`Green' building approach starting to put down roots
By KATHLEEN O'BRIEN
Environmentally friendly construction, or "green building" as it is often called, aims to achieve sustainability by incorporating principles, techniques and materials that conserve natural resources and improve environmental quality throughout a building's entire life-cycle.
In 1993, when we started planning the first regional conference on this topic in Seattle (Building With Value), green building was a mere blip on the radar screen. It was jokingly called the "bleeding edge" by the few innovators who risked introducing it into project planning discussions. In fact, some organizations we approached to sponsor the conference said it was far too risky: No one would come.
Nevertheless, over 500 industry professionals attended the Building With Value conference, and many called it a "watershed experience," as it represented a major shift from the theoretical to the practical.
Attendees left feeling green building no longer had to be viewed as experimental; it could in fact become the standard. Many green building components, such as energy efficiency, materials efficiency, improved air quality, and ecosystem protection, were extensions and enhancements of things attendees were already doing or thinking about. To value-driven business builders/developers and owners, green building concepts represented measurable, and often marketable benefits.
Some of the benefits we identified in those initial discussions included:
Since 1993, there have been several significant opportunities to demonstrate these benefits. At first, projects were used to highlight a single component of green building, such as waste reduction. For example, on the Fred Meyer Department Store in Lake City, nearly $30,000 was saved during construction and demolition due to salvage and recycling. The construction of two new Microsoft Campus office buildings demonstrated $70,000 worth of savings due to recycling and waste reduction. Use of recycled-content building materials was the focus of the award-winning Central Market in Poulsbo -- over a dozen such products were showcased in the attractive, "destination-style" grocery store.
These model projects and others like them in the region were the result of public-private partnerships, with private owners providing the building and government providing the funds for technical assistance.
Over time, demonstration projects broadened, and multiple green building concepts were featured. The Model Conservation Home in Seattle and South Kitsap High School's 1996 Project Teamwork Home in Port Orchard are both excellent local examples of this. The homes showcased energy efficiency, improved air quality, the use of resource-efficient materials, and job-site waste reduction. Again, these projects were public-private ventures, but funding for technical assistance related to green technologies came from the public sector only.
The demonstration of green building has progressed even further in the last two years, with the private sector taking more of a lead, particularly in commercial projects.
Corporate owners and their representatives have begun to value the inclusion of green building consultants on their project teams. The result is that green building concepts have been integrated much sooner into the planning process, with potential benefits being that much greater.
Government support has focused on marketing and outreach through published fact sheets and other publicity. Two local examples of this include the much touted REI store designed by Mithun Partners Architects and the Northwest Federal Credit Union Headquarters designed by Miller Hull Partnership.
What we are witnessing in our work is a continued move towards an integrated approach, while still attending to specific needs and interests our clients may have.
For example, Russ Borneman, DDS, owner of Sound Health Associates in Anacortes, wanted a building suitable for his chemically sensitive clientele. In addition to his own practice, he hoped the building would attract other health practitioner lessees who value the appeal of a truly healthy workspace.
We took some fairly extreme measures on the project, screening all products and techniques (even environmentally friendly alternates such as energy-efficient insulation), for their impact on toxicity and air quality. The result is a building that works in the conventional sense, in that it is attractive and functional, but provides significant added value.
Client priorities are again guiding the process in the new intermediate Sakai School on Bainbridge Island. Although the overall goals take in the full spectrum of green building, the school district is particularly interested in protecting the site's natural features (including a salmon stream) and in providing excellent indoor air quality.
The school project very fittingly has a strong educational component. The innovative capital works director, Richard Best, wants the school building itself to be used as a teaching tool. O'Brien & Co. will be helping teaching staff develop interactive lesson plans that use the building and site to convey principles of sustainability to students and teachers. In addition, permanent interpretive signage and tours of the school's sustainable features will educate visitors.
In addition to individual owners, industry groups are taking an active role in promoting green building. The Home Builders Association of Kitsap County, working with O'Brien & Co., became one of the first home builder associations in the country to develop a green building program for home construction.
Homes qualifying under "Build a Better Kitsap" promise improved values with marketable benefits sure to impress future homeowners: lower energy bills, increased comfort and livability, reduced health risks, higher quality overall, higher resale value and reduced worry about their environmental future.
Build a Better Kitsap homes are rated one-, two-, or three-star based on the number of environmentally friendly features included in the home, with three stars representing the highest level of achievement. The program is designed so the first two levels are quite attainable with no added cost; the third level can add up to $2,000, although this amount is offset by added value.
Since its debut one year ago, the Build a Better Kitsap program has won several local, state and national awards for innovative marketing and education. It has also been used by the National Association of Home Builders Research Center (Maryland) to help develop a model program for home builder associations across the country.
There are now a half dozen similar green homebuilding programs in the country, including one about to be implemented in Clark County. In working with the Clark County group, we've helped develop a "green subdivision" program element as well.
With all this activity, can we assume that green building or sustainable construction is, or is about to become, mainstream?
Not at all. There are still a variety of challenges to building in this manner. Regionally, a concerted effort is underway to identify these challenges and offer real help to overcome them. This effort was formally initiated in October 1997 with a technical conference held in Seattle called "Sustainable Building Northwest: Breaking Through the Barriers." The conference's support was broad-based, with both the public and private sector heavily represented.
As a next step, the Urban Consortium Energy Task Force and U.S. Department of Energy have funded the development of a Sustainable Building Action Plan for the Pacific Northwest. The purpose of the plan is to identify common barriers to sustainable building and recommend concrete actions (education, research, regulatory reform, technical assistance, etc.) to help sustainable building become mainstream practice in our communities.
Industry professionals, public leaders and technical experts from the Pacific Northwest (including British Columbia) have been enlisted in the effort. The plan is expected to be completed by December 1998.
Not only does green building make the highest and best use of natural resources, it also promotes the vitality and productivity of our human and economic resources. The processes used to design and build sustainable structures have the potential to represent the highest levels of craft, performance and environmental responsibility possible.
Kathleen O'Brien is the principal of O'Brien & Co. of Bainbridge Island, an environmental consulting firm to the construction industry.
Copyright © 1998 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.