School is first to go `green' in Md.

State officials pushing to invest more in energy-efficient buildings

March 26, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

GERMANTOWN -- Beneath the soccer field at Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, antifreeze circulates through a coil of pipes deep underground, where it absorbs the earth's warmth to heat classrooms.

The school's speckled bathroom stalls are built from recycled soda bottles. The bookshelves are made from wheat, to save trees.

Welcome to Maryland's first officially "green" school, built to meet the standards of the U.S. Green Building Council.

The number of green buildings registered by the nonprofit group has soared nationally, with 770 across the country today compared with fewer than 50 in 2002. Driving the trend toward energy-efficient construction are concerns about global warming and rising oil prices, said Taryn Holowka, a council spokeswoman.

The eco-friendly buildings cost up to 5 percent more - $18.2 million for Great Seneca Creek, which opened in August, compared with about $17 million for a standard elementary school built last year, according to state and Montgomery County figures.

But Gov. Martin O'Malley, state Comptroller Peter Franchot and Democrats in the Senate and House of Delegates are pushing to invest more in energy-efficient architecture like this for schools and state office buildings.

"The governor supports legislation that would require all new state buildings to be green," starting with projects designed in fiscal 2009, said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "There is an additional upfront cost, but you are saving energy and saving dollars over the long run."

Bills by Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat from Baltimore County, and Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat and the House majority leader, would set aside 1 percent of the roughly $400 million spent by the state annually on school construction and renovation as grants for "green" projects.

Other legislation, endorsed by the governor, would require Maryland to follow the example of Montgomery County, which in November required all new public buildings to be built to certified green standards.

Skeptics, including some Republican leaders, point out that more expensive designs probably will mean fewer new schools. And they say Maryland can't afford extra construction costs because the state is facing a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion next year.

"We have a looming fiscal crisis, and to drive up the cost of those facilities at this time - there are better ways of helping the environment than doing that," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader.

But global warming activists are fans of green architecture, which can slash energy consumption by up to 50 percent. They say heating buildings is a seldom-discussed but major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings account for 38 percent of the total carbon dioxide released in the United States, compared with 33 percent from vehicles and 29 percent from industry.

"This is an incredibly important step in reducing greenhouse gas emission in Maryland because these buildings are going to last for 100 years. So if we build them efficiently now, we can reduce our emissions for a long time going forward," said Josh Tulkin, organizing director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Max Schulz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank, said the label "green" can be vague and is sometimes abused by companies trying to market their products. But he said it's a "fine idea" for government to try to increase the fuel-efficiency of public buildings by using tighter architectural standards.

For years, builders have been claiming their buildings are green, often making up the definition as they went along. Several different organizations have concocted different descriptions of green buildings. For example, the Maryland State Department of Education defines "green schools" as those that teach about ecology. Under this definition, there are 136 in the state.

That use of the term has nothing to do with energy-efficient architecture.

Seven years ago, the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit group made up of architects and engineers, created the nation's most widely used scoring system to rate the efficiency of new buildings. In that system, a building is given points based on a variety of criteria, including whether it is well-insulated, near public transportation, in a designated growth area, and uses recycled materials and paints that don't emit toxins.

After Great Seneca Creek Elementary completes its paperwork, the school is expected to be certified in the next few months, Holowka said. Then the school will join 14 other certified green buildings in Maryland, including the headquarters of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis.

Greg Edmundson, principal of Great Seneca Creek, offered a tour of the school, north of Rockville, which serves 510 students.

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