Living up to green ‘standards’

In his HGTV show “Living with Ed,” actor and environmentalist Ed
Begley Jr. shows his viewers how to live green. Begley certainly more
than borders on the extreme, but his show and lifestyle reflect a trend
that may soon impact how we all live — whether we like it or not.

The show offers a comical and entertaining view of green living.
Residing in a 1,700 square-foot-home — small for Hollywood standards —
Ed jumps onto a stationary bike every morning to generate enough
electricity to make toast. He tends to organic gardens for food and
wheels around a solar oven looking for enough sunlight to cook his

Meanwhile, Ed’s wife, Rachelle, rolls her eyes as Begley times her
shower with a stopwatch to conserve water. Rachelle wants to live green
too, but she’d still prefer a little more living space, new
countertops, and more hot water. But both are willing to compromise —
and that’s their choice.

However, the rest of us may eventually have less choice as lawmakers
around the nation mandate “green” building standards that could
essentially sentence us to a regulatory version of “Living with Ed.”

In particular, Washington state, Boston and some other local
governments have adopted “green” building standards for government
projects, which were developed by the nonprofit group called the Green
Building Council.

The group is well known for its Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design standards, which are voluntary standards that
builders may employ in the construction of largely government and
commercial buildings (including such things as apartments, condos, and
other residential developments). The council charges a hefty fee to
governments and commercial builders who want to gain a green pat on the
back via certification of their projects as LEED compliant.

This month, the council released its new “green” building standards
for residential buildings — including remodeling projects, which have
been dubbed LEED Homes or LEED-H.

But before more policymakers mandate LEED or LEED-H, they should
consider the downsides of a one-size fits all approach. Experience
shows that LEED standards don’t always meet expectations, can be
costly, and even can prove counterproductive as pointed out in a study
released by the Competitive Enterprise Institute in 2005.

For example, in one Washington State project involving a
LEED-certified public school in Tacoma, it was supposed to save 35
percent in energy costs but ended up becoming the least
energy-efficient school in the community, using about 25 percent more
gas and electricity than the average middle school.

A key problem stems from the fact that one set of standards don’t
work in all situations, which is why government mandates often produce
such perverse results. Moreover, green building does come with a cost,
which, if not taken seriously, could potentially price some homes out
of reach for the many people who don’t have Hollywood-sized budgets.

Moreover, the values advocated by the Green Building Council may not
reflect what consumers deem most important. For example, under current
LEED standards builders get “credit” for producing homes with
relatively small footprints, in urban areas, with very limited parking
so that people will be forced toward public transportation. But some
people want convenient parking, a spacious home, and a life in the

Fortunately, there are other groups developing competing green
building standards, including the National Association of Home Builders
and the Green Building Initiative. Consumers and home builders should
have the flexibility to choose which of standards meet their own
values, needs, and personal budgets. And many want to mix and match
from the various standards available — or not follow any of them at all.

Even without standards, consumers can and do make “green” choices.
That’s because more powerful than any standard-setting process are
rational market incentives. Homeowners regularly upgrade windows to
keep energy costs down, improve insulation, and upgrade to
energy-efficient appliances. Private, voluntary green standards
programs can inform such choices, but should never replace the freedom
of whether to make them.

It’s doubtful that most people want green living mandates. In fact,
when Ed was asked in an interview whether the fans love his wife,
Rachelle, more than him, Begley responded: “I thought they were going
to side with me, but they all side with her. Where’d I go wrong?”

Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C

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