Green-Build Bandwagon Getting More Crowded

Photo by Mike Rebholz

Now that the sluggish economy has brought the commercial construction market to a standstill, it’s not a bad time to consider — and plan for — your company’s office of the future, especially if you’ve given some thought to making it a sustainable office.

The introduction of green building design, operational systems, and materials give businesses a variety of options whether they plan to retrofit an existing building — considered by some to be the greenest option — or build anew. Yet there remains a sense of mystery around green building: “What on Earth does that mean?” In this case, Earth is the operative word because green building, according to its evangelists, is about the triple bottom line of people (employee welfare), planet (environment), and profit (sustainable businesses).

There also is another element to consider — timing. From a real-estate perspective, Kurt Welton, president and treasurer of Welton Enterprises, compares being tardy on sustainability with being late to the party on handicap accessibility. Following passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the early 1990s, landlords who still owned a non-compliant building were in trouble. “Those buildings are still out there and still mostly vacant,” Welton said. “In 1981, they didn’t have to build with sensitivity to handicapped people, but if they did, they were way ahead of the game financially and in terms of productivity. That’s where the green movement is right now.”

People in the green building industry believe they have reached a tipping point. During the 2009 Green Build conference, Rick Fedrizzi, president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, said: “We are actually at a leverage point where green building no longer needs to be proven, but implemented. The potential of green building, when green design, green technology, and green materials come together, is undeniable.”

Further evidence of green-building traction: Allied Business Intelligence Research, a New York-based provider of research and investment information, forecasts that worldwide purchases of green building materials — including cement, insulation, and engineered wood products — will grow from the $455.3 billion spent in 2008 to a healthier $517 billion by 2013 — mostly due to heightened environmental concern.

In general, the term “green building” refers to environmentally friendly (recyclable, clean, and renewable) products and practices that conserve resources in the design, construction, and operation of buildings. Materials might be the area where the green-build movement is showing the most innovation, including masonry with a percentage of recycled glass (saves CO2), weather-tight backup wall systems for metal framed commercial structures, and office furniture made from recycled materials and fiber particleboard. These have joined tried-and-true green elements that are moisture resistant (prevents mold), promote natural lighting, and improves indoor air quality. Some result in energy savings, but almost all pertain to a healthier work environment and the big bang for the buck that comes with it.

With proper planning and design, it isn’t necessarily more expensive to build new. Sherrie Gruder, a sustainable design specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension, said green products are now price competitive with traditional materials, citing a new school built in Eagle River for 23% less than the national average per square foot.

Retrofitting an existing building can cost more, but it can also bring savings to generate some return on investment. The US Bank Plaza on the Capitol Square has undergone a modernization program in which 35-year-old systems have been upgraded with fresh-air delivery, dehumidification, and controls, and system design flaws have been corrected.

Prior to construction, the building used nearly $1 million in natural gas and electricity each year; since the completion of the mechanical retrofit, that has been cut by one-third based on monthly kilowatt-hour totals, according to Urban Land Interests, the building owner.

In addition, US Bank Plaza once used more than 30 million gallons of water each year — bathroom fixtures automatically flushed every seven minutes for the past 28 years — but it now is on track to reduce water usage to less than five million gallons per year.

The beauty of simplicity also leads to greater efficiency. According to Peter Tan, vice president and design principal for Strang, Inc., it’s always best to use strategies that require the least amount of technology to achieve. Case in point: building orientation and the placement of windows. In an office building, that means running the building long in the east-west direction, minimizing windows on the actual east and west walls. Tan said it’s difficult to shade those windows in the morning and in the afternoon, when the sun is very low in the sky and there is a lot of solar heat gain that comes in through the windows.

“In commercial office buildings, the greatest energy use is in cooling them, rather than heating them,” Tan explained, “so because of this, you want to run the building long in the east-west direction and put most of your windows on the north and south sides of the building. That doesn’t require any machines or any extra mechanical equipment to achieve something that’s a green design.”

LEEDing Barometer

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, is the internationally recognized green building certification system. LEED ratings range from certified to platinum, with silver and gold in between. Among the metrics it seeks to improve are CO2 emissions, water conservation, and indoor air quality.

Gruder, one of roughly 100,000 LEEDS-accredited professionals, said many businesses that supply building materials, systems, or products have looked at how their products perform in relation to the LEED standards. “That’s true whether it’s recycled content in steel or in concrete, or the amount of water that faucets and fixtures use,” she said. “The Kohler Co. designs many of their shower fixtures, faucets, and toilets to meet the LEED water-usage standards. They heavily market that.”

Not everyone is completely sold on LEED. John Nelson, a consultant and adjunct professor of civil engineering at UW- Madison, is among those who believe that buildings go through five stages — making, using, operating, changing, and demolishing for reuse — as part of the cradle-to-cradle renewal model. He said the vast majority of sustainability is accomplished in the using and the operating stages. “How we use and operate our buildings has a far greater impact on their ecological imprints than how we make or demolish them,” he said.

The one downfall of LEEDS, he contends, is that it falls short in the energy area. He said a LEED building does not necessarily use less energy than a non LEED-built structure. “Of all the things people in Wisconsin have to be concerned about when thinking about sustainability, energy is pretty close to the top of the list,” he stated. “We’re fortunate to live in a region with sufficient water, and we have a profound amount of habitat, but we have a real harsh climate. When I think about setting priorities for sustainability in Wisconsin, I’d head into energy.”

Gruder said the biggest cost associated with office buildings, 88%, is in personnel. Whereas up to $1 per square foot can be saved by improving operations and energy, building owners can make a larger dent by making the work environment more comfortable, reducing sick time and increasing productivity. Pointing to studies that show green building can produce a $6 per square foot improvement in costs related to personnel, she said, “Say personnel costs are $300 per square foot. What they found is that green building can decrease personnel costs to $294 per square foot.”

Gruder is not dismissive of the importance of energy savings, citing the trend toward zero net energy, which are buildings that generate as much energy as they use on an annual basis. Two such buildings are a new monastery of the Benedictine Women of Madison, and the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo.

For zero net energy buildings, the first step is to maximize the energy efficiency of the structure so that, typically, it becomes 40% to even 70% more efficient than than a code-based building. These structures then make up the remainder of the building’s energy needs with renewables.

The monastery, which is designed to be a LEEDS platinum structure, is about 55% more efficient than code, and it soon will have enough solar-powered photovoltaic panels on the roof to provide about 15% of the building’s energy. In the summer, the panels will generate more energy because there is more sunlight, so it’s not a zero net energy facility each month, but it balances out on an annualized basis. “Right now, they don’t have all of the panels on, so they are buying green power that comes from wind,” Gruder noted.

Planetary Stewardship

Tan said the typical transition people make in movements like the green revolution involves going from feeling “guilted” into it to truly wanting to build green. He would like to see a similar transition take place with global culture. “To me, philosophical underpinnings are extremely important,” he said. “My desire is that human beings move from a culture of consumerism to one of stewardship of our planet and our resources.”

Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices and the names you need to know. Click here.