Green buildings bloom around the US

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Scraps from old wine corks, recycled tires, salvaged pickle barrels, and other byproducts normally sent to the trash heap are just a few of the elements wrapped into the new Chicago Center for Green Technology. The building, which once sat on an illegal dump site with 70-foot-high piles of rubble, had been scheduled for demolition before its transformation into the "greenest" building in the Midwest.

Even the architect of the building, which was designed as a showcase, acknowledges that some features aren't likely to see much use in mainstream designs. After all, how many building owners will spend an extra $1,800 to use genetically altered canola oil simply to avoid the pollution risk of hydraulic oil. But Chicago architect Douglas Farr feels that green building is finally catching on.

"Over the last 10 years, it's evolved from people not knowing what green architecture was, to where we were pariahs at cocktail parties, 'those greenies.' Now people seek us out," says Mr. Farr, a leader in green design.

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Environmental aspects added about 20 percent to the cost of the $5.4 million facelift of the 50-year-old building, according to David Reynolds, deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Environment. Using renewable materials like cork scraps and recycled tires for the floor won't have any payback, nor will the salvaged pickle barrels used to build a trellis.

But about $30,000 in annual utility costs will be saved by using things like special thermal windows that can actually be opened to reduce heating and cooling costs. Sensors turn on lights only when and where the skylights don't let in enough light. "Rooms like bathrooms have motion detectors; the lights turn on when you walk in," Mr. Reynolds says.

Heating and cooling costs are kept down by using geothermal heat, in which pipes carry liquids through deep wells beneath the parking lot to heat or cool it to the temperature of the earth, about 50 degrees. Even the parking lot is environmentally correct, using pine tar instead of petroleum materials, giving it a lighter color that doesn't heat up as much as normal asphalt.

The 34,000-square-foot building is likely to become only the third building in the US to get a sought-after certification for its extensive use of renewable materials and energy conservation.

All this activity is part of a growing trend toward energy conservation and the use of renewable materials.

Nearly 400 buildings, including Chicago's showcase, are seeking certification from the US Green Building Council (USGBC), which has established a four-level scale for what it calls Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The extensive list includes energy usage, storm water management, and conserving materials. Indoor air quality is another big issue, giving points for using paints and other materials that don't emit odors and chemicals.

"When these buildings are new, they don't smell new. They have a healthier environment so there's less employee absenteeism," said Peter Templeton, a program manager at USGBC, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

One resident in Chicago's new building agrees that environmental design brings intangible benefits. "This is the most comfortable building I've ever worked in. It's well lit, and after working in sterile office environments, I like the idea that I can open the windows," says Mark Burger, sales manager at Spire Solar, which supplied some of the solar panels that sit atop the building beside an urban garden.

Lest anyone think it's just a few environmental extremists talking up green buildings, the Environmental Protection Agency recently awarded 729 structures with its Energy Star label, given to public and private buildings that score at least 75 on a 100-point test for energy conservation. Those buildings, roughly half commercial buildings and half schools and government offices, use about 40 percent less energy than other structures in their class. That translates to $134 million in energy savings and 1.9 billion fewer pounds of carbon dioxide emissions at those buildings.

Last year was the first year that the EPA promoted the building-oriented cousin of the Energy Star label commonly seen on refrigerators and washing machines, so it's hard to quantify how much interest in conservation is growing. But implementation is higher than expected.

"One of the sectors most interested is commercial real estate, which has historically been difficult to get interested in conservation," said EPA spokeswoman Maria Vargas.

Commercial and residential buildings use about two thirds of the nation's electricity, and by 2010, 38 million buildings will be added to the 76 million that now exist, according to the EPA.

Most observers feel that rating systems from the likes of the EPA and USGBC help by providing definitive ways to measure environmental and ecological issues.

"Before, people asked what color it was, grass green, light green, very green. This takes all the hucksterism out of it. You know what you're getting," says Bill Browning, senior consultant for green services at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo.

While the EPA focuses on energy usage, USGBC looks at other types of conservation. For example, water conservation is a focus at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation headquarters in Annapolis, Md., which was the first building to get the USGBC's top rating.

"We use composting toilets, which are essentially a 21st century version of an outhouse," a spokesman says. That helps reduce water consumption by 90 percent. In addition, rain water is captured in huge tanks and used for fire sprinklers and lawn watering.

Impact of buildings

The environmental impact of commercial and residential buildings in the US:

65.2 percent of total US electricity consumption

36 percent of US primary energy use

30 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions

136 million tons of construction and demolition waste in the US (approximately 2.8 lbs per person a day)

12 percent of potable water in the US

40 percent (3 billion tons annually) of raw materials use globally

Source: US Green Building Council

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