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A Blueprint for Greener Buildings

"Green building" movement to construct offices and homes that use less energy, less water, and more environmentally-friendly materials

 Ask a group of friends to name top sources of energy waste and pollution, and odds are good that no one would answer "my house" or "the place where I work." Yet the fact is that the nation's 5 million commercial facilities and 76 million residential buildings consume more than two-fifths of all our energy. They also account for just over one-third of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions (a chief culprit in climate change), about one-half of sulfur dioxide emissions, one-quarter of nitrous oxide emissions, and one-tenth of particulate emissions (all major contributors to smog and acid rain). The current construction boom is expected to add 38 million new buildings by the end of the decade, compounding the nation's air, waste, and water quality problems. Construction and demolition already generates 136 million tons of waste annually.

Clearly, architects, builders, and their customers can play a huge role in overcoming some of our biggest environmental challenges. In the past, many have shunned environmentally conscious design and construction on the assumption that "green" buildings cost a lot more greenbacks. But in a positive development, a growing number of Americans are discovering that green buildings can yield significant cost savings over the long haul even as they help protect the environment.

As the name implies, green buildings use power and other natural resources far more efficiently and generate less pollution than buildings simply constructed to code. They also create a safer indoor environment by harnessing more natural lighting and using materials that make indoor air healthier to breathe.

"If all commercial buildings in the U.S. were as efficient as our Southern California office, the country would achieve 70 percent of its Kyoto Protocol obligation."

-- NRDC senior scientist Rob Watson

A cutting-edge example of environmentally friendly industrial design is now taking shape just west of Detroit in Dearborn, Mich., the world headquarters of Ford Motor Co. Under the leadership of its chairman, Bill Ford, the company has hired world renowned environmental architect William A. McDonough to redesign Ford's historic 600-acre Rouge complex.

The 84-year-old collection of foundries, factories, and mills was considered the epitome of world industry in the early 20th century (and inspired Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's 1932 masterpiece, "Detroit Industry"). But the Rouge's then-innovative industrial model of unloading raw materials at one end of the site, processing them in the middle, and driving new cars out the other wreaked major environmental harm over the years. The adjacent Rouge River that gave the complex its name essentially died. The soil became contaminated and the air grew fetid.

The centerpiece of the $2 billion redesign project is a new, 750,000-square-foot assembly plant -- constructed not on a sylvan "greenfield" but on one of the bleakest urban "brownfields" imaginable. In June 2003, workers completed the installation of a 10.4-acre "living roof" on the $1 billion building. Composed of drought-resistant sedum, it is the largest such roof in the world. Virtually maintenance-free, it can absorb up to 4 million gallons of rainwater annually and is part of a broader storm-water runoff management system. In addition to absorbing water and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the sedum roof produces oxygen and provides natural overhead insulation for the building, thereby reducing its energy costs. It is also expected to last twice as long as a traditional roof.

In addition to the living roof, the broader redesign effort features sunflowers and other plants throughout the grounds to rid soil of contaminants, vines to shade buildings, porous paving that filters water through underground beds of crushed stone, plant-lined "swales" to further improve stormwater management, and the planting of more than 1,000 trees. A new paint shop on the Rouge site that opened in September 2000 generates one-third less emissions from paint than the one it replaced. In the future, renewable energy sources such as fuel cells and solar arrays will augment the complex's power grid.

A $222 million package of tax breaks and incentives from local, county, and state government is helping fund the transformation. "Ford has taken a progressive stance on environmental issues and with our redevelopment of the Rouge Center we are putting our words into action," says company vice president Tim O'Brien, who is leading the project. "The roof and other environmental initiatives we're implementing are cost effective. Year after year they will save us money as well as conserve resources."

"As you look into the future, the trend will be to ask industrial sites to be cleaner and cleaner," lead architect McDonough noted in a November 2000 interview with The Detroit News. "If we meet or exceed the standards, there's less need for regulatory oversight. What we're essentially doing is converting buildings built for machines and now designing them to produce oxygen and offer a habitat for hummingbirds."

Elsewhere, environmental organizations including the National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and World Resources Institute have commissioned many such green structures. For instance, in January 2004 actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Hollywood environmental activist Laurie David unveiled NRDC's new regional headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., a facility called the Redford Building, which they helped finance.

Located in a building that once housed an acupuncture school, the Redford Building uses 60 percent to 75 percent less electricity by maximizing natural light and using photo sensors to dim lamps when sunlight is bright enough to read by. It also uses 60 percent less water by filtering and disinfecting water reclaimed from rain gutters, sinks, and showers to flush toilets. Based on these and other attributes, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) awarded the building its highest possible "platinum" rating, making it the "greenest building" in America.

Meanwhile, the newly-constructed Audubon Center near downtown Los Angeles (also platinum-rated by USGBC) is the first in the city to be entirely powered by on-site solar systems -- functioning completely "off the grid." According to the Los Angeles Times, the facility also is "off the sewer system" -- using live cultures in sophisticated membranes to sanitize bathroom waste to a point of such purity that filtered water is able to percolate back into the ground.

As the Ford example shows, the green building movement is also gaining momentum beyond the nonprofit sector. Companies including Toyota, Steelcase, Herman Miller, and IBM have recently broken ground or completed construction on green buildings. For instance, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. recently completed a 624,000-square foot headquarters expansion that costs less than the average rental space Toyota previously paid to house its 2,500 sales-division employees.

The USGBC recently gave the new facility its second-highest "gold" rating for features, such as one of the largest commercial solar rooftop electric systems in North America, which is expected to provide up to 20 percent of the building's energy requirements. The building uses wood harvested from sustainable forests for construction and interior finishes as well as steel recycled from automobiles to form the building's structural beams and columns. More than 90 percent of the waste from construction and demolition is being recycled, some of it onsite as pavers in the facility's state-of-the art Xeriscape garden (see the "PPI Xeriscape Play"). Toyota's South Campus facility is furnished with recycled and recyclable carpets and work stations. Even the products used by janitors to clean the facility are non-toxic -- a benefit to the environment and for people who use them.

In addition to the private sector, states including Pennsylvania, California, Oregon, New York, and Maryland have adopted green building policies. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Energy's Federal Energy Management Program provides resources on best building practices.

To promote a common set of green building standards and spur their construction, USGBC created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. Established in 1993, the USGBC is comprised of 3000 organizations, including architectural and engineering firms, product developers, financial institutions, and representatives from state and local government.

The nonprofit organization established the LEED rating system in 1994 and updated its standard in 2000 and 2002 to reflect refinements in green building construction and materials. The rating system may be applied to new and existing commercial, institutional, and high-rise residential buildings based on their environmental attributes. The system is comprised of 34 criteria, or "credits," as well as seven prerequisites across six broad categories: site selection, water efficiency, energy use, materials selection, indoor air quality, and design. Building scores determine LEED's four rating levels: platinum, gold, silver, and certified.

As of 2003, approximately 100 million square feet of buildings were undergoing LEED certification, according to a recent study commissioned by California's Sustainable Building Task Force. The Golden State leads the country in the number of LEED certified buildings (140). On a project per-capita basis and project per-state domestic product basis, however, California is rivaled by states including Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington, each of which have well-established programs to encourage green construction.

Although the green building movement clearly is gaining momentum, the perception that such structures are too costly and unproven persists, according to the California task force study. To help dispel such notions, the group set out to quantify the costs and benefits of green buildings. Estimation is complicated by the fact that most green buildings are too new to deliver cost-savings data, which typically are realized over a building's 20-year average life. Another problem is that green buildings lack "controls" or non-green counterparts simply built to code, which would permit accurate cost comparison.

Such measurement challenges notwithstanding, the task force studied 33 LEED-registered projects to develop data on the costs and benefits of green construction. It concluded that while upfront green building construction costs are about 2 percent higher than buildings simply constructed to code, green buildings generate about 20 percent in savings of initial construction costs over their lifetimes. In other words, an upfront investment of $100,000 in green-building features into a $5 million dollar project would result in about $1 million worth of savings in today's dollars over the average 20-year life of the building. Most of the higher upfront cost is for the additional time architects and engineers need to design cleaner, greener building features.

Much of the savings come in the form of lower energy and water bills. But features such as improved natural lighting and cleaner indoor air also improve productivity and result in fewer lost workdays and worker's compensation claims. More important, environmentalists say, green buildings have the potential to improve the nation's energy independence.

"Operating commercial and residential buildings consumes over 40 percent of the country's energy -- twice as much as passenger cars and trucks," says NRDC senior scientist Rob Watson, a driving force behind NRDC's new Santa Monica facility.

Even more promising, perhaps, is the fact that such savings are possible today without passing a single new law or resorting to existing mandates. Although states such as New York have passed tax incentive programs to encourage green building development, the movement for the most part is voluntary -- illustrating the tremendous potential of the building sector to pave the way for a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Resources For Action

Progressive Policy Institute's State Environment Exchange

U.S. Green Building Council

California Sustainable Building Task Force

"The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Buildings: A Report to California's Sustainable Building Task Force," October 2003

California Governor's Executive Order D-16-00 establishing state sustainable building goal

Pennsylvania Governor's Green Government Council's

Ford Rouge Center Landscape Master Plan, William McDonough & Partners

"Toyota campus expansion is a showcase of green building practices," Toyota Environmental Update, March 2003

"Greener By Design: NRDC's Santa Monica Office," Natural Resources Defense Council

"Audubon Nature Center is Certified as Nation's Most Environmentally Friendly Building," National Audubon Society

Smart Communities Network, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network (EREN), A Project of the U.S. Department of Energy

Additional Reading

Miguel Bustillo, "Building on Green Principles: Los Angeles Boasts Two of the Most Ecologically Advanced Structures in the Country," Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2004


Pegi Shriver
Vice President for Marketing and Fund Development
U.S. Green Building Council
1015 18th Street, NW, Suite 805
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 82-USGBC or 828-7422, Ext: 145
(202) 828-5110 (fax) for general USGBC inquiries for LEED inquiries for membership inquiries

Uchenna Bright
Program Assistant
Natural Resources Defense Council
40 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011
(212) 727-4532
(212) 727-1773 Fax

Mark Yamauchi
Facilities Operations Manager
Real Estate and Facilities
Toyota Motor Sales, USA Inc.
19001 S. Western Avenue
Torrance, CA 90501
(310) 468-6263

Jan Mazurek
Center for Innovation & the Environment
Progressive Policy Institute
600 Pennsylvania Ave. SE Suite 400
Washington, D.C. 20003
(202) 544-5014 (fax)

PPI Green Building Play

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