Green-building Innovation Is Important, But So Is Refinement

In March 2006, I swore allegiance to the wildly popular green-building movement. I even put the kibosh on my favorite joke about recycling in the landfill—you know, so not to deprive future generations of fossil fuels and diamonds. Nice.

I’ve worked in facility management at Duke University Health System for 26 years. In this profession, being overly pragmatic is an occupational hazard. So, why did an “old-school” guy (no pun intended) show up at a green love fest alongside folk with funny-colored hair and way too many bumper stickers? Quite simply, I came to the party to plea for intellectual honesty.

Unfortunately, early on, the sustainability movement offered myriad earth-friendly materials often with little thought to their durability or life cycle. Similarly, early building rating programs focused largely on the merits of individual products without factoring their proper integration into functional systems or assemblies. Consider, for example, the many thousands of squares of reflective “cool roofing” membranes applied over non-durable assemblies. A LEED-applicable roofing membrane that fails prematurely because of inferior quality or misapplication does not look very sustainable buried in a landfill.

It’s no longer 2006, and the greenie you’re partying with may be a blue-haired, retired architect. It’s encouraging so many in the building industry, and particularly the roofing industry, have embraced the concept of durability as the essence of green and sustainable building design. Moving beyond mere branding “strategery,” sustainability can be good for the bottom line. On the Duke campus, a 2007 roof replacement used forward-thinking design to divert 718 tons of solid waste. Salvaged materials from this effort included 296,000 board feet of XPS insulation, which was repurposed in new roofing construction on three Duke buildings. It’s our story. And it’s simply good business.

It has been said “architecture is storytelling.” The story of our 2007 roof replacement project settled forever how Duke University Health System will conduct itself in regard to sustainable roofing design and environmental stewardship. We distilled our story into the following “Guiding Principles of Sustainable Roofing”:

  • 1. Favor insulations or insulating assemblies that are highly resistant to water and physical damage.
  • 2. Favor roof assemblies that position the roof membrane directly over a permanent or semi-permanent substrate.
  • 3. Favor roof designs that prohibit or highly discourage the entrapment of water within the roof assembly.
  • 4. Favor membrane and insulation designs capable of in-place reuse or recycle in future roof iterations.

Through the years, these guiding principles have produced a dramatic improvement in roofing performance on our campus. In particular, our emphasis on adaptive reuse of materials will minimize our impact on the environment, as well as reduce future demand on hospital resources–resources best used in support of outstanding patient care or cancer research, not funding a premature roof replacement. Interestingly, the U.S. General Services Administration, Washington, D.C., has recently incorporated our guiding principles in facilities standards for future public building construction. Now our story has legs.

In April 2013, I attended the Energy Efficient Roofing Conference in Charlotte. I was invited to participate in the program, offering a building owner’s perspective about emerging roofing technologies. The focus, primarily, was energy-efficient roofing as a value proposition: how to achieve it and how to sell it. The format leaned heavily on panel discussions, which produced large amounts of banter and at times outright tension regarding the subjects at hand. It was as if someone handed a microphone to the elephant in the room. Has the proposition become a “solution” in search of a “problem”?

Don’t misunderstand; everyone can see the benefits in much (but not all) of the new energy-efficient roofing innovations and building codes. But should we be excited about reflective or solar membranes on massively thick R-30 minimum insulation while still far too many roof installations will fail prematurely because of shortsighted design and construction? If quality and durability are of utmost value, do you—the roofing contractor— know how to achieve it and how to sell it? Should you care?

Back in 2006, I believed everyone was trying to “out green” each other; durability be damned. Today, I wonder if the problem is that everyone wants to “out innovate” each other. As we’ve witnessed with green, the danger when innovation means everything is that it can soon mean nothing.

Innovation is exciting and necessary, but so is refinement. Refinement may be the most powerful strategy of all, yet it remains under emphasized. The most effective way to celebrate refinement is by creating new stories–new institutional memories. Roofing contractor, you are the biographer. Run with that.

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