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Three reasons why 'Generation Green' will (finally) succeed

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Contributor Ryan Potvin attends this year's GreenBuild Expo in Chicago and outlines three reasons why he thinks "Generation Green" will finally succeed.

CHICAGO -- Exactly two weeks ago, the GreenBuild Expo -- the world's largest conference on green building -- opened here in Chicago, Ill.

The theme of this year's exposition was "Generation Green."

Here's how the organizers defined it:

Generation Green is not an age group. It's not about politics or personality, demographics or geography. It's all of us. You are Generation Green.

Admittedly vague. But as I walked the show floor at McCormick Place West, I couldn't help but wonder: is the newest generation truly committed to "green"?

Judging by the enthusiasm at this year's conference, I believe so.

It's a daunting task: the current "Generation Green" has been preceded by several before it, all of whom have tried to impact the building industry, but failed to gain significant traction.

I believe the current crop will succeed, for three reasons.

Government incentives. Government support is an essential ingredient to the revolution of any industry. It controls the policy and the funds necessary to give any change the boost it needs.

With the passing of the recent stimulus bill, the federal government injected more than $5 billion dollars in the green building market alone, and another several billion into spurring renewable energy growth. This money will fund existing building retrofits, home weatherizing programs and the installation of renewable energy sources on homes and commercial buildings, among others.

There's also action on the policy front, and several federal, state and municipal standards have been passed that require that buildings to be built green.  CalGreen, for example, is an imperfect but fundamental step forward in how people view green building.

Sustainable building practices that were once implemented to set projects apart have now become mandatory measures, which raises the bar on what is truly "green" and innovative.

For example, the General Services Administration now requires that all newly-constructed federal facilities must be at least LEED Silver-certified. (Next stop, LEED Unobtanium.) It's a big deal that the GSA has set its sights on becoming net-zero carbon, because the agency is the largest property owner in the U.S.

It's not just government buildings falling into lockstep, either. Non-profit organization Architecture 2030 has challenged builders to target net-zero in all newly-constructed residential and commercial buildings by 2030. The state of California and several cities across the country have signed up.

Climate change. There is also the immediacy of the climate change issue, a compelling reason (though hardly the only one) to conserve energy. Though a worldwide agreement has not yet been reached on the exact amount of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to stem man-made emissions, there is almost worldwide acknowledgement that significant action must be taken, and soon. Since buildings make up a huge percentage of GHG emissions -- in the U.S., it's about 40 percent of the total -- they are a necessary and obvious place to seek reductions.

The youth movement. Finally, there is a committed core of individuals, much larger than ever before, who are driving the movement behind the scenes. The most important part of this core is its youth, who are motivating supply and -- more notably -- demand for green building. This youth movement defines "Generation Green."  They will design the innovations, generate the ideas and provide the labor to not only sustain but also expand the movement faster than ever before.

The feeling that this generation will become the ambassadors of change was palpable at the convention center. To be sure, buzz is always high at these kinds of events, but this year, it seemed to have an air of confidence as well, powered by the wealth of knowledge that this year's attendees bring to the event itself.

In years past, when attendees asked questions, they were usually basic in nature: what does this credit entail, how do I get my building certified and so forth. This year, everyone was a professional, asking intelligent questions about tricky or unique situations, occasionally stumping a panel speaker and in some cases offering new insight for how to approach LEED certification.

My experience at this year's GreenBuild Expo gave me faith in this new generation. With a heady concoction of passion and desire for knowledge, I think this group will ride the swelling wave into a new era of building design.

Ryan Potvin is a principal at Environmental Building Strategies in San Francisco, Calif. Follow him on Twitter.

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Ryan Potvin

Ryan Potvin is a principal at Environmental Building Strategies in San Francisco, Calif.