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Buildings That Breathe: Green Construction is Coming of Age PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Environment
Wednesday, 17 January 2007 02:28

Reader issue #616Buildings are definitely energy hogs. The SUV is the environmental bad-boy symbol, but buildings consume more energy than cars and trucks. It's estimated that commercial and residential buildings in the U.S. consume 65 percent of all electricity, as well as 12 percent of drinkable water and 40 percent of all raw materials, according to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an international organization that is expected in early 2008 to release a report evaluating green building in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

"I believe that buildings are the worst thing that people do to the environment," said Rob Watson, former senior scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council, on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in 2005. "We don't associate the fact that when we turn on a light switch, coal is mined in a mine. It goes to a power plant that comes up the stack as acid-rain-producing sulfur dioxide, planet-cooking carbon dioxide."

"The new green-building movement arises from the realization that we can't go on living as we have in the past: that treating the environment in general and energy in particular as afterthoughts no longer makes sense," author Bill McKibben wrote in an essay marking the October opening of New York City's 46-story glass-and-steel Hearst Tower, which required 20 percent less steel than a conventional skyscraper and was made of 90 percent recycled material. Sensors there switch off lights when no one is in a room. "They're sensible, cost-effective, obvious [measures] - someday they'll be code. But for now they're noble, pioneering examples."


No Longer Straw Bales

The green-building movement expands on the 1970s solar-energy craze, when drastic oil shortages spurred interest in sun-powered homes and President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House (later removed by Ronald Reagan). More than a million young people stoked on hippie idealism went "back to the land," homesteading in rural cabins, often without running water or electricity ... and most soon abandoned the discomforts and headed back to where they came from, Eleanor Agnew writes in her book Back from the Land. Interest waned.

But by the early 1990s, the green-building movement took off, broadening its focus to consider other issues such as the environmental impacts of materials and whether the buildings offer health benefits, according to Alex Wilson, president of Vermont-based BuildingGreen and author of Your Green Home.

A number of cities around the country, including San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle are leading the way with laws that require new public buildings to be green. So far, 54 cities and 23 federal agencies have adopted LEED standards for buildings, says Bill Browning, senior fellow for Rocky Mountain Institute and co-author of Green Development: Integrating Ecology & Real Estate. (LEED stands for "Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design." For more information, visit

An industry has blossomed around the concept. At least 12,000 people, a record, attended the GreenBuild International Conference & Expo in Denver last November.

Some committed folks still design homes that allow them to live off the grid, even in cities. More than 25,000 people have trekked to tiny Hopland, California, since 1992 to attend the Solar Living Institute's hands-on workshops on such things as building homes with baled straw.

But the broader green-building trend has gone upscale - sometimes way upscale. In October, Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the rooftop solar panels of New York City's first green residential tower, The Solaire, home to maid service, views of the Hudson River and Battery Park, and a 24-hour concierge. Green oddities include toilets that flush with water treated in the same building. Fridges churn out doubly filtered drinking water. (Resident manager Michael Gubbins' favorite things about his apartment are more basic: "the quality of fresh air and amount of natural daylight.")

Three significant drivers are shifting landowners toward green buildings. One is rising, unstable energy prices. "What that means for building owners is they're going to increasingly want homes and office buildings that protect themselves from high outlays of money for heating and cooling," Wilson says.

Health is another driver. Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors, where asthma and allergy attacks can be triggered by air pollutants whose levels may be two to five times higher than pollutants outside, if not more, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. William Fisk, head of the Indoor Environment Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has shown that improved ventilation systems reduce respiratory illness by 9 to 20 percent, yielding a savings in the U.S. of $6 billion to $14 billion per year.

Another benefit is faster recovery from illness, since views of the outdoors and connections to nature promote healing. In fact, it is partly for this reason that U.S. hospitals are becoming increasingly interested in green design. According to Wilson, the nation's largest health-care provider, Kaiser Permanente, has committed to a green-building initiative.

The third driver: the environment and the feeling that people can do something to save the Earth. TV images of stranded Hurricane Katrina victims brought home the reality of what can happen due to human-influenced climate change. When Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth hit movie theaters, it made climate science accessible. People began to realize that they could be agents of change.


Building Smarter

Green construction often adds less than 1 percent to the cost of a conventional building, but the payoffs can include energy costs cut by one-third, says Gregory Kats, a principal with alternative-energy advisors Capital E. Among buildings he's studied, the typical payback is three to four years. To go with a conventional design these days is "financially riskier," Kats says, "than building a healthy green building."

Adding more eco-friendly features to a building can increase these costs. Achieving the Green Building Council's highest design standard ("LEED platinum") may tack on 5 percent or more. The LEED rating system is a national, voluntary, consensus-based standard. The science-based approach emphasizes such factors as sustainable site development, water and energy efficiency, wise materials, and indoor air quality. Using a point system, the more points a building earns, the higher its LEED ranking. There are four LEED rankings: basic certification, silver, gold, and platinum.

It's not the only green rating system. About two dozen others exist in specific geographical areas around the nation. But as a national program, LEED has emerged as a dominant player.

"You know, four years ago, you could see it as kind of risky to do green buildings. They're relatively new, and there's not a lot of experience," Kats says. But now, 30,000 LEED-accredited professionals work in the field. At least 750 million square feet of green buildings are under development or completed.

"So, the risk of green design has gone away, and energy prices have soared in the interim," Kats says. Plus, he says, traditional building owners face the risk of obsolescence: If most people are choosing to build healthy, efficient buildings, the remainder will be stuck with outdated dinosaurs that are unhealthy.

Dr. Deborah Gant and her husband, Virgil, wanted to create a healthier environment for young patients when they enlarged her practice. In 2005 they opened what may be Texas' first privately owned green medical facility. Natural daylight illuminates exam rooms. Paints and other finish materials emit fewer-than-normal volatile organic compounds into the air that children breathe. Five months after moving in, the clinic's energy costs had fallen by half, even though it's twice the size of the older facility. "People are realizing they're much better buildings, less costly to operate," Browning says.

A Rocky Mountain Institute study noted that Boeing's "Green Lights" effort has reduced lighting energy use by up to 90 percent, paying for itself in two years. The study also pointed out that a Hyde Tools lighting upgrade carried a brief one-year payback and increased product quality by some $25,000 annually. A Post Office lighting upgrade in Reno, Nevada, led to a 6-percent gain in productivity, eclipsing the cost of the effort. Elsewhere, ING Bank saw absenteeism drop 15 percent after moving to a greener facility.

A scramble seems to be on to claim green superlatives. The world's largest "living roof" sits atop Ford's overhauled Rouge Center River plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Greenery helps soak up rainwater, which reduces problems with dirty water pouring off the roof, down drains, and ultimately out to rivers and lakes.

Chicago City Hall features the country's first rooftop garden on a municipal building. Several major U.S. cities have followed suit, including New York, Toronto, and Portland, where incentive programs have added thousands of acres of "green roofs." A temple in Evanston, Illinois - the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation - hopes its plans for a new solar-lighted home with salvaged brick and low-flow toilets will make it the nation's first certified-green synagogue.

The nation's first certified green convenience store is The Pantry Inc.'s Kangaroo store, which opened in October near the University of Florida in Gainesville. It cost 15 percent more to build, but chair and CEO Peter Sodini says, "Our payback should be quick because we will be using 25 percent less energy than a conventionally built store." The world's first LEED-certified supermarket is Giant Eagle in Brunswick, Ohio, where a wetland helps soak up runoff.

At the stylish Orchard Garden Hotel in San Francisco - which last July became California's first LEED-certified hotel - energy use is expected to drop by one-fifth now that guests must insert a key card into a wall slot to turn on lights or the air conditioning. When the card is removed, power turns off, except for an outlet to charge laptops and cell phones.


Greening the American Dream

Steven Glenn lives in "The Greenest House on The Planet," as a Business Week headline called the glass-filled, two-story, four-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot prefabricated house designed by Ray Kappe and situated on a hillside street in Santa Monica, California. In this case, it's an unwanted superlative.

"Well, it's not true," says Glenn. "We don't write the headlines. What does that mean, ‘greenest house'? There are clearly homes that have a smaller ecological footprint than this one. But it's much, much, much smaller than typical homes. So that's a good point."

You can, in fact, live in a home just like Glenn's; he's selling prefabricated versions of the first home in the nation to receive the highest-possible "platinum" rating from LEED. His company, LivingHomes, is considered the first to make LEED-certified prefab homes available to consumers nationwide, though the cost is steep at about $300 per square foot. Glenn's home serves as the model home. Just the building and foundation cost more than $1 million.

It's a zero-energy house, with rooftop photovoltaic cells producing power that feeds into the electric grid by day, turning his electric meter backwards; by night, the building uses power from the grid for about four or five hours. The goal is that on average, the energy use zeroes out.

Sink and shower water irrigates the landscaping. Among many other features, there's a rooftop garden. All wood and millwork is Forest Stewardship Council-certified. The company's clients include people who buy organic foods, drive Priuses, shop at Design Within Reach furniture, and give money to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Stockton Williams, meanwhile, is on a mission to green the homes of people on the lower end of the tax bracket - people such as cancer survivor Jan Bey. She moved into Seattle's Denny Park Apartments, built through a five-year, $555-million initiative known as Green Communities that seeks to build more than 8,500 homes for low-income people in 23 states.

Williams works for the effort - a partnership between his employer, Maryland-based Enterprise Community Partners, and such organizations as NRDC, Global Green USA, and the American Institute of Architects. The initiative provides grants, financing, tax-credit equity, and technical assistance to developers who meet specific green criteria to build affordable housing. The goal is to help transform the affordable-housing industry so that sustainable development becomes mainstream.

Already, upwards of 6,800 units have been built or started in little more than two years. The locations vary from Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia to rural Viking, Minnesota, and the beach town of Bonita Springs, Florida. Senior citizens find green homes at the Azotea Senior Apartments in Alamagordo, New Mexico.

"We really believe that sustainable development has to become mainstream," says Williams, senior vice president of Enterprise. "It's not an option. It's a right and necessary thing, because the people stand to benefit so much from better buildings. A more energy-efficient home saves people money. A healthy indoor environment helps folks with weakened immune systems or young kids," while "rundown conditions [elsewhere] can exacerbate asthma."

Bey's neighbors and other Green Communities residents earn incomes ranging from nothing to two times the poverty level. "They are the working poor: janitors, bus drivers, and service workers," Williams says. "So, a seemingly small difference in a utility bill or the ability to walk to transit to go to work can have a significant impact."

Twenty-year-old William Johnson, one of Bey's neighbors, expresses relief that his three-month-old boy, Savonte, is unlikely to accidentally burn himself on the heater baseboards, which seem cool to the touch. They're actually "water radiators," whose heat comes from a central gas-fired boiler downstairs, explained Michele Wang, who designed the building as a project manager at Runberg Architecture Group. "It's something that's very modern," Johnson said. "We feel like we finally moved up - a step up."

Apartment buildings such as Johnson's are symbols. If affordable housing can be green, Enterprise's Williams figures, "It sends a very strong message that other builders and other building types really have no excuse. If the places that the people with the least amount of resources call home can be sustainable and can do their part to fight global warming, then how can the buildings and the builders of market-rate homes and high-rate homes not do at least as well?"



Not everyone is jumping on the green-building bandwagon. Residential builders are slow to catch on to the trend, as they tend to look at what sold yesterday when deciding what to build today. Homebuilders mostly use the same means, methods and materials used 30 years ago, a report found. Architects and designers - important players behind the commercial greening movement - are rarely employed for homebuilding. Small companies build most houses, Browning says, so it'll take a while for the green trend to filter down.

Resistance to change is perhaps to be expected, especially given typically higher building costs. But "the incredibly slow evolution of the building industry" is "a significant factor that holds back radical change," according to a 2003 report by Duncan Prahl of Pittsburgh-based Integrated Building & Construction Solutions. "Very few builders are providing high-performance houses, so a consumer's experience in a new home in terms of comfort, indoor air quality, and durability are not markedly different today than they were a generation ago. ... This is one key reason why many builders do not perceive customers demanding anything different."

In fact, some focus groups indicate "consumers perceive green building to have a lower value that conventional construction." Consumer preferences seem to veer in a planet-tromping direction, regardless of the pockets of green homes in cities such as Austin, Portland, and Denver. Case in point: the trend toward mega-sized houses, some of them outfitted with a full-body shower spraying more than 20 gallons of water per minute - enough to fill an entire bathtub in one minute.

"Every three people putting in these shower systems negates the efforts of 100 people putting in efficient products," wrote Wilson, the BuildingGreen president, in Fine HomeBuilding magazine. Federal regulations require low-flow, 2.5-gallon-a-minute showerheads. Yet these new multiple-head systems spray 10 times as much or more, "a small portion of which may briefly contact your body," Wilson wrote, "en route from your water heater to your sewer line."

If the point behind the green-building movement is to shrink every person's footprint on the planet, then the societal shift toward 3,500-square-foot or larger homes runs counter to that spirit. The real-estate world seems set up to encourage big houses - due to zoning regulations in some areas, subdivision covenants, mortgage lenders' practices (a lot should not be worth more than 30 percent of the real estate, meaning a pricey lot needs a pricey building), as well as the usual desire by some consumers to keep up with the Joneses, according to a 1999 analysis published in Environmental Building News. The average house has doubled in size from about 1,100 square feet in the 1950s.

"You can build a pretty mediocre house from an energy standpoint at 1,200 square feet and it will probably use a lot less energy than a state-of-art green home that is 3,500 square feet," Wilson says. "And that's a factor we need to be conscious of."


This article was reprinted with permission from E: The Environmental Magazine (

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