Buildings save when friendly to environment

What's good ecologically can also be cheap to run, many are discovering

Boom in sustainable development

Green, green, green is busting out all over, even on Howard Street

November 30, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Years of trying to get developers to build "green" has convinced the environmentally conscious of the limitations of selling people on saving the world.

Saving money, on the other hand, is proving to be a more potent argument.

The so-called sustainable development industry is growing locally and nationally as new studies show that ecologically friendly buildings, almost always more expensive to build, are significantly cheaper to maintain. Energy costs often plummet. A healthier atmosphere indoors, some reports suggest, makes workers more productive and less likely to get sick. And tax credits offered by an increasing number of cities and states don't hurt, either.

Now government agencies, schools, universities - and a small but growing number of developers building for the private sector - are opting for plant-covered roofs, fume-free paint, bamboo floors, solar power and natural lighting in an unusual marriage of idealism and the bottom line.

New environmentally sensitive buildings run the gamut from the Dallas police headquarters to the Detroit Lions' training facility to a condominium mid-rise on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

"It pays to be environmentally sound," said Lucien Salvant, spokesman for the National Association of Realtors, which is building an office tower in Washington designed to use 30 percent less energy and 20 percent less water.

The U.S. Green Building Council has nearly 3,500 members, up from 300 three years ago. Developers are trying to get nearly 1,000 projects certified by the group - a green stamp of approval.

In Maryland, the council has certified a handful of facilities, and more than 25 others are registered to be reviewed once they're finished. They include the former Stewart's department store on Howard Street in Baltimore being remade into offices and stores, and a pair of office buildings soon to rise on the east side of Anne Arundel County.

The state has $25 million up for grabs through a new green building tax credit as an incentive for those balking at the extra upfront cost.

All told, this is the sort of green - the cash register kind - to which people can relate. Consultants trying for years to promote sustainable development say the sudden interest seems like a sea change.

"I used to feel like I was shouting into the wind sometimes, and now the wind's changed direction. It's carrying the message out there," said Janet Harrison, an Annapolis architect who now counts environmentally sensitive projects as 95 percent of her business. "It really is a market transformation."

Tom Liebel, an associate with Design Collective Inc., a Baltimore architecture, planning and interiors firm, said the company has seen more green-construction commitments and interest in the past six months than in the previous four to five years.

It's telling, he thinks, that some practitioners have dropped the "green" and started calling these buildings "high performance."

"You reframe the debate," Liebel said. "You are talking about the economic importance of it as opposed to ecological importance, and it got people's attention. If you are in a decision-making position, you frequently have responsibility for your budget, and you can be answerable for that. Very few people have responsibility for the environment as a definition of their work."

30% less energy

A study conducted for California's Sustainable Building Task Force, released last month, found that an average so-called green building uses 30 percent less energy than a conventional counterpart. A strategy as simple as more windows means facilities are less reliant on artificial lighting, which in turn keeps the indoor air cooler - which means less money spent on air conditioning. Builders can buy windows made of high-tech glass that keeps heat from seeping in or out.

The Heschong Mahone Group Inc., a California consulting firm conducting separate studies on the impact of the indoor environment, analyzed 73 stores for a retailer in a new report and found higher sales in the locations with significant amounts of daylight - a profit worth at least 19 times more than the energy savings.

The firm also reported that workers in a Sacramento utility's call center who had an excellent view through a window worked up to 12 percent faster than those with no view.

Green features added about 2 percent to the cost of an average building, according to the California task force report, but it calculated that the features will pay for themselves more than tenfold over the life of the facility. Some Maryland consultants say the "green premium" can rise to 10 percent, though they think prices will fall as contractors get comfortable with new ways of building.

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