KBB Collective | The Designers' Corner

Oct 24 2011

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GreenBuild 2011: Report from Toronto (Part 1 of a series)

An insider view of the largest green building conference in the World


Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the GreenBuild Conference & Expo, is the largest gathering of architects, engineers, developers, contractors and builders involved in the greening of the built environment. With a hundred educational sessions and more than 1,000 exhibitors, GreenBuild is overwhelming, exhausting and exhilarating. Given the sheer size, it is the Olympics of conferences.

My own preparation starts weeks before by scheduling every minute with meetings, classes, interviews and parties. If done right, the show is a marathon, both physically and intellectually. Cards are exchanged, deals are made and strategic partnerships are formed. Every industry has its premier events, and GreenBuild is it for those of us in Green Building.

Held this year in Toronto, this was the first time the conference was held outside of U.S. borders (last year it was hosted in Chicago; the 2012 show is in San Francisco). Judging by the buzz among the many I spoke with, Toronto seemed to charm everyone. More than 23,000 attendees from 108 countries were in attendance (down from 27,000 last year, due more to the foreign venue than the economy, I believe.)

This years’ conference theme was simply “Next.” It seems quite appropriate. The field of Green Building has reached a certain critical mass over the past decade, prompting many new recruits to ask, “What’s next?” Even the USGBC’s own green building rating system, called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), has itself leveled off a bit.


As part of this idea of NEXT, several clear memes were present this year throughout the lectures and exhibitors:

Living Buildings: The idea of simply being “less bad” with our buildings is not enough. We need regenerative buildings to restore the environment from the damage we cause. The idea of “living” buildings and, more specifically, the Living Building Challenge rating system (http://www.ilbi.org) was all the rage this year.

Biomimicry: Popularized by the 2002 book by Janine Benyus, Biomimicry seeks to study Nature to learn her design secrets. A long time favorite among design students, Biomimicry is finally being applied to real-world applications in our built environment. Remember, human beings are not the first to build things. Nature has 3.8 billion years of research and development on us and knows how to build sustainably.

Green Schools: With more than one in five people working in a school building every day, the idea of green schools has emerged as one of the best places to start changing how we design our buildings. The USGBC’s 2010 spin-off, The Center for Green Schools, was represented at the conference, as was the great work of Brian Dunbar from the Institute for the Built Environment, Colorado State University, among others.

Eco Districts: Appropriately launched in Portland, Eco Districts are a new strategy to develop livable, walkable, sustainable neighborhoods. As an example, take a look at Pringle Creek, a growing sustainable community in Salem, Oregon. The ideas have taken hold and are starting to spread across the country. It’s also no coincidence that the EcoDistricts Summit is being held a couple of weeks after GreenBuild.

Benchmarking and Metrics: With this being the 10th GreenBuild, it is fitting that many are taking a decades’ worth of valuable data and putting it to good use. Many of the talks and exhibitors showed off various forms of benchmarking tools and case studies. Building dashboards were a clear standout at the show, with dozens of different versions. My two favorite systems came from Lucid Design Group and Schneider Electric. Such systems will be standard issue in a few years.

Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs): Ushering in a new wave of manufacturer transparency, an EPD is a complete lifecycle assessment (LCA) of any material, product or even a system. It goes beyond a mere Material Safety and Data Sheet (MSDS) and provides the full picture of the impacts, risks and environmental responsibility. It is no surprise that carpet maker InterfaceFLOR would be leading the charge on the EPD movement given its long history and commitment to sustainability. Expect most other manufacturers to follow suit, if only out of fear of being left behind. In 2009, UL (the safety company famous for ensuring our electrical devices won’t start a fire) spun off a subsidiary called UL Environment that is pioneering an EPD program for manufacturers. Much of the buzz on the show floor was about the possibilities of manufacturers embracing these EPDs.


Of course, there were dozens of topics outside of these categories, but these six concepts give a glimpse into what really is next for Green Building.

(NOTE: I was scheduled to speak on the topic of Innovative Green Residential, but that seemed too dry and I decided instead to present a new talk entitled “Dodo-Sapiens,” my rant on how our way of life is killing us and the need for living, bio-based buildings. The audience didn’t seem to mind. More on that later.)

The real conference occurs between the sessions in the hallways. Over the past decade, GreenBuild has become the place for networking, to see and been seen by the greatest minds in our sustainability movement. Seen roaming the conference halls are such visionaries as Amory Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute), Bill Browning (Terrapin Bright Green), Jerry Yudelson (Author & Consultant), and Gail Vittori (Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems). Or as I overheard: “If a bomb dropped [on the Toronto Convention Centre], the Green Building movement would be set back 30 years.”

IN PART TWO: I’ll be discussing the Opening Plenary sessions, including the fantastic keynote by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times.


—Eric Corey Freed www.organicarchitect.com) is an architect and author of four books, including “Green$ense for the Home”. (http://www.greensensebook.com )

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