Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Green Building

Green building.  It’s the new catch phrase in the construction and development industries.  But what is this being Green all about?  And where is it actually being done?  And furthermore, why is it not being practiced everywhere?  

The concept of green building and sustainable design has been around since the early 1970s.  It started when the energy crisis forced oil prices through the roof and some folks started looking for alternative sources of energy to power their homes.  At first it was solar water heaters, geodesic dome houses, and houses built into the sides of hills.  These early concepts only went over well with a very small minority of the population.  For most, the additional cost and headache of these ideas outweighed the benefits gained.  Then energy prices stabilized and people didn’t care so much anymore.  

Things stayed that way for quite some time until the 1990s when the U.S. Green Building Council started to assemble the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.  From 1994 to 1998, attempts to formulate a standard were first based on the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), but were then moved under direct control of the USGBC.  The two most important decisions of the USGBC members developing LEED was that green buildings should be marked-driven and that the building owners would be the ultimate judge of the program’s success.  Basically, this means that green buildings would have to distinguish themselves in the market by having higher resale value than comparable buildings.  

The LEED program is structured to that owners, architects, and constructors can follow certain design and construction principles to end up with a building that is certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.  It is also designed to be a standard measuring tool for owners, builders, and consumers to gauge how Green a particular building is.  The levels of the program – Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Certified – directly correspond to the number of Points that are obtained in the building’s construction.  LEED is currently in version 2.1, with version 2.2 slated to be unveiled early next year.  

The concept of Green Building is based on sustainability.  Sustainability is the concept of providing for the best for people and the environment both now and in the indefinite future.  In the words of the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainability is, "Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."  These days that involves making appropriate use of land, using resources efficiently, enhancing human health and productivity, protect agricultural and cultural resources, and making a building nice to live or work in.  This is accomplished in many ways, including better site selection, energy efficient equipment, and high-performance insulation.  

There are currently many more buildings being built green than at any time in the past.  This is due, at least in part, to the LEED program’s added publicity from government and institutional projects.  LEED registered and certified projects represent a diverse cross-section of the industry, but government entities make up the majority of the buildings.  There are currently 2,164 LEED registered projects and 285 LEED certified projects.  Of those, 25% are owned by for-profit corporations, 24% are owned by local government, 22% are owned by state & federal government, and 19% are owned by nonprofit organizations.  

The federal government, many state governments, and large institutions, such as universities and health care facilities, are currently the most established proponents of green building.  This is likely the result of the combined need to own the highest performance building that can be built, and having the capital to build it.  The additional costs commonly associated with making a building green, however, are normally far outweighed by the benefits.  In a report to California's Sustainable Building Task Force dated October 2003 and based on LEED buildings in the State of California, it was found that an upfront investment of 2% in green building design results in average life cycle savings of 20% of the total construction costs.  But that 2% upfront cost can and apparently is tough to sell to a building owner or developer that is only interested in the cost per square foot of the finished building.  But to put this increased cost in perspective, the average annualized costs for employees amount to $200 per square foot, compared to $20 for bricks and mortar costs, and $2 for energy costs.

The majority of green building is currently occurring being done on the East and West coasts, while Texas and Pennsylvania are also high on the list.  However, along the Front Range of Colorado there are several good examples of green building.  Fossil Creek High School in Fort Collins, and the North Boulder Recreation Center in Boulder are both LEED certified buildings that were finished recently.  

Green building has likely not been embraced by the general design and building population because of the added upfront costs mentioned above.  There is also the added complexity in the design of the building and in the administration of the project if a LEED rating is being sought.  It is also new and unfamiliar territory, not only for the construction team, but for building owners as well.  Just by being alien, this outstanding concept pushes some away.  

All in all, the LEED program and sustainable design practices look to be the way of the future, and it would be wise to get to know them now.  

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