A New Mindset for a New Future

It is imperative that radical change be implemented in order to develop a more sustainable view of the world, especially the buildings that we work and live in. Due to the discourses that dominate today’s society, the general population is bombarded with rhetoric telling us to consume to our heart’s content whatever resources may be available.  Furthermore, the existing discourses are very anthropocentric, a mindset that places humans as the most important factor on earth and thus implies that they are the only species that deserves moral standing.  As a result, this way of thinking causes further environmental destruction as the innate value of resources to nature and to other species is completely forgotten (Liu et al., 2016).  With respect to buildings’ construction and energy consumption, it is this inability to value other aspects of the world besides ourselves that will drive the human population’s continued degradation of resource reserves throughout the planet.  

As a result of existing anthropocentric ethics, buildings across the United States consume natural resources that exist in large quantities and are fiscally conservative.  Buildings alone consume over 47% of the energy generated within the United States, with 74.9% of that energy used to meet building electricity demands (Architecture 2030, 2013).  Additionally, much of the nationwide electricity generation comes from nonrenewable resources, including 38.8% from coal and 27.4% from natural gas (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2014).  It is widely acknowledged that combustion of both coal and natural gas results in a warming of the earth (Akorede et al., 2012) as well as widespread environmental disturbances (Lutz, 2013).  Unfortunately, due to the immense reserves of both resources, their continued extraction and exploitation will likely continue in order to power buildings across the country, thus benefitting human populations without accounting for the well being of the rest of the environment.  

Humans have long put themselves before the environment and other species, and this is shown in the way buildings are constructed and maintained.  From continued to overuse of energy to using unsustainable materials, humans rarely retrofit buildings to make them more sustainable, which highlights why it is so important to think about the effects on other species.  Thinking about the life cycle of buildings and the energy they consume is imperative because energy is used through embodied energy, the energy it takes to produce the materials, and operation energy, which is the energy required for lighting, heating and cooling, among others (Cole and Kernan, 1996).  Furthermore, the operation energy takes the most energy (Cole and Kernan, 1996), so that is where humans should work to limit the most energy.  However, it is difficult to see the impact on other species and the environment since they are not directly affected.  In other regards, environmental movements focused on moral extensionism, such as whaling and critiques of farming and livestock practices, have proven to be successful.  Thus, it is possible to become more environmentally friendly through these kinds of actions.  Given that there currently exist more sustainable practices for both of these issues, moral extensionism is one valid way to change society.

Unfortunately the difficulty is that we rarely see the direct adverse effects of energy consumption on animals and nature, such as whaling for example, which likely causes the apathy seen with energy consumption.  However, with more education on the negative effects of buildings, this could become a more prominent part of the movement to green buildings.  Moral extensionism related to buildings could consist of showing the effects of pollution on the nonhuman world.  Air pollution, which comes in part from energy usage, has several direct effects on plant life, including delayed growth (Honour et al., 2009). This not only affects the plants, but everything else in their food chain. Thus, by caring more about other species and the lands that they inhabit, the current unsustainable discourse could be changed for the better in the future.

Whether it is necessary to convert to renewable energy sources or to reduce energy consumption entirely, one fact remains: unsustainable consumption of resources benefits human populations but fails to place moral standing on other species besides ourselves. So long as buildings remain unchanged and do not undergo processes to become more sustainable, the anthropocentric mindset will continue to dictate resource consumption in buildings and to permeate throughout society.  In order to green buildings and improve their level of sustainability, we must change how we view ourselves and our place on earth.  It is necessary to transition from a human centered perspective to one that thinks about our impact and places the environment before anything else, as that is what fostered human development in the first place.

A change that is up for consideration is implementing the practice of Deep Ecology throughout society.  Deep ecology is a worldview that has been widely interpreted as a fundamentally different ethical value system.  In many regards, it is a reaction to consequences of the dominant paradigm.  It is much less widely understood or accepted, though as a political movement it has been growing in recent years.  “In its current form, it is an attempt to synthesize many old and some new philosophical attitudes about the relationship between nature and human activity, with particular emphasis on ethical, social, and spiritual aspects that have been downplayed in the dominant economic worldview” (Nash, 1989).

At the moment, deep ecology is far from a unified and consistent philosophy.  Some of its advocates consider this to be a strength rather than a weakness, promoting diversity and flexibility.  Deep ecologists advocate merging appreciation of some of the more scientific aspects of systems ecology with a bio-centric and harmonious view of the relationship between man and nature.  Basic tenets of the bio-centric attitude of Deep Ecology include the following: intrinsic bio-species equality, major reductions in human population, bioregional autonomy, promotion of biological and cultural diversity, decentralized planning utilizing multiple value systems, non-growth oriented economies, non-dominant technology and greater use of indigenous management and technological systems.  Deep ecologists see technological fixes as commonly leading to larger, costlier, and more intractable problems, rather than progress (Colby, 1991). In practice, these strategies often mean making man subservient to nature.

The application of this philosophy would result in radical changes in social, legal and economic systems, and definitions of development of ourselves and our surroundings. “While some of these principles can be used to inform future development planning approaches, to expect the whole world to return to pre-industrial, rural lifestyles, …  would probably be impossible at current population levels. While Deep Ecology may be more ‘organic’, it tends not to be creative – one of the fundamental cogs in the evolution of both nature and human society” (Colby, 1991).

The simplest change that we can make would be the adoption of a land ethic that is similar or identical to the one proposed by Aldo Leopold.  Leopold suggested that we should define right and wrong in relation to the natural environment.  More specifically, he believed  that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Kobylecky, 2015).  While this is a fairly vague idea, the general principle behind it is difficult to refute.  If we could all make a point to consider our environment when evaluating the merit and necessity of choices, then we would be able to do a much better job of conserving our resources and preserving our lands.

In terms of our buildings, a land ethic would guide decisions about locations, materials and power consumption.  It is not practical to expect a population of our size and seniority to abide exclusively by Leopold’s ideals simply because we would no longer be able to support ourselves if we only acted in accordance with nature’s best interests.  However, acting with these principles in mind would result in far fewer instances of supermarkets replacing forests or campuses that run lighting, heating, and cooling systems 24/7.  We would see a rise in the use of recycled materials and a decline in habitat destruction for the benefit of human growth. It may not be realistic to ask for a full conversion to eco-centrism, but we can definitely afford to be more considerate of the natural world.


Akorede, M. F. et al., (2012, June). Mitigating the anthropocentric global warming in the electric power industry. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Vol. 16, Issue 5, 2747-2761.

Architecture 2030, (2013). Why the Building Sector? http://architecture2030.org/buildings_problem_why/

Colby, Michael E. “Environmental management in development: the evolution of paradigms.” Ecological Economics 3.3 (1991): 193-213.

Cole, Raymond J., and Paul C. Kernan. “Life-cycle energy use in office buildings.” Building and environment 31.4 (1996): 307-317.

Honour, Sarah L., et al. “Responses of herbaceous plants to urban air pollution: effects on growth, phenology and leaf surface characteristics.” Environmental pollution 157.4 (2009): 1279-1286.

Kobylecky, Jen (2015, May). Understanding the Land Ethic. https://www.aldoleopold.org/post/understanding-land-ethic/

Liu, X. et al., (2016, May). Comparing natural environmental and economic performances through emergy sustainability indicators: Moving environmental ethics beyond anthropocentrism towards ecocentrism. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Vol. 58, 1532-1542.

Lutz, B. D. et al., (2013, September). The Environmental Price Tag on a Ton of Mountaintop Removal Coal. PLoS One. 8(9).

Nash, R.F.. 1989. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.

United States Energy Information Association (EIA), (2014, August 14). Electricity Data. http://www.eia.gov


Greening Buildings: The History Behind the Movement


While enhancing building sustainability through green retrofits and improvements has been adopted by countries across the world, evidence of the practice has been discovered in ancient settlements abandoned thousands of years ago.  During the height of their culture between A.D. 400-1300, the Four Corners Anasazi of the American desert southwest utilized local and renewable materials in addition to passive solar design in the development of their village architecture (AGPOM, 2017).  This was done in an effort to provide the inhabitants with an increase in solar heat during the winter period due to the fact that the locations of these settlements were frequently subject to sub-freezing temperatures.  Even though the building designs were extremely rudimentary, they illustrate the point that previous cultures have taken advantage of natural phenomena in local and regional environments for the purpose of efficient resource consumption.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, green building design can be more clearly identified in both North America and Western Europe.  Such examples include London’s Crystal Palace in 1851 and Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in 1877, both of which implemented roof ventilators as well as underground air cooling chambers in an effort to reduce the environmental impact of both structures (Cassidy, 2003; Marble Institute, 2006).  By the turn of the twentieth century, the New York Times Building and Flat Iron Building in New York City had begun to use deep-set windows, which were successful in controlling interior temperature, thus reducing the energy requirements of both skyscrapers and improving their energy efficiency (Marble Institute, 2006).  While useful, these practices were only the precursors to the beginning of the Green Building Movement.  

A handful of environmentalists and architects initially questioned existing building construction on the grounds of poor energy efficiency and potential increase in fossil fuel prices.  It wasn’t until the onset of the OPEC oil embargo in 1973 that these fears became a reality, and the Green Building movement began to capture greater public attention.  Consequently, more people began questioning the conventional wisdom of existing sources of energy consumption for transportation as well as for buildings (Cassidy, 2003).  As a response to the energy crisis, the American Institute for Architects (AIA) formed a multi-group committee on energy in 1975 (Marble Institute, 2006).  One group focused on passive systems such as reflective roofing materials while the second group analyzed technological solutions to improve energy efficiency (Cassidy, 2003).  During the late 1970s through the 1980s and 1990s, significant research was conducted in order to push the boundary on efficiency in both energy consumption as well as renewable energy sources (AGPOM, 2017).

The resulting research was applied under the Clinton administration in the “Green the White House” program of 1993.  The program was created in order to promote “energy efficiency and environmental performance…to reduce waste, lower energy use, and make an appropriate use of renewable energy resources, all while improving the indoor air quality and building comfort” (Marble Institute, 2006).  Utilization of energy efficient light fixtures and appliances, reduction of water consumption for landscaping, leasing of fuel efficient vehicles and recycling plans resulted in saving $150,000 on annual energy costs and 845 metric tons of carbon emissions (Cassidy, 2003; Marble Institute, 2006).  The overwhelming success of the 1993 “Green the White House” campaign encouraged the American people and the federal government to expand the greening of buildings throughout the nation.

In tandem with the “Green the White House” program, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) was founded in 1993.  This membership-based non-profit organization was designed to “promote sustainability-focused practices in the building and construction industry” (USGBC, 2017) and plays a major role in structural sustainability today.  The organization’s infancy was spent gathering and analyzing data to create the best method to rate the green-ness of a building.  After years of work, the US Green Building Council unveiled the newly refined LEED certification program in 2003 (AGPOM, 2017).  The purpose of the LEED program was to create a framework for designing and ranking all types of green buildings, so long as they met a set of predefined criteria (USBGC, 2017).  While initially adopted by government agencies, the certification primarily serves the market place in the expansion of green practices, and their benefits, to buildings throughout the nation.

It cannot be overstated that the movement to green buildings across the planet is extremely important, especially given that buildings account for 25%-40% of total energy consumption (Morrissey et al., 2011).  In the U.S. alone, buildings are responsible for 68% of electricity consumption, in addition to producing 38% of carbon dioxide emissions (WNCGBC, 2017).  This clearly illustrates that buildings have a profound impact on the natural environment, due to both consumption and release of greenhouse gases.  Energy itself is becoming an increasingly critical economic issue, with potential ramifications ranging from influences on household budgets to affecting relationships on an international basis (USGBC, 2014).  Furthermore, given that fossil fuel extraction takes an immense toll on the environment and carbon emissions contribute to a rapidly changing climate, it is necessary to incorporate sustainable techniques in buildings to reduce their carbon footprint.

Improving the sustainability of buildings through renovation or construction, however, entails the challenge of incorporating what the natural world has to offer in an effort to reduce energy consumption.   Such enhancements, whether it be the use of renewable energy or improvements in energy efficiency, will ultimately reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and create a more sustainable society.  The benefits of greening buildings are seemingly endless, including better air and water quality, conservation of natural resources and reducing annual waste output that may affect ecosystem biodiversity (Green Building Design, 2012; WNCGBC, 2017).  Studies have also shown that the adoption of sustainable practices, such as energy efficient lighting (Di Maria et al, 2010) and efficient land use, lead to reduced energy costs, thus saving money for the consumer (USGBC, 2014).  Given this information, it’s safe to say that improving the sustainability of all buildings ought to be a necessary process in any plan to reduce the human footprint on the planet.  


AGPOM, (2017). History of Green Buildings. Association of Green Property Owners and Managers. Web. <http://www.agpom.org/greenpropertyresources/green-resources/history-green-buildings/>.

Cassidy, R., (2003, November). A Report on the Green Building Movement. Building Design and Construction. 1-48. Web. <https://archive.epa.gov/greenbuilding/web/pdf/bdcwhitepaperr2.pdf>.

Di Maria, C., Ferreira, S., & Lazarova, E. (2010). Shedding light on the light bulb puzzle: the role of attitudes and perceptions in the adoption of energy efficient light bulbs. Scottish Journal of Political Economy. 57(1), 48-67.

Green Building Design, (2012, April). Why Is Green Building Important? Web. <http://http://www.greendesignbuild.net/Pages/WhyisGreenBuildingImportant.aspx>.

Marble Institute, (2006). History of Green Building. Web. <http://www.marble-institute.com/default/assets/File/consumers/historystoneingreenbuilding.pdf>.

Morrissey, J., Moore, T., & Horne, R. E. (2011). Affordable passive solar design in a temperate climate: An experiment in residential building orientation. Renewable Energy. 36(2), 568-577.

United States green Building Council, (2014, May). Green Building 101: Why is energy efficiency important? Web. <http://www.usgbc.org/articles/green-building-101-why-energy-efficiency-important>.

United States Green Building Council, (2017). Our History. Web. <http://www.usgbc.org/about>.

Western North Carolina Green Building Council, (2017). Importance of Green Building. Web. <http://www.wncgbc.org/about/importance-of-green-building&gt;.

Energy Efficiency: The Sky is the Limit

The Empire State Building towers above the streets of Manhattan, representing the pinnacle of Art Deco design and a signature architectural wonder in the modern world.  It is less apparent, however, that the Empire State Building is a leading example of energy efficiency in one of the greenest cities in the United States.  Leading up the radical transformation, New York City exemplified unparalleled sustainable development, which can be attributed to carbon emissions averages that are one third below the national level.  Many argued that if the city itself was so green, why not transform the renowned landmark as well?  Consequently, in 2008 work began on green retrofits to the Empire State Building in order to significantly reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency.    

The $550 million Empire State ReBuilding Program was a groundbreaking in its transparency, documentation, and application to other office buildings like it across the planet (Miller, 2009).  Previous projects were primarily completed on a much smaller scale with little planning, in which green retrofits were fixed to various parts of a building whenever deemed necessary.  The difference for the Empire State ReBuilding Program is that renovations yield much greater energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction when taking a whole-building approach.  Using $120 million of the total budget (Lockwood, 2009), the measures taken by this retrofit program resulted in a 10-20 percent reduction in energy consumption and an energy savings of roughly 40 percent (Miller, 2009).  Ultimately, this plan will result in annual utility bill savings of $4.4 million and guarantee a three year payback on initial investment, while simultaneously reducing the building’s carbon footprint.  

Retrofits throughout the building included: refurbishing the Empire State Building’s 6,514 windows regulate external climate on heating and cooling, addition of energy efficient lighting, modifications to the building’s chiller plant, improvement in insulation and air conditioning equipment, and implementation of a central energy monitoring system to educate tenants on their energy usage and how to reduce their consumption for the future (Lockwood, 2009).  In total, project developers calculated that the application of this program will reduce peak electricity demand by 3.5 megawatts and carbon dioxide by 9 percent, thus preventing the release of approximately 105,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the next 15 years (Lockwood, 2009; Miller, 2009).  Consequently, these retrofits enabled to building to achieve LEED Gold status with respect to sustainable practices in 2011 (Bloomfield and LaSelle, 2011).  LEED is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is used around the world to determine how sustainable buildings are, and the Empire State Building achieving the second highest level proves how plausible it is for all buildings to become more sustainable.

Though the primary purpose of this rebuilding program was to improve energy efficiency of the Empire State Building, it ultimately provided a glimpse into what is possible for greening other buildings and cities across the world.  The building now stands as the standard for a sustainable transition and has laid the groundwork for other potential programs to model their process of greening after the Empire State Building.  Thus, the benefits, both environmentally and economically, of such a transformation will potentially push other buildings and cities to follow suit in the integration of environmentally friendly practices with society.   


Bloomfield, Craig & LaSelle, Jones Lang (2011, September 13). Empire State Building Achieves LEED Gold. United State Green Building Council (USGBC). Web. <http://www.usgbc.org/articles/empire-state-building-achieves-leed-gold&gt;.

Lockwood, Charles, (2009, November/December). Building Retro. Urban Land. Web. <https://www.esbnyc.com/sites/default/files/uli_building_retro_fits.pdf&gt;.

Miller, Molly, (2009, April). Retrofitting America’s Favorite Skyscraper – The Empire State Building, a Leading Example of Energy Efficiency. Rocky Mountain Institute. Web. <http://www.rmi.org/RMI+Retrofits+America’s+Favorite+Skyscraper&gt;.