted this past spring.)

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Welcome again to "Ask the Experts," a regular web feature that highlights the expertise of various Bucknellians in a range of topics related to current news events and other timely subjects. || Ask the Experts archive

We asked Beth Duckles, assistant professor of sociology, about green building. Duckles studies the rapid rise of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and how it changed the building industry. She also is a LEED accredited professional.

Q: Many new buildings are billed as LEED-certified or meeting the criteria for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program. What is LEED certification and how did it come about?

A: LEED certification came about through the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It's one of several different types of sustainable building certification programs. Others around the world include Green Globes, BREEAM and CASBEE. LEED for new construction is a performance-based building certification program that focuses on five different categories of building: site sustainability, water efficiency, energy atmosphere, indoor environmental quality, and materials and resources. The founder of the USGBC, David Gottfried, was a real estate developer who got together representatives from various fields within the building industry, including groups from architecture firms, engineering firms, interior design, landscape architecture, contractors and manufacturers of various materials. The USGBC was formed to "transform the building industry" and create more sustainable buildings. What I study is the USGBC as a different type of social movement. Instead of a typical social movement, which focuses on the state, the USGBC focuses on the industry as a whole.

Q: How has the concept of LEED certification affected green building and what are some of the advantages and disadvantages to these new practices?

A: In the past, some have seen green building as experimental, and some early research has looked at green building attributes as a kind of "add-on" to buildings. What LEED has done is to get people from different parts of the industry together, and, using a consensus-based process, they created one single standard. That standard is evolving, which is also one of the parts of their success. They are constantly re-evaluating their standard to make it more accessible and useful. Some have said the fact that the LEED system is point-based allows design teams to be competitive with one another, and that's fairly appealing to Americans. They've also done a decent job of branding, which makes LEED recognizable and understandable. It has given a name to something that people might not otherwise know. It defines the idea of sustainability so people understand it.

There are some challenges in LEED. Most buildings that are LEED certified are less than 10 years old, so we don't know the long-term effects of these standards. There are some interesting questions about legal ramifications to LEED certification, too. Since it is a performance-based standard, that is a pretty substantial question they are still working on. As it moves forward, the question will be whether it continues to push the marketplace more toward the ideal of sustainability.

Q: As a sociologist, you study how green building has taken off and affected the marketplace in a relatively short amount of time. How has this happened and why has it been so successful?

A: The U.S. Green Building Council was established in 1993, but LEED did not come out until 1998, and that was in a pilot program that only had 13 buildings. Since then, the number of buildings has expanded exponentially. Typically in sociology, when we look at how you might change an individual's professional work, we find that this change happens within one professional group. For instance, if a group wants to change the professional work of the law profession, they would interact with professional associations such as the American Bar Association or work with the government to set a new professional standard. Instead of doing this, LEED has focused on all professions in an industry with a LEED AP exam for all professionals. That is a key difference that made it broadly available and applicable to a number of different professions. When they set up the LEED certification system, they also encouraged cross-communication between professional groups. So, a landscape architect would have information about what an engineer does, or an engineer would be able to talk about the importance of what an interior designer does for sustainable design. Having these professional groups talk to one another has made it much more possible for a more holistic, innovative approach to building.

Q: Green building ideas seem to be particularly prevalent on college campuses. What is the students' role in furthering the mission or goals of sustainability?

A: Higher education is one of the key places where green building can come forward. First, we can use our buildings to educate our community and our students, and I think our students are very interested and excited in being a part of the sustainable goals on campus. Students can take that excitement into their future careers and be more successful. Second, we are what building professionals call owner-occupants. That means we have the capacity to really look long-term and think strategically about how our buildings can be a part of our bottom line and how we look at facilities management alongside the goals of sustainability. We are poised to do things that other building owners might not be able to do, things like retrofits and being good caretakers not only of the buildings we have but of the environment around us.


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