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Green visionaries, absent a crystal globe to predict with certainty how much greening the construction industry should do to redress past crimes against the planet and to prevent more, are a bit blindfolded in their quest for practical, achievable and economical ways to stem pollution, resource depletion and climate change. That isn’t stopping them. While scientists ban together to convince die-hard skeptics that human use of fossil fuels is the major contributor to global warming, enlightened politicians, owners, architects, engineers, contractors, equipment makers and material suppliers are making their way, somewhat in the dark, toward greener horizons.

The journey hasn’t been and isn’t an easy one. But thanks to public-consciousness raisers, among them the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, a groundswell of support is beginning to be seen.

“Sector by sector, society is demanding green buildings as a core health and moral issue,” says green developer Jonathan F.P. Rose, of the New York City-based firm that bears his name.

In addition to the United Nations,  international bodies such as the European Union, through the Kyoto Protocol, have stepped up the call for carbon- dioxide emission cuts, with an eye on limiting temperature increases. Even major European investment funds are joining up. Internationally, corporate awareness also is on the rise.

In the U.S., cities and states are stepping into the void created when the U.S. did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The new Democrat-controlled Congress now is making global-warming mitigation measures a priority, with bills expected by midsummer. Even President George W. Bush is talking the talk.

Construction industry groups also are pushing for more sustainable construction. An attempt to coordinate their efforts to maximize their impact is just getting under way. Sources agree that coordination with other professions, especially business, would benefit the design and construction disciplines.

That belief is reflected in the interdisciplinary framework of new schools of sustainable construction. Toward the integration of efforts across disciplines, the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment is proposing a Center for Ecological Design, which would bring together educators and practitioners.

But engineers and designers are not holding their collective breath for a coordinated effort. Infrastructure engineers are tackling the impending but somewhat illusive effects of climate change and sea-level rise, without a specific “protection” map to follow. Much concern is centered on the Arctic. There, contractors have already begun to rescue pipelines, towers, buildings and other infrastructure founded on the weakening permafrost. Closer to home, in Boston, authorities have been working for 20 years to push down demand for water and ratchet up the supply system’s efficiency.

Green building visionaries have been on their quest, and their soapboxes, for more than a quarter century. Now, global warming warnings and fuel price hikes have given them center stage. But perhaps the most effective market transformation started more than a decade ago with the formation of the U.S. Green Building Council, which then created its voluntary green-building rating system, known as LEED.

USGBC still has its work cut out for itself. “LEED has made and will continue to make an impact until all players in the process, from manufacturers to building operators, ‘get it’ and ultimately respond to the triple bottom-line benefits of sustainability by incorporating them into their daily way of living and doing business,” says Roderick F. Wille, senior vice president and manager of sustainable construction in the Sacramento office of Turner Construction Co. “LEED will have made its ultimate impact when it is no longer considered necessary".

Designers now are seeking ways to get beyond LEED buildings, toward totally ecologically benign construction. One movement with potential is biomimicry—the practice of looking to nature’s creatures and systems to solve human-generated problems.

Design approaches aside, when it comes to the business of green construction, money still talks, especially in manufacturing. After leading the fight against limits on carbon-dioxide emissions, industrial owners are finally cleaning up their act, even if under protest.

The asphalt jungles also are getting greener and the fledgling Green Highways Partnership is leading the pack. The goal is to leave a net-positive impact from highway construction—environmentally, socially and economically. The challenge is to get to the far-away destination. On deck are research teams and pilot projects on recycled road materials, conservation and ecosystem protection, and watershed-driven stormwater management.

Then there is the dirty power sector. On the green horizon are technologies that will allow powerplants to capture and store or sequester climate-busting carbon-dioxide emissions. Though renewable energies are on the rise, the consensus is that carbon-rich fossil fuels still will fire most powerplants, at least in the U.S.

Green construction practices will remain a pipe dream without environmentally benign equipment and vehicles. Currently, makers are just beginning to dig themselves out of an emissions hole. Several green-fuel technologies are under development, and each has advantages and disadvantages. The clean fuel of the future for work trucks and heavy equipment isjust being glimpsed.

Earth-saving initiatives abound, in the U.S. and abroad. But sources agree that for green construction to become mainstream, it is necessary to coordinate, communicate and collaborate, both locally, globally and across political and industrial boundaries. Soothsayers are talking about the need for a global paradigm shift that goes way beyond construction.

The most enthusiastic of construction’s green practitioners remain seriously concerned about not achieving a totally sustainable civilization. “I’m optimistic, but I would be lying if I didn’t say it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” warns Dayna Baumeister, co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild, Helena, Mont. “We have a choice. We can adapt or become extinct. We must find these models [for change] so we have something to draw upon when people are ready.”

special theme issue:
  1. Dire Global Warnings Inspire Promising Antidotes to 'Civilization'

  2. View a Time Line of Environmental Twists and Turns, from 1938 to 2007 (1.7MB)

  3. Report Lights Fires Globally on Need To Slow Climate Change

  4. Politicians, Builder Groups Jump on the Green-Building Bandwagon

  5. Climate Shifts Have Engineers Rethinking Baseline of Planning

  6. Designers Look To Nature To Render Buildings in Harmony with Earth

  7. Companies Often Go Green To Reap Financial Rewards

  8. Officials Begin To Ask Just How Green a Highway Can Be

  9. Educators Issue Call for Green Programs That Cross Disciplines

  10. Coming Carbon Constraints Spur Powerplant-Emission Cleanups

  11. Eco-Friendly Engine Pioneers Search for Sources of Clean Power

  12. Big Zero-Carbon Project Planned in U.K.

  13. Template for Green Cities Nears in Asia

  14. An Agitated Port Official Pushes for Collaboration

  15. Human Role in Climate Change Is 90% Certain

  16. More to read:
  17. When Less Powered More
  18. Barometer of Change at NOAA
  19. In Search of the Zero-Energy Holy Grail
  20. Green Building Council Hones Rating System