WaterBuild puts green building industry focus on critical resource
Water is the lifeline for virtually everything.
Within the built environment, the Earth’s most abundant resource serves as the critical element from the production of materials to helping generate the energy necessary to produce those materials.
In recent years, headlines have been filled with stories about water shortages worldwide, including in California and Georgia. The situation has been even worse in Flint, Mich., where poor quality has seen supplies tainted with lead and a number of residents falling ill from consumption of the poisoned liquid.
With those issues and more facing today’s society, the U.S. Green Building Council on Monday, Oct. 4, convened the first Waterbuild event – a prelude to the annual Greenbuild Expo in Los Angeles – to begin exploring ways in which those in the green building industry can spur conservation efforts and improve water quality globally.
Brendan Owen, chief of engineering for the USGBC, spoke about the inaugural Waterbuild, it’s intent and the potential impact such activities can make.
Proud Green Building: What was your take on the first Waterbuild? Did it go as you anticipated?
Brendan Owen: It was built in the mode of something previously done for the last three years. We had been running a technical summit on the Tuesday before Greenbuild that centered around materials and human health. As we closed the arc of that summit, we had the opportunity to re-envision what this platform could look like. We had a conversation to talk about water and to build a three-year summit track around water.
Because it was the first time on this subject, we didn’t know what to expect. We brought in a lot of experts and stakeholders to have a program that would kick it off right. My expectations were so far exceeded.
I figured it would be a year for us to get a year under our feet. But we kicked it off strong with Dr. Michael Webber. He writes on energy and water issues.
That set the tone for the day. The rest of the day was fantastic.
We had 200 and some people. Considering WaterSmart Innovations is happening right now in Las Vegas and another significant water conference in San Diego, it was a number I was pleasantly surprised by.
Next year, we’re in November, so we’re not going to be opposite WaterSmart. We’re hoping they can help us bring more people to the table.
PGB:Water is a very relevant topic right now. In the U.S., there is talk of water shortages in California and Georgia. In other parts of the world, there also are concerns of a lack of clean water. How significant are the water issues facing society?
Owen: It depends on how you slice it. The answer is that they are the most significant issues because they are so intertwined with energy, that is so intertwined with health issues. There is really no way you can parse water from energy, energy from water, health from water, water from health.
There’s nothing in the built environment space that we deal with that is more significant as the energy-water nexus, because there is so much water that gets used in the production of electricity and there’s so much electricity that goes into the production of water.
From a built environment and USGBC standpoint, there couldn’t be two issues that are more salient to the ultimate goal of human health for everybody in the world for us to have a conversation around.
PGB: What is the goal of WaterBuild?
Owen: There’s an awareness raising that needs to occur. Among building people, we tend to know what we know, but not internalize other aspects of what we’re doing. LEED tries to break down a lot of those silos that exist in the building industry and the building trade through integrated process and integrated design.
What we’re looking for to happen out of this is a conversation that is more expansive than the one that is currently happening. We’ve been talking about water conservation in the built environment and building industry for 30 years. We’ve made a lot of great progress. But we haven’t spent as much time as we need to looking at water quality issues and the health impacts associated with some of the technologies being employed right now.
When we expand this out of “let’s use less water” and get into issues related to human health – the catastrophe that Flint was until they got their stuff together and started to fix it – there’s just a whole host of other issues the green building community can get around. Part of the goal we have is just to get the conversations into the mainstream and start driving change.
How that manifests itself, we have the LEED platform we can bring to market – credit ideas and strategies we want people to use – but it also expands the community of people who are interested in talking about these things by pulling people from the water community – the water utilities and those responsible for delivering and treating water – to have a broader conversation about what we can do together.
PGB: What were some of the key areas address at Waterbuild?
Owen: We spent a lot of time talking about poop, just because of the way we deal with wastewater in developed countries. We’re using the best water in the world to flush toilets, cleaning it up and putting it back into the environment; ways that are not necessarily as closed loop as they could be.
We spent a lot of time demystifying gray water and black water treatment on site in buildings. We spent a lot of time talking about energy and water as a combined thing; if you save energy in the building you are actually saving water on the generation, transmission and distribution side. It’s the same as if you’re saving water in a building, you’re saving energy related to pumping, treatment and the rest of those things.
There also was a great theme that emerged around sustainable sites, landscaping and native planting and adaptive landscaping that has a long history in USGBC already.
And we did start to touch on the public health water issues related to water quality and what we can do to better understand, incentivize more research and put in better technology that would augment the performance of our municipal systems and fix some of the problems that exist in the developing world.
PGB: Was there good progress?
Owen: I think it was a good starting point. We’re a little too close to it right now to figure out what actually is going to come out of it, in terms of projects and research. We had conversations to LEED credits that may get implemented.
We’ll sit down with an advisory group that we pulled together and have them help us parse out where we go from here. We will be working on some of those ideas that were talked about.
PGB: You said there needed to be more conversations around water issues. Do you feel an event like WaterBuild can make a difference, and will it make a difference?
Owen: I do feel it can make a difference. I’m saying that, based on the admittedly small sample size of our materials and human health summit, which was the last three years. Those last three years were fundamentally instrumental in changing the conversation in the building industry about how we make the things that what we make our buildings out of, whether that’s lifecycle assessment or looking at risk versus hazard in material ingredients.
That materials and human health summit really did over the course of the three times we had it advance the conversation and advance the state of knowledge in the industry and advance the state of practice from a manufacturing perspective.
Everybody has similar hopes for WaterBuild.
PGB:Is WaterBuild a natural fit for Greenbuild?
Owen: We want to leverage the convening power of Greenbuild and bring the thought leadership that is the hallmark of the USGBC and of Greenbuild and harness that. It’s something our community – the USGBC community, the Greenbuild community – has been interested in doing. As a result of their interest and passion, that can turn into action.
PGB:What is the hope for this event in the future? Because of how critical water is, do you see this becoming as significant an event as Greenbuild?
Owen:We graduated the technical summit into a different level of engagement throughout the Greenbuild platform. Out of that detailed focus on materials and human health, we were able to integrate a lot of those conversations into the broader fabric of the week that Greenbuild is.
Our expectation around water is the same type of graduation. We don’t want to do the same thing over and over, because eventually you lose momentum and interest with the same people talking about the same thing every year. Our vision for these summits is that we have a concentrated focus over three successive Greenbuilds and elevate that subject into a much more integrated part of what is happening with the entire conference.
Water is never going away as an issue in the built environment.
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Companies: U.S. Green Building Council