Greenbuild NEXT: A Not So Short Synopsis

The world's largest conference and expo dedicated to green building.

NEXT, the theme for the tenth Greenbuild show, asked the question, “What’s Next?” and successfully answered it. Greenbuild has always been the place to go to feel the pulse of sustainability issues. Held in beautiful Toronto this year, the weather and venue were exceptional and greener than ever. Greenbuild extended its reach by making the show itself as green as possible. The message of sustainability stretched from all show hotels meeting sustainability standards and being within walking distance or on a public transportation route to even having a shoe check to be sure that you were comfortable walking. The show had environmental requirements for vendor exhibitor booths plus all materials in the show were recyclable, or reusable, or made from recycled content. Even the food was 25 percent organic and resourced locally where possible. USGBC (United States Green Building Council) has always been about transformation. Transformation of the marketplace was their major goal, but that involves also transforming our daily habits.


There were two show floors this year which was a little awkward. In both, products and companies seem to have settled comfortably into their environmental stance. Over 800 exhibitors showcased their environmental attributes and their latest green steps forward.  The Waste Management booth had several interesting new products. It had a solar powered trash collector that improved on ones from the past. They used the power of the sun plus waited until the trash inside reached a certain level before coming into action unlike the noisy trash compactors in the Atlanta airport that roar into crushing mode when one small piece of paper is deposited in them. Also in their booth was a recycling kiosk. It was similar to a Blockbuster video machine where you can return aluminum cans and PET (#1) plastic. You are awarded points on a credit card that you can redeem later. This can make recycling seem mainstream and easy. The Sky Factory creates ceiling installations of skyviews to bring a naturalistic feeling into interiors. There was a landscaping educational session at Greenbuild that focused on studies that verified the healthful implications of patients and office workers connecting with nature. While this session focused on creating spaces with real, live plants, where this may not be possible, the Sky factory products could be used. Sky Factory products give that illusion of nature. Their newest product, eScape, is a digital cinema virtual window complete with image, motion, and sound. A commercial grade LED LCD screen is embedded in a fullsize casement window. A view of the ocean or a stream creates the look, motion and sound of nature in a space that naturally could not have that. Living sustainably has a lot of meanings. Sometimes it is sustainability for the soul. In previous shows, LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) and EPD’s (Environmental Product Declarations) were a hot topic. Now they are appearing on the show floor. Flooring manufacturers have often taken the lead in sustainability. Interface Carpet’s booth stressed their commitment to EPD’S and this type of transparency. EPD’s are statements of product ingredients and environmental impacts based on life cycle assessment. It is a trend for the future for all manufacturers.


The sessions are the true core of this show. More than most conventions, these people attend to learn. They are here for ideas and direction. It seemed like the earlier shows dealt with conviction and ideals. As with all great concepts, the devil is in the details. It is through the small details that you achieve the goal. The show sessions seemed to deal more this time with the mechanisms of sustainability, those details. There is no way to convey all the messages in the many hours of sessions. But certain trends and messages stand out. 

  1. In the last 50 years humans have used more resources than in all previous history.
  2. The EBTR (Energy Building Temperature Restrictions) were put into place by the Carter administration. It imposed 68 degree heating and 78 degree cooling on all government buildings. (Don’t these numbers sound familiar?) They locked thermostats. Later a study found that because of the heaters and fans brought into the building by the occupants to be comfortable, the building really became less efficient. They never released the study. Reagan rescinded the rule in 1981. People even today still use these numbers. There were many lessons to be learned from this. People need to be comfortable. Measure and report results. Don’t stick with outdated information. Answers to building heating and cooling are complex but must be addressed in new and creative ways. As Santayana’s quote said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to fulfill it.”
  3. Biophilia was coined by Edward O. Williams. It is the instinctive link between nature and humans. This term was used in several sessions where you see the softer side of sustainability being discussed.
  4. Looking again at the importance of people in sustainability, a healthful landscaping session discussed the “View through the Window Study”. This documented study compared two patient groups after gall bladder surgery with one group in a room with a view of nature and one without. Those with the view showed evidence of reduced agitation, increased satisfaction, reduction in pain, and shorter patient stays.  This has huge implications for healthcare and office workers. 
  5. Even in the homeownership economic mess that we are in today, we know that it is true that homeownership changes lives. People live in a home for ten years before the energy that they use in it exceeds the energy it took to build it.  We should strive to renovate more historic homes.  “Green” and “Historic” do have common values. 
  6. Several sessions pushed environmental tools that on the surface sound compelling.  Yet all tools must be evaluated with their underlying motivations and premises being examined. “Red Lists” of toxic chemicals were pushed with no clear evaluation of the science behind the “Red Lists” or what qualified them to be on those lists.  Yet all these judgments have grave implications for manufacturers and our economy. 
  7. Life Cycle Assessment is a methodology for assessing the potential environmental performance of a product over its full life cycle.  Again this is an area where tools vary, and they can be manipulated by the biases of the person creating the LCA.  The USGBC  is trying to come together to create LCA that people can agree on in general.  It was stressed that an architect or designer needs a toolkit.  LCA will be a major part of that toolkit, but it does not address IAQ (Indoor Air Quality), toxic releases, site specific extraction effects, or biodiversity.  These will have to be addressed with other tools.

There were hours and hours of sessions.  You can only glean nuggets from the mountain of information.   Many sessions do not seem to specifically fit your specialty, yet there is a takeaway that can be applied from all of them.  What do all the tidbits say to manufacturers?  They make you think.  They open your mind to looking at your product, processes, and people both clients and staff in new ways. 


The thought provoking opening speech by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist led to an ear blasting Maroon 5 concert. It was great to stand up and move with the music after the hours of sessions. But the closing plenary was all inspiration and motivation.  Mayor Bloomberg’s work in greening New York was highlighted as was a tribute to the passing of Ray Anderson of Interface Carpets, a real legend in environmental circles. Inspiration abounded in Sir Robert Swan, the man who has traversed both the South and North poles, and his work leading youth to participate more in sustainability. Rick Fedrezzi, the president of the USGBC, wrote a “news release from the future” to inspire all to what could be ahead. He sent everyone out of the plenary feeling they were emboldened to take on the world and become the army to march the world toward sustainability.