A Smart Approach to Sustainability

March 4, 2007
Once you push past the myths relating to sustainability and green design, you’ll find several strategies that will work for your commercial buildings, no matter what your location

By Leah B. Garris

Myth and misinformation surround the topic of sustainability, clouding its definition and purpose, and blurring the lines between green fact and fiction. "Some [facilities professionals] think that a green building will require sacrifice in terms of comfort. That's certainly understandable ... it goes back to Jimmy Carter wearing his cardigan and telling us all to turn down the thermostat. But, we've come a long way since then; there are strategies today that can provide the same level of comfort with much less energy use," says Ralph DiNola, principal, Green Building Services, Portland, OR.

Along with the assumed forfeit of comfort also comes apprehension about the way a green building might look. "There are opportunities for creative architects and engineers to make a building 'look' very green - if that's what the owner wants to do. But, there are also so many things you can do with a building that are nearly invisible or that can be seamlessly integrated with the design. You can have a green building that doesn't really 'look' any different than any other building," says Alan Scott, principal, Green Building Services, Portland, OR. Simply designing a green building that looks "normal" can be a unique way to achieve a level of sustainability. "People don't really talk about the value of aesthetics in terms of the longevity of a building. A beautiful building will be kept by a culture much longer than an ugly building. Aesthetics is very much a part of longevity, and longevity is key to sustainability," says DiNola.

Dan Meza, an architect at Emeryville, CA-based Ratcliff, points out that this trend is happening with manufacturers as well. "A lot of the things we're used to specifying in our buildings actually don't look any different than they did before, but the process by which they were manufactured, their recyclability, their efficiency, etc. has changed."

When you cut through the lingo and get down to reality, sustainability isn't about spending more on fancy gadgets in hopes of earning an eventual return on investment. It's not about environmentally responsible buildings that ultimately sacrifice tenant/occupant comfort; it's not about "greenwashing" your building, packing in as many sustainable products as possible without giving it much thought. To Meza, practicing sustainability means adding an extra layer of scrutiny to every decision you make about your building. That's not to say that purchasing green products, abiding by green-cleaning standards, and recycling assets at the end of their useful lives isn't sustainable - without a doubt, carrying out these tasks is good for the environment, your tenants/occupants, and, oftentimes, the bottom line. But, sustainability is also about something more. "So much of it isn't really about whiz-bang products; it's about using the basic building blocks we all have, but using them in a much more intentional way," says DiNola.

Before jumping on the green bandwagon, take time to research what will work best for your building and provide the best return on investment. Instead of buying in to the myths that can sink your efforts to be sustainable, do some investigating on your own so that you'll be able to weigh your options and make the right decisions. When there is no time designated to sorting through the variety of sustainable technologies, it's often a decision that's made at the last minute; whether it's new construction or a renovation, the project team ends up scrambling to find products and materials that will "green things up."

What if you used a different type of window glazing? What if you added shading devices to the exterior or put more insulation in the roof? Scott emphasizes that testing your options via energy modeling and design analysis before installation allows you to understand how they will work with the building's surrounding climate and existing equipment. "Seeing how things work interactively means that you're not just [making] a gross assumption about what may or may not work well; you're taking a scientific or systematic approach to find the best combination of strategies." Maybe the shading devices and extra insulation you want to add will allow you to downsize the boiler or chiller - there's no way to truly know how systems will affect each other unless you do some research in advance.

Sustainability Starts with the Climate
Simply put, green strategies are green because they work with surrounding climatic and geographic conditions instead of against them. With that description in mind, Meza points out that you have to know about the environment in which you're designing and building to know whether or not you're truly being green. "It has to do with being in sync with the conditions that you're given and using them to your advantage." To achieve the ultimate in sustainable design, you should be familiar with year-round weather conditions (average temperature, humidity, rainfall, etc.), topography, prevailing winds, indigenous plants, etc. "All of that goes into what makes a building green, so sustainability has to be based on where you are. Measuring the success of sustainable design involves comparing building performance to a baseline condition. That baseline condition has everything to do with where your building is locate and what your climate is like," says Meza.

In addition to understanding your surrounding climate, Chris Jarrett, associate professor and associate director at Atlanta-based Georgia Institute of Technology's College of Architecture, says that understanding microclimates (variations within a city, county, or state) is also crucial. "Even in terms of hot/arid and hot/humid climates, microclimates also need to be determined, because they do exist."

Brad Nies, director of Kansas City, MO-based BNIM Architects' sustainable design consulting division, Elements, emphasizes that you also need to identify and reduce your building's need for resources that are scarce (water and energy, perhaps) and increase the use of abundant, available resources (sun, rainwater, wind, etc.). Knowing the climate also means knowing what's being provided to you for use: the sun for heating and lighting, the wind for ventilation, and the rainwater for irrigation and other water requirements.

When talking sustainability, it's common to look at five areas: 1) site conservation, 2) water conservation, 3) energy efficiency, 4) materials conservation, and 5) the indoor environment (this is a universal list, modeled after the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system). Of these five subjects, two (the indoor environment and materials conservation) are almost entirely independent of climate - they're important and relevant everywhere. Site conservation does depend on climate, but on a level that's very specific to a particular site and to the ground on which your building is sitting. The last two areas (water conservation and energy efficiency) both vary, depending primarily on the climate. Each U.S. region has a different climate: If you don't understand which resources are readily available and which aren't, and you use the wrong technique in the wrong location, costs will inevitably increase, which is something you want to avoid.

No matter what your location, your buildings have the opportunity to take advantage of the surrounding environment. Although certain areas of the United States are gaining attention for their environmental projects, success in sustainability is possible anywhere. In fact, as DiNola points out, "When you have greater climate extremes, you have even better opportunities for savings."

To help you make sense of some of the sustainable technologies that are growing in popularity throughout the United States, this PDF file will give you the information you'll need to make an educated decision about what will work best (and what won't) for your buildings.

Leah B. Garris ([email protected]) is senior associate editor at Buildings magazine.

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