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Green buildings can mean savings for some–but not all

Gov. David Paterson recently signed into law the Green Building Construction Act, authorizing the Office of General Services to develop green building standards for New York by late 2010.

The office will create a climate action plan, which will establish criteria for state buildings to reach goals for efficiency and sustainability. The requirements apply to both construction and substantial renovation of buildings. State agencies also will be required to prepare annual reports containing information about building performance, including energy consumption, waste reduction and indoor air quality compared with benchmarks.

A second new law, referred to as the Green Residential Building Program, authorizes the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to set and administer guidelines and criteria for residential design and building techniques.

As an architecture and engineering firm, we have always worked with the belief that good design is sustainable design. We routinely create buildings that take advantage of new energy-efficient technologies and mechanical systems, reducing operation and maintenance costs for our clients. Like design firms across the nation, we have turned to the U.S. Green Building Council to enhance our understanding of sustainable design.

The council has led the way in promoting environmentally friendly design and construction practices through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. A LEED credential, the council says, "provides employers, policymakers and other stakeholders with assurances of an individual’s current level of competence and is the mark of the most qualified, educated and influential green building professionals in the marketplace."

Likewise, a LEED certification of a building project provides independent verification that it meets the highest green building and performance measures. LEED-certified projects are designed to result in overall environmental, health and community benefits.

The state’s Green Building Construction Act supports the efforts of the council and requires state agencies and authorities to construct buildings that lower energy costs, improve air quality, reduce waste and curb greenhouse gas emissions. The law’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell, says it will encourage energy conservation and will reduce costs for New York taxpayers. It also has the potential to create "green-collar" jobs of the future.

With such benefits, one might wonder why all buildings have not already been designed to meet LEED or Green Construction Act standards. Herein lies the difficulty: For some projects and building sectors, sustainable design can be particularly challenging and more costly up front.

Health care design is a prime example. Health care facilities are energy-intensive; they must operate around the clock. Other design issues involve durability, both inside and outside, the necessity of backup power, heavy water use and generation of waste, some hazardous or infectious. The industry is also highly regulated in both design and operation.

But for health care we also must consider the less obvious but equally important results of green design. Because the average health care facility uses 2.1 times the energy per square foot of the typical office building, hospitals that invest in conservation measures and reduce waste can earn big rewards. Institutions also say that new or planned green facilities improve the recruitment of nurses and physicians.

New York’s Green Building Construction Act will affect all state facilities, but how are we to encourage others to follow suit? For many, it’s a simple matter of economics. As energy prices rise and resources dwindle in supply, the effect on our wallets ultimately will spur the demand for green construction. It took gas prices of $4.50 per gallon to shock us into trading our SUVs for fuel-efficient cars, and the same may hold true for the construction industry.

Ultimately, as in the health care industry, we need to recognize the less tangible benefits and focus on the long-term economic paybacks of energy-efficient design.

While we commend the state of New York for demonstrating leadership and commitment to sustainable design, the question remains: Why did it adopt its own regulations and standards, rather than use LEED, Green Globes or other existing standards? The Green Building Council has led the way in the United States to develop a clear set of guidelines and goals for building design and construction. Will the new law be more stringent?

For now, I’ll reserve judgment on the potential effectiveness of the Green Building Construction Act. Ideally, one day we will all come to understand that good design and sustainable design go hand in hand, and we won’t need new guidelines, goals and laws to promote green design. It will simply be part of our general building code-sustainable design as standard practice.

Todd Liebert is president of Clark Patterson Lee, an architecture and engineering firm with more than 200 multidiscipline design professionals in 11 offices.

12/11/09 (c) 2009 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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