Climate Concern Sparks Surge In Green Building Designs

November 15, 2007




You can feel it the minute you step inside: the cool concrete flooring, oversized windows, neutral colors and low lighting provide a sense of open space and cleanliness. The modern-styled architecture seems out of place in Washington, D.C., especially on a hot, smoggy, July afternoon. I'm in Lake Tahoe, I thought, as I walked into the school building where my daughter's summer camp was held.

The structure is not new. It was a 55- year-old building sorely in need of an upgrade when a member of the Board of Trustees at the private Sidwell Friends Middle School heard a talk by William McDonough, who has played a key role in developing sustainable designs for the past 20 years.

Following a year-and-a-half of discussions with the trustees, school leaders, architects, city officials, and parents, the school committed to a green redesign. The renovated structure opened for classes in the fall of 2006, complete with passive solar design, daylighting using existing sunlight, highly efficient electric lighting and a green roof. It also includes the District of Columbia's only constructed wetland, treating wastewater for reuse in the school's toilets and cooling towers.

Green building design, or sustainable design, is undergoing a growth spurt. The actual definition remains up for debate. But under the "green building" umbrella, architects are answering a call from their clients for materials that have been used previously or made from recycled materials, says Whit Faulconer, a project manager at GreenBlue, a nonprofit research organization that promotes sustainable design. These include glass tiles made from old bottles or wooden beams taken from a dismantled house.

Faulconer says several architects he advises in the Charlottesville, Va., area insist that new structures incorporate green improvements. He admits, though, that not everyone is on this bandwagon: "Cleary there is a long way to go," he says about making green design a mainstream choice.

Yet the buzz on green building design is growing. The North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation held a conference in May to develop policy recommendations on green buildings for the U.S., Mexican and Canadian governments. The National Association of Counties in July adopted a resolution supporting a commitment by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) that calls for public buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030. And the Democratic leadership of the U.S. Congress in June completed a report detailing how the U.S. Capitol will cut its energy consumption by 50 percent in 10 years.

The focus on green design seems to stem from concern over global warming, says Stephen Selkowitz, head of the Buildings Technology Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Selkowitz specializes in energy and sees today's green movement as a giant step forward.

Small steps to make buildings more energy efficient will go a long way towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, he argues. Plus, there are plenty of easy opportunities to green a home or office building.

One obvious spot to look at is lighting. The International Energy Administration estimates that if everyone on Earth switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs, in 2010 the CO2 savings would be 470 million tons. That's slightly more than half of the reductions sought in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

"If you've got everyone doing light green actions, such as replacing light bulbs and raising the temperature on their air conditioner, and a few doing 'dark green,' then you've really made progress," Selkowitz says. A dark green effort, Selkowitz explains, is remodeling an old building with environmentalfriendly technologies – like the middle school in D.C. did. Plenty of U.S. architects have picked up the dark green challenge, says R.K. Stewart, president of AIA.

For example, Boulder Associates Inc., which specializes in healthcare and living facilities, made its headquarters in a renovated historic bank building in downtown Boulder, Colo. The construction materials, paints, and furnishings have low levels of volatile organic compounds, which are chemicals that can cause smog. The building is equipped with water-saving shower heads, 1.4-gallon flush toilets, electric-eye faucets, and water-free urinals. The company reports that it saves 46,000 gallons of water each year compared with what it would have used if the building was renovated using conventional plumbing fixtures.

Boulder Associates' office earned a top honor in the U.S.: a gold rank under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. LEED certification is a benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of green buildings. The program also goes beyond certification and gives builders and designers a roadmap to follow when they undertake what is still a novel way to build in the U.S.

Community-wide green building efforts are also under way. Asustainable community dubbed Armory Park del Sol, located in the inner-city region of Tucson, Ariz., involves 99 single-family homes priced from $80,000 with energy- and water-efficient technologies.

Neighborhoods similar in design have sprung up across the country. However, housing units like these aren't in high demand in every part of the country. Nonetheless, Selkowitz and others suggest that if the newly greened communities are built, buyers will come. "I would argue that if you plop people into a city where it is designed so they can walk to a pub or a store, it would be pleasant and they would like it," Selkowitz says.

The greening of buildings also raises a number of challenges. Most people believe that using green design principles will raise construction prices sky high. Faulconer estimates that in the area around Charlottesville, the costs initially will be 5 -10 percent over a conventional design, until the industry is up to speed. The installation costs, say more energy efficient lighting or solar panels, will pay for themselves over the lifetime of a building, he adds.

Other research debunks the stereotype of expensive green techniques. International cost consultant Davis Langdon studied 100 buildings for a report in 2004. He found that the cost of sustainability is statistically insignificant to a project's total cost, Stewart says.

Turner Construction did its own study in 2006 and found the price of construction, when compared with a conventional design, was just 0.8 percent more, Stewart says. "In our experience, we've seen the costs come down," Stewart says.

Installation of new, eco-friendly materials can be a stumbling block for construction crews. During the green renovation of the D.C. middle school, sub-contractors used materials they had little or no experience with. "They expected there would be problems that they hadn't encountered before, so they added a bit to the price," says Mike Saxenian, chief financial officer and assistant head of the Sidwell Middle School.

GreenBlue is working to address these concerns. Faulconer's project, Green2Green, lists scores of recycled and recovered supplies as well as new technologies and places where they can be purchased.

If you're eager to report a story on sustainable design but think your editor might think the readers would dismiss it as impractical, try pitching a story on energy efficiency. The LEED program offers certification to existing buildings that demonstrate steps they have taken to improve energy efficiency, recycle paper and reduce its use, and increase water efficiency. For comprehensive information on LEED, check out the U.S. Green Building Council.

Another angle could focus on the health benefits to occupants in a green home or office. Richard Jackson, formerly with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, conducted studies showing that building design can affect a person's health, especially with respect to diabetes and obesity. Jackson is now an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health and its College of Environmental Design. Look also for additional research showing that moreenvironmentally friendly building designs reduce absenteeism and increase job satisfaction at the office.

To find out who in your community is pursuing a green design, check out the AIA website. There are regional chapters throughout the country, and the national site is chockfull of resources, projects, and design guides.

Catherine M. Cooney is a reporter/editor for Environmental Science & Technology magazine in Washington, D.C. She works in a building that will soon be LEED certified. 

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2007 issue.


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