I recently watched two awesome documentaries relating to the environment.  One was Flow, about the effects of privatization on water resources and communities around the world, was an excellent reaffirmation of how important water issues are.  The other was The Greening of Southie, about the first green building to go up in South Boston.  It is the latter that left me with several questions about the impacts of green building.

First, let me start by saying that the film does a great job of explaining what green building is, how one gets the LEED points necessary to be a ‘green building,’ and the challenges that go with creating a green building.  It also brought up issues about community impact, without actually saying anything about them, that I will expand on below.

LEED is a standard of building that promotes using green materials to reduce the impact of a building, whether residential or commercial on the environment.  LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  There are several different kinds of LEED, one for neighborhood design, one for renovations, and several others.  While the movie was from 2007 and thus a little dated, the property managers aimed for earning enough points to earn a gold rating.  Each point comes from doing something green — using local vendors is worth one point each, using renewable resources like bamboo over hardwood is one point, etc.

All of this sounds wonderful, and there have even been updates to LEED to take into account new technologies and the transportation costs of transporting materials.  However, there are some drawbacks to green building that the film did a wonderful job of pointing out.  There are definite race and class lines drawn by who can afford green building.  The building in the film, the Macallen Building, was a residential luxury condo complex, ranging from $500,000 to $2 million per condo.  South Boston has traditionally been a working class neighborhood, meaning that a majority of the people in South Boston would not be able to afford homes like the ones brought into the neighborhood — not to mention the definitive racial line that exists between high income and low income families.

In addition, the new building will drive up property values and rents displacing people from the homes or forcing them to give up local businesses.  With the incoming of a luxury apartment complex, there comes other amenities like shopping franchises, which threaten the life of mom and pop stores in the area.

My final point of contention with green building is that it is intended to promote the use of local materials.  Yet in the film, they ordered innovative environmentally friendly materials from China, Australia, Bolivia, and from the Midwest in the United States.  The one vendor that was awarded a point for being ‘local’ was 3 hours away in Maine. Granted, this is substantially closer than China or Bolivia, but to me it still does not signify local.  How do we promote environmentally friendly design and innovation in the United States (making it local) if we are importing the technology from abroad?  And how does one reconcile the fact that we are using so much oil and energy to transport materials from abroad with the fact that we are building and environmentally friendly building? Does saving energy costs outweigh reducing fossil fuel consumption? Should it?

These are some of the questions I was left with at the end of the film.  I know that LEED has sought to reconcile some of these concerns since the film was released in 2007, and I know that there are more companies in the United States producing environmentally friendly materials now than when this building was being built.  However, I think the questions are still justified and timely as we look at the future of green building.  How do we pair green building and being environmentally conscious with social justice issues of race/class?  Environmentally friendly extends beyond reducing carbon emissions and replacing light bulbs with CFLs — it needs to be a holistic approach which includes community sustainability as well.

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