Mar 3, 2010

In search of better indicators, signposts and metrics to help us achieve sustainability – the case of green housing

From our very first pre-workshop research and workshop proceedings two years ago, it became apparent that metrics and indicators were a critical element to the “Making it happen” project and the transition to a sustainable society.

Our first challenge was to define what we meant by a sustainable society, what were the vision and the metrics. So we reviewed over 50 studies, reports, and visions written over the last three decades. We also looked at a number of metrics or indicators used to define a sustainable society, such as energy consumption per capita, water consumed per capita and wastewater produced per capita, garbage generated per capita, and probably the hottest indicator, tons of carbon dioxide emitted per year.

Our main finding is that choosing indicators or metrics to describe a sustainable society, how you define them, what you actually measure and how, and achieving consensus on their relevance is a whole research area unto itself. For example, setting performance metrics or targets for greenhouse gas emissions is a highly charged political exercise – from the selection of the base year to the target year, all the way to deciding on the magnitude of the desired reductions. All these are subject to fierce debate.

More specifically, as we explored the barriers to shifting our residential housing stock to become sustainable or green, where we used the "net zero energy" houses as a benchmark, we discovered other challenges related to metrics.

For instance, a major challenge has to do with how to increase awareness of various stakeholder groups to the opportunity of green housing. This is a pre-requisite for the paradigm shift, and has to be achieved through such interventions as consumer education and information.

An essential component to achieve increased awareness is to demonstrate to all the members of the value chain (builders, vendors, real estate agents, consumers, and banks) the green value proposition, i.e. what is the real market value of an energy conserving feature. For example, most homeowners understand the positive impact on resale value of a house of a new $10,000 granite kitchen counter. Few people on the other hand appreciate the true dollar value of a $10,000 energy retrofit investment, e.g. achieved by installing extra insulation or triple glazed windows. We need clear agreed-upon indicators and metrics to capture and communicate this number down the value chain.

Another consideration is that an energy-efficient or "green" house looks no different from an ordinary house. We need some very clear, highly visible and simple indicators to show what is going on inside these energy-efficient houses, so normal people can readily see and appreciate what make them so unique and valuable.

At the end of the day, what the consumer really wants to know in real time is how much money these energy efficiency features are saving him or her, and what is the net operating cost of that property.

And when time-of-day meters become prevalent, consumers will want easy-to-read displays that make decision-making simple and easy: when to switch on major appliances, or delay it to another time of the day when the cost of electricity is cheaper. Already, gas and electric utilities are experimenting with various models.

On the financial side, the higher cost of green houses has led to a range of innovative financial instruments and business models. But an ongoing challenge is measuring and quantifying the dollar benefits of energy efficiency and environmental features, so that these can be better reflected in the market. Being able to measure the added value of "green" will facilitate the funding and sharing of the financial burden of the incremental cost of building an energy-efficient house.

In short, there is a need for a standardized simple energy efficiency and environmental performance rating system. The Energuide standard is well on the way to provide that. And NRC is developing a new energy building code. But these standards and metrics need to be visible throughout the marketplace, and should be reflected in such normal real estate transaction databases like the MLS. And building designer and inspectors, real estate agents, builders and bankers will all have to become thoroughly familiar with the new environmental and sustainability standards.

So trying to be green is good. But knowing precisely what is green, being able to measure and monitor it over the lifecycle of the product, so you can determine how well you’re doing is more critical.

1 comment:

gabrielthibault said...

Hello Dr. Potworowski,

Thank you for producing the valuable report “Making it Happen – The Transition to a Sustainable Society“ ( While reading the report I was actively looking for a discussion of the root cause of our inability to move towards sustainability: our economy system’s dependence on growth. In the last paragraph on p. 10, you make it clear that even the efficiencies gained by the best intentions and technologies cannot keep up with economic growth. It was also a relief to find the last paragraph of p. 18, although it would be more accurate to state that our dependence on growth is the first barrier to a sustainable world.

As long as the goal of our society is Gross Domestic Product growth, we are heading in the wrong direction. The goal should be enhancing well-being. At 3% growth (which is the target governments are always striving for), the economy doubles every 24 years. While doublings have been possible for a long time, our already stressed planet cannot support another doubling of human activity. One analogy of exponential growth is the "test tube experiment" where you start with one bacterium at t = 0 and the bacteria double every minute. So at t = 1 min there are 2 bacteria, at t = 2 min there are 4 bacteria... So if the experiment lasts 60 minutes, at t = 59 minutes, the bacteria will have filled half the test tube. The bacteria may reason among themselves wow we've been here a full 59 minutes and look at all the space we have left yet one minute later the whole test tube is full.

Everyone knows about Ponzi schemes thanks to Bernard Madoff. We are doing the exact same thing with the environment: withdrawing the capital instead of living off the interest ( Sooner or later the “bank account” will run out of "money".

With the imminent collapse of our economic system and in light of the numerous other problems facing our civilization (climate change, peak oil, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, lowering water tables…) we need to realize that globalization was a terrible idea, and that the solution is to simplify our lives and to localize our economies. We need to realize that peace comes from within and not from consumption of excessive material goods. We will be much better off if we spent more time learning, playing sports, singing, dancing, drawing, playing music, gardening… These ideas are detailed in Mike Nickerson’s book “Life, Money and Illusion”.

I am writing all this to you in case you do some follow-up work on this report. I think that the “growth addiction” barrier needs to be front and centre.

Kind regards,