Environmentalists and the construction community typically spend their time fighting each other's every move, but the advent of green building has given them a cause to rally behind
Environmental movements have a reputation for being associated with neo-hippy, tree-hugging fringe groups and are generally dismissed by middle America and met with upturned noses from the industrial world. With goals and mission statements extolling the virtues of energy conservation and clean air and water that often work in direct contrast to the purpose and output of the U.S. industrial sector, any environmentalist action group is bound to butt heads with the manufacturing and production markets. All of which makes it even harder to believe that the latest eco-friendly cause has been championed by men and women who work in high-rise office buildings and carry briefcases.
Green building is the architecture and design community's answer to hybrid cars. In the abstract, it's the concept of environmentally friendly construction. More specifically, it's a multi-discipline building ideal that incorporates energy-efficient electrical elements and innovative use of materials and structural design to produce a work environment that's not only more comfortable for employees but less expensive to operate. Compact fluorescent light bulbs that not only use less energy but give off less heat, thereby reducing the strain on HVAC systems, and intelligent controls that turn off the lights when no one's around are just two of the elements that make up a holistic approach to designing better buildings.
What may be more surprising than the idea of this eco-industrial marriage is the city where so much of today's green building is taking place. Smack in the middle of the industrial belt and better known for smoke stacks and steel than recycling centers and trees, Pittsburgh has become a leader in the green building movement, thanks in large part to the local non-profit Green Building Alliance (GBA). Rebecca Flora, the organization's executive director, says the city's involvement is just the latest step in greening up its image. “[Green building] ties into the overall economic development strategy for our region, which is very much about changing its image and having people look at this as a more exciting and progressive place to be,” she says. “This is just the next natural step in our transformation.”
In the case of Pittsburgh, what has become a city-wide program was conceived as most environmental movements are — at the grassroots level. The GBA began as a loose coalition of building industry members that spent most of its time and effort trying to educate the public and the rest of the building community on the benefits of green building. It wasn't until 1997, when the privately funded Heinz Endowments became the unofficial benefactor of Pittsburgh's green movement, that the group was able to expand its reach.
In 2002, the GBA received $550,000 in grants from the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation to continue its work. And its contributions like these and support from local government that Flora says have made green building possible in Pittsburgh and could help it expand to other cities. “Without their willingness to take that risk in terms of something that was new and different, it wouldn't have been easy to get others to follow,” she says. “It all comes down to the support from the foundation community, the leadership at the state level, the resources available through our organization, and the support of some of those developer pioneers who were willing to go out there and do it.”
Although Pittsburgh is now a leader in the green building movement, it may soon have to share that title. As global energy markets continue to destabilize and domestic energy prices continue to rise, facilities managers and building owners in cities across the country will be forced to rethink their attitudes toward the lifecycle costs associated with investing in the energy-efficient lighting and HVAC designs at the heart of green building. Design and construction firms may also have to consider themselves members of a team instead of autonomous guns-for-hire in the construction process.
Coal continues to be the source of more than half of the United States' electricity. And with more than 275 billion tons of it still under American soil, it might be easy to conclude that electricity is in no short supply. The fact is, the markets for the remaining natural sources of energy — oil and natural gas — are in the midst of a volatile period of fluctuation that have left energy providers with two options: build more generation plants or force end-users to better manage their loads. “We think of energy in this country as cheap and plentiful, but that's changing,” says Bill Odell, sustainable design principal for Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, a St. Louis-based sustainable design firm. “If the world cut the United States off from its supply of oil, we would be in deep trouble. We could drill everywhere in this country, including offshore and everywhere in the Arctic, and still not begin to match what this country gets from countries overseas.”
As the price of fossil fuel increases, those costs are passed along to the utilities and ultimately the end-users. Hospitals, schools, and industrial facilities now have the added responsibility in a depressed economy to cut spending anywhere they can. What starts as a global problem becomes a local one in a few short steps. Although participating in voluntary load shedding programs can help, Odell and the rest of the green building community stress that the answer lies in the designs. “If you're building facilities that are going to last a long time, it's just more cost-efficient to be as prudent as you can in terms of making these buildings use less energy,” Odell says. “It's so simple to design buildings that use a small fraction of the energy that a non-energy-efficient [building] does.”
Green advocates like Odell and Flora say a well-designed, energy-efficient building can reduce energy bills by anywhere from 30% to 50%. Lighting can account for as much as 40% of a facility's bill, making it the first and easiest component to improve when going green. And the evolution from standard 4-ft fluorescent tubes to more energy-friendly technologies like compact fluorescents has given lighting designers a variety of choices for reducing the cost of illumination.
Although lighting may be the most visible building system component, and therefore the first to be upgraded in most situations, it's only the first step in an energy-efficient design. Once building owners discover the savings provided by energy-efficient lighting, they often begin looking for other areas to save money, says Jeff Barnhart, advisory board member of the Energize America Educational Institute and CEO of Creative Marketing Alliance. “Now people are looking at the whole envelope as opposed to strictly the lighting side,” he says. “People are looking at HVAC, different types of film for windows that reflects light, and building roof technologies with coatings that reflect heat energy, thereby reducing air conditioning costs.”
On the other hand, John Newcomb, president of Newcomb Anderson Associates, a San Francisco-based energy efficiency design firm and an EMCOR company, takes a more stripped-down approach. If no one's using it, he says, turn it off. The best way to do that? Use controls. “You can use all the fancy light fixtures you want, but regardless of the circumstances under which the lighting is used, the simplest and most straightforward thing to do is turn them off,” he says. “If you take that simple rule and apply it to heating and cooling buildings and process activities in industrial plants, you can save a lot of energy. The biggest, most immediate, and most active single project that we undertake is controls. That allows you to take existing systems and control them in more efficient ways.”
Advanced lighting and control technologies come at a price, which can present a problem when the original intent in building green is to cut costs. With tight budgets shifting the emphasis to the bottom line, it can be difficult for building owners to see past the initial cost of energy efficiency projects. The challenge for the green building community is to help the people who approve these projects change the way they think about spending money.
“Even in today's environment with more education on the technologies that are available, people still look at [green building] and say, ‘Hey, I have a capital outlay that I have to make. And even though it may save me money in the long term, I don't have the capital money to spend right now,’” Barnhart says.
This shift from selling the technology to selling the cost benefits has made it more important for the firms who design green building systems to target the people who make the financial decisions, in most cases the CEOs and CFOs (Sidebar below). “The sale of the product has gone from a functional sale to a financial sale,” Barnhart says. “The idea is to go in and say, ‘Listen, if you do this, you'll save this, you'll put X to your bottom line, and it pays for itself in a year [in reduced energy costs]. It's a good financial investment.’”
Finding that person who will look at the big picture can be the difference between a successful project and one that never makes it out of the planning meeting. Just as Flora advocates the need for a champion at the city level for green building to work, Newcomb stresses the importance of finding a champion within the company considering an energy efficiency project. “Usually, these projects are very complex,” he says. “The paybacks are anywhere from two or three years to 10 years in the public sector — and that's just simple paybacks — so there needs to be someone within the organization who thinks this is a good idea and wants to make it happen.”
In many cases, selling energy-efficiency projects on lifecycle cost still isn't enough. In some cities, local utilities have stepped in and begun to offer rebates and incentives for using green technologies. The New Jersey SmartStart Building Program has made it possible for the state's utility companies to encourage customers and specifiers to use high-efficiency electric or gas equipment and an integrated design approach when considering the building envelope and its mechanical and lighting systems. In addition to incentives as high as $1,000 for pre-design planning sessions and $5,000 for design simulation and screening, the program offers customers cash incentives of $35 to $50 for each energy-efficient lamp installed and $30 to $75 for each lighting control unit specified for a project.
Programs like SmartStart Building indicate utilities' attempt to solve the problem on both ends of the power lines. “Rebates are coming back into vogue now as utilities realize that it's a matter of decreasing the consumption or buying more expensive power plants,” he says. “Energy reduction is the lesser of two evils.”
For the enterprising facilities manager or building owner who's willing to spend the money to reduce energy costs, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Concepts like “maximizing efficiency” and “achieving increased levels of energy performance” are vague at best, but they make up the heart of green building. To better define those muddled ideals and give green designers a benchmark against which to judge their plans, the U.S. Green Building Council developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system in the late '90s and published it in 1999. The voluntary, performance-based guideline awards point values to various building design characteristics. A total of 69 points in five categories — sustainable site, water, energy and atmosphere, materials, and environmental qualities — is possible, and 26 points are necessary for certification.
The inclusion of items like water and materials suggests a more holistic approach that looks at the entire building, not just the electrical system. In fact, analyzing the entire building and how its systems interact is the most effective way to reap the benefits of green building, says Greg Kats, chair of the energy and atmosphere committee of LEED and principal of Capital E, Washington, D.C. “If you approach this on a technology-by-technology basis, you're missing the largest savings,” he says. “It's really the systems and integration approach of the multiple elements of green building that give you the largest benefits.”
Green design not only saves money on equipment that's already in place, but eliminates the cost of larger equipment necessary to meet peak demands. By reducing peak loads, it's possible to avoid the capital expenses associated with larger generation equipment.
Although such an approach may be beneficial in terms of lifecycle costs, the initial costs of whole-building designs — especially in existing buildings — can be prohibitive. “The reality of it is that people aren't going to look at their entire building and say, ‘OK, I'm going to do lights, HVAC, and the roof all at the same time,’” Barnhart says. “In an ideal world, maybe that would be the way to go, but I think what you're going to see is that most people will do it in phases, just like anything else.”
Despite the drawbacks to the holistic approach, buildings that achieve LEED certification may have not only seen a drop in energy costs but could look forward to some kickbacks from the utilities down the line as well. Kats says the developers of LEED see a day when the positive effects of green building on energy providers, including peak shaving, will be returned to the end-user. “If green buildings provide substantial benefits to the utility because they use not only less electricity but also less electricity during peak times, that needs to be recognized,” he says. “Those green buildings need to share in some of the financial compensation that results from their better design.”
That theme of integration evident in the LEED guidelines also carries over to the design process necessary for green building. Odell sees too many projects fail because the parties involved — from the architect down to the subcontractors — are wrapped up in doing things the way they've always done them. Not only that, he's grown frustrated with architects who design the same buildings for two vastly different regions of the country, neglecting to take climate and environment variances into consideration. “These architects design the same type of building for Milwaukee and Miami without understanding anything about energy,” he says. “Then they just throw it over the wall to the engineers, who have to pump a lot of energy into it to solve all of the problems that the architect created for them. The engineers throw it over the wall to the contractors, who then turn around and throw it to the subcontractors.”
Instead, he advocates a process similar to design/build. “Some of our best projects are when, even in the early phases, we've had the contractors and major subcontractors involved in the process,” he says. “So the electrical contractor doesn't see his job as just looking at a drawing and connecting this box to that fixture. He sees his role as part of creating what ought to be a wonderful work environment.”
GBA's Flora agrees. “One of the things that we haven't done well as a building industry in the past is to have all of the team members talking to each other right from the beginning and throughout the project,” she says. “So we strongly advocate everyone working together in a team fashion. The contractor doesn't have to wait until the very end to find out what the project is all about.”
The team concept has worked in Pittsburgh. From the city's design firms up through state government and local foundations, each member of the building community has played its part in making green building a possibility in a city that wouldn't typically be at the top of most people's lists of eco-friendly metro areas. And Flora is taking that attitude and trying to pass it on to other cities in the infancy stages of green building awareness, with the hopes of it graduating to a national level. “I've talked to groups in other parts of the country and shared our model and discussed how to make it work for them,” she says. “The way I look at it, if we don't have strong regional-based organizations and activities, it's going to be hard to have a national effort succeed. You still need those things happening on the ground at the regional level, and you need those troops in the trenches doing the work.”
The positive PR attached to any environmentally friendly building project may be the deciding factor for some building owners, but John Newcomb of Newcomb Anderson Associates, an EMCOR Group company, says the majority of energy efficiency projects are all about the bottom line. And the potential savings that he can offer to a client will ultimately determine the size of the project. “Certainly there is some PR value to having a green building, but almost always it's icing on an economics cake,” he says. “So the scale of the project has to do with what the payback is likely to be, and oftentimes that's influenced by the availability of capital to do the project.”
Because of the money at stake, Laurie Hoff, director of business development for the EMCOR Group, often targets the upper levels of management when selling a project, but she acknowledges the importance of making sure the facility's entire team is on board. “Ultimately, the decision-maker that you're selling to is the CFO and/or the CEO,” she says. “But they're going to rely on their maintenance staff to tell them they're doing the right thing mechanically or electrically. If you're trying to sell something that the maintenance staff just doesn't like or can't live with, it's not going to work.”