Push on to make buildings grow green
(Chicago Tribune (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) LOS ANGELES _ As the super who keeps new state offices purring, Peter Cho is shepherding the green movement's latest offensive: cleaning skylines an entire building at a time.
The planet's biggest energy hogs are the buildings where many people work and live. More rapacious than transportation and even industry, structures that are at least four stories high gobble 65 percent of the nation's electricity. And they're emission fighters' newest target.
Instead of relying on piecemeal approaches such as installing a rooftop garden or solar panels here or there, California and many other states now require that all new government buildings be certified as green. Officials also are stepping up efforts to set an example for the private sector. In California's case, the state is considering granting "preferences" to private owners of more eco-friendly buildings when renewing leases for rented government offices.
With the roof-to-basement strategy, government officials have landed upon a comprehensive effort to reduce carbon footprints in chunks sometimes as big as a city block. A new building certified as green also serves as a big symbol for the movement's quest for maturity, advocates say.
"All the people in the L.A. region want to come to my place to work," said Cho, chief engineer of the futuristic California Department of Transportation regional headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, a structure that opened nearly four years ago and is an example of the eco-friendly measures the state is promoting. What's drawing job applicants is the sleek horizontal architecture with healthier indoor air and lots of natural lighting, he said.
Occupying one block, the 13-story Caltrans building was constructed with a monolithic photovoltaic wall _ solar panels _ to be 35 percent more energy-efficient than state building codes require. It features elevators in one area that skip two floors at a time to encourage workers to use the stairs, usually on the way down.
States such as California and the federal General Services Administration, the country's largest commercial tenant, are using green-only construction to nudge the private sector to overcome concerns over "green premiums" for new buildings; they cost an additional 5 percent or more, according to government officials and industry representatives.
"By exerting the leadership, we hope we can get a groundswell response from the commercial sector," said Roy McBrayer, manager of California's green building initiative.
So far it's hardly come close, especially as the specter of a recession and the homeowner foreclosure crisis chilled construction, particularly in residential projects.
While industry officials say green homes are still a strong niche, the number of certified green buildings remains dramatically low across America: only 1,325 in the past seven years, according to this month's figures from the U.S. Green Building Council. The non-profit council implements a universally accepted method for authenticating a green building, under a rating system called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
States rely on the council to certify a structure as "green," or eco-friendly. The council's LEED criteria enable developers and architects to select from several efficiencies and conservation measures, such as energy-efficient heating-cooling systems or recycling initiatives, when designing a green building. The project is awarded "points" for the sustainability features until it achieves certification, which has four levels: basic, silver, gold and platinum.
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The Caltrans building, for example, has been granted the third-highest level.
The number of certified green buildings is expected to rise once the council reviews applications for 11,000 buildings seeking certification.
"There's definitely a long way to go," said Taryn Holowka, spokeswoman for the council, saying it's a slow process to get the building industry to revolutionize practices that have largely been the same since "the log cabin."
"But I think we're off to a good start and it's becoming a mainstream thing," she said. "It's just up to the building market."
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Lance Williams, executive director of the council's Los Angeles office, said the struggle for green buildings can be tough.
"There is a resistance to anything new, especially if it requires them to invest in something new or believe in something new," he said. "But there are people being converted ... every single day."
Commercial building owners say direct financial incentives would be more effective, though governments' green-construction programs help.
The Building Owners and Managers Association International, the nation's largest trade group for commercial real estate, is lobbying Congress to extend tax incentives to retrofit structures for energy conservation _ matters made more urgent by rising gas prices.
"At the end of the day, our economy will continue to grow on the back of green," said Brenna Walraven, chairwoman of BOMA International. "The biggest part of a green strategy, whether it's connected to real estate or not, is energy."
With "green" materials and design, a new building can recoup such costs in the first year or two with energy savings, advocates say. By using recycled carpet or less polluting paints, such a structure is also more "environmentally responsible" and promotes the occupants' health and well-being, adherents say.
In all, 24 states have developed requirements in the last six years for new government buildings to be green. Meanwhile, 75 cities, 23 counties, 10 school districts and 36 college systems nationwide have green initiatives or incentives, according to the council.
Of the nation's 1,325 certified green buildings, more than a fourth are owned by federal, state or local governments, according to council data.
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California, home to the greatest number, has 59 governmental buildings certified as green. Illinois has 18, including a federal industrial supply facility in Argonne, Bolingbrook High School, Orland Park Police headquarters and five Chicago Public Library branches, according to the council. The recently certified Merchandise Mart, though not a government structure, is an example of a broader goal for the private market to make existing structures more energy smart.
Illinois requires its new government buildings to be green, but the state hasn't had a major construction program in nine years, said spokesman David Blanchette of the state's Capital Development Board. In 2004, Mayor Richard Daley initiated a standard requiring all new city-owned buildings in Chicago to be eligible for certification.
To boost its efforts, California is considering "preferences" for green in rented office space. It's also studying "a green building code," officials said.
"What's going to happen over time, these rating systems like LEED will get ultimately converted into code language. Frankly, why reinvent the wheel?" McBrayer said. "But it's going to be a long time before we see a lot buildings get LEED-certified."
WHAT THESE BUILDINGS CONSUME: Buildings that are at least four stories tall are energy hogs, accounting for 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.
65 percent of all U.S. electricity and 40 percent of all U.S. energy.
30 percent of the nation's raw materials, including wood.
12 percent of the nation's potable water.
WHAT A "GREEN" BUILDING SAVES
20 percent to 50 percent of energy
70 percent of construction waste
40 percent of drinkable water
Source: U.S. Green Building Council
(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.
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