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Published April 05, 2013, 12:00 AM

SUSTAINABILITY: The Benefits of Being Green

Sustainable building projects lessen environmental impact, reduce long-term operating costs

By: Kris Bevill, Prairie Business Magazine

A recent report released by the World Green Building Council offers building developers, owners, investors and tenants a comprehensive review of the costs and benefits associated with sustainable building projects. The report, “The Business Case for Green Building,” makes the case that sustainable design is not just good for the planet, it’s good for business too.

“While green buildings have well-documented environmental benefits, we have made a conscious decision to focus this report on the economic and social benefits of green building,” the authors said in the report. “The green building movement has matured over time, and a deeper understanding of the ‘triple bottom line’ value of green buildings has emerged, shifting the emphasis from ‘planet’ to ‘people’ and ‘profit.’ Consequently, the conversation is now geared around how green buildings deliver on economic priorities such as return on investment and risk mitigation and on social priorities such as employee productivity and health.”

The report breaks down the business benefits of building green into five categories: design and construction costs, asset value, operating costs, workplace productivity and health, and risk mitigation. It states that while green projects do tend to cost more than traditional projects initially, the actual costs are generally not as high as they are perceived to be, and the additional up-front costs of green buildings are often recouped in the long term by way of reduced energy costs, water usage and other factors.

From an asset standpoint, the report concluded that certified sustainable buildings enjoy increased marketability and can command higher rents and sale prices. Because green buildings typically use less energy and water, they also cost less to own and operate and can sometimes achieve additional savings through property tax reductions, rebates and reduced insurance rates.

Sustainable design can also reduce operating costs in a workplace environment through improved employee performance and health, according to the report. Components of green design, including increased natural lighting, materials containing minimal toxins, appropriate outdoor air ventilation and open spaces all contribute to healthy indoor environments and have been found to lessen employee sick days and improve productivity.

As with any building project, there are risks and potential rewards associated with investing in a sustainable building project and the report highlights several, including regulatory compliance, supply and demand, and the economic viability of locations and designs in a changing climate. The report advises investors to research the implications of potential regulations and climate change and factor them into sustainability risk assessments. Additionally, the report’s authors urge investors to consider the growing demand for green buildings and compare the value of green buildings to traditional buildings when considering those types of investments.

Local Demand

Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) is the third-party verification program for green buildings in the U.S. and in many other countries around the world. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED is a voluntary program that uses a rating system to verify a building’s sustainability. The system includes four certification levels — certified, silver, gold and platinum — which correspond with the total number of points awarded in multiple design categories. Points are awarded to projects in five main categories, including sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. LEED accredited professionals (APs), of which there are thousands throughout the country, help guide a project through the LEED project development process and certification application necessary for the project to ultimately be deemed LEED certified.

Although sustainable design and LEED certification is not as widely coveted a concept in the wide open spaces of the northern Plains as it is in regions of the country where space and energy are at a premium, many architecture firms in the upper Midwest employ multiple LEED APs. The majority of LEED certified projects in our region are publicly funded projects, which are generally required to be built to LEED Silver standards. However, firms are noticing increased interest from private project clients as well, and say that the number of privately funded sustainable projects continues to grow each year.

Architecture Incorporated of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, S.D., employs a team of 13 LEED APs and works on an average of between three and five LEED standard projects each year, according to Andrew Eitreim, LEED AP and licensed architect.

The firm is currently working with Kansas City-based Crawford Architects to design a new indoor practice and human performance center at South Dakota State University, which will be seeking LEED Silver certification when complete. The center, estimated to cost about $30 million, will include year-round training space for all sports, an eight-lane, 300-meter track and a 100-yard synthetic field. One of the building’s LEED design features is a tall band of windows throughout the perimeter of the facility which will let ample daylight into the building. “That was one of the goals was to have lots of natural light,” Eitreim says. “On most days, there should be enough daylight that they won’t need to supplement with a lighting system. That’s a unique opportunity with a facility of that nature.”

Eitreim says Architecture Incorporated tries to incorporate sustainable concepts into every project. “You try to make intelligent choices to conserve energy and give a good, long-lasting building whether you’re going after LEED certification or not,” he says.

While the vast majority of the firm’s LEED certified projects to date have been publicly funded projects, the firm does also work occasionally on privately funded projects that aim to achieve LEED certification. One of them, the Children’s Museum of South Dakota in Brookings, recently received the Buildy Award 2013 from the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums, in large part due to the project’s focus on sustainability.

Opened since September 2010, the museum is housed in a converted elementary school, originally built in 1936. Sustainability was a main focus during the building renovation and construction of the museum and many of the building’s original features were re-used, including the terrazzo and wood floors, wood doors and the wooden bleachers. New materials were produced regionally, such as a Minnesota-made pressed sunflower hull product used for casework, or contained recycled content. The building incorporated many energy- and water-saving features, such as automatic lights, low-flow toilets, automatic faucets and native plants in the outdoor areas to reduce the need for watering, and was designed to provide the healthiest indoor environment possible through the use of materials containing minimal toxins.

Suzanne Hegg, executive director of the museum, says the museum’s board of directors and its benefactor, the Pat and Dale Larson Family Foundation, were committed to sustainability from the project’s onset. The museum does not disclose the final cost of the project, but Hegg says that while it was initially more expensive than a traditional build, the museum has already recouped some of the initial added up-front expense through energy rebates and reduced water and energy costs. “Even if we weren’t recouping operating costs, just having the investment in teaching families — that’s worth investing in,” she says.

EAPC, a consulting firm with offices in North Dakota, Minnesota, Vermont and Argentina, also has LEED APs on staff and the firm incorporates sustainability measures into its projects whenever possible. One of the firm’s current projects is a 31,000-square-foot expansion to Cass Lake Indian Health Services on the Leech Lake Reservation in northwest Minnesota. EAPC is currently in the design development phase for that project. One of the program requirements by the Indian Health Services is to design the project to achieve a minimum LEED Silver certification, according to Leap Chear, LEED AP and project manager at EAPC. The project will incorporate an upgraded, high efficiency HVAC system and will source regional materials such as stone quarried in Minnesota for a portion of the building materials. The expansion will also include additional access to daylight to further reduce energy use and improve the indoor environmental quality and will install low-flow plumbing fixtures to lessen water use.

Chear says energy efficiency improvements are the most common measures implemented to improve the sustainability of any project, and he expects that trend to continue. “With the price of energy going up, that will continue to be one of the biggest elements,” he says. The vast majority of EAPC’s LEED certified projects are publicly funded, but Chear says private projects are also increasingly interested in incorporating sustainable elements. However, it is more common for private projects to incorporate sustainable features that make sense for the project rather than devote the additional time and money to apply for LEED certification, he says.

UND Goes Platinum

Last fall, the University of North Dakota set a new precedence for LEED projects with the opening of the Gorecki Alumni Center. The $13 million project was built to achieve LEED Platinum certification and is believed to be the first building in North Dakota built to those standards. It is also believed to be the first alumni center in the U.S. to seek LEED Platinum certification.

The entire project, from site selection to grand opening, took about six years to complete, according to Rebecca Molldrem, LEED AP and licensed architect at JLG Architects. However, she says designing for a LEED Platinum project was not much different than designing for a Silver project, other than additional LEED-specific meetings to ensure the project would meet sustainability goals.

As with most LEED projects, many of the sustainability features installed at the alumni center are not visibly apparent. Geothermal heat pumps are utilized to regulate the building’s temperature and photovoltaic panels on the roof produce energy to meet some of the center’s needs. A storm water collection system was put in place beneath the parking lot and the grass on the center’s lawn is a low-maintenance mix considered to be adaptive to the North Dakota climate.

Other features at the center are more noticeable, although one may not immediately know they were designed with LEED in mind. “My favorite part is the access to daylight and views for the employees,” Molldrem says. “It makes for a really great work environment to be connected to nature and can help reduce the amount of sick days. There is one particular place that if you stand in the hallway you can see out of the building in all four directions. That I think is very unique for an office building, which often can be a windowless cubicle city. That’s the part of LEED I like best, where you begin to understand it is about the people, and not the building.”

The alumni center’s LEED certification application is currently in the review process, but JLG anticipates that the building will receive its platinum rating by the start of the upcoming school year. The university has already received positive feedback from alumni center visitors and staff, according to Milo Smith, alumni center media coordinator, who says the building has been a great selling point for admissions staff giving tours to prospective students.

JLG, which has five North Dakota locations and two in Minnesota, has 16 LEED APs and does work for one or two LEED projects each year on average, although Molldrem says the number of LEED projects has been steadily increasing over the past several years. The firm currently has six LEED projects at various stages of certification, representing a mix of public and privately funded projects and various building types. The UND alumni center was the first project JLG designed for a LEED Platinum certification. “Most of our clients are interested in at least silver or certified level at a minimum, with some requests for gold,” Molldrem says. “Platinum is still a level which people are intimidated by, mostly because of unfamiliarity with the process and how it may affect their project timeline and concerns about added costs.” PB

Kris Bevill

Editor, Prairie Business