Sustainable Buildings: Real Costs, Real Value

July 1, 2003
Maximizing Building Performance Through Environmental Strategies - PROJECTS
Facilities managers are often concerned that in trying to achieve “green” or “sustainable” design, they’ll have to relinquish their buildings’ aesthetic appearance or that their facilities will cost more to build and maintain. With all this talk, what are the real costs and consequences of going after a high-performance facility that is healthy for building tenants and occupants; visually, thermally, and acoustically comfortable; water-, energy-, and materials-efficient; easy to maintain; environmentally friendly; and safe and secure?Professionals at Madison, WI-based PLANNING Design Build ( wondered the same thing. How can you make reasonable decisions regarding high-performance design if you don’t have all the facts? With a long history of designing and building sustainable facilities, they realized that not much research was available regarding the costs of creating a high-performance building. “Our view is that sustainable design is the wave of the future,” explains Ken Pientka, PE, COO, PLANNING Design Build. “As we assessed the market, we recognized that there was a lack of hard data regarding how much more it costs to design and construct a sustainable building. We decided that the best way to understand the true cost premiums was to redesign a recently completed building using sustainable design principles.” Using the Madison, WI-based TomoTherapy Headquarters medical technology center, which was completed in 2002, the PLANNING team designed a Concept Building to fit the remaining site space currently used to accommodate the TomoTherapy Building. Near twins, TomoTherapy and the Concept Building are virtually identical. The primary difference between the two: TomoTherapy was designed to be an energy-efficient, Class A office building, while the Concept Building was designed to achieve Gold certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating program. The company wanted to see real results concerning first-cost premiums of a holistically designed, sustainable office building when compared to an energy-efficient office building, and wanted to develop an understanding of the cost differences at a building systems level.Although it may seem difficult to compare an actual building with one that exists only on paper, PLANNING went to great measures to ensure that the evaluation was accurate. “Fully developed construction documents were used to competitively bid the Concept Building in January 2003, and [we] were prepared to enter into a general contract to construct the building based on the bid results,” says Pientka. The team developed construction document-level drawings to make certain that all subcontractors had a clear set of instructions regarding requirements.                “We adjusted certain costs to ensure an ‘apples to apples’ comparison by accounting for unique differences in the two buildings caused by factors such as differences in the site or changes in building code,” Pientka explains. PLANNING analyzed bid results to confirm that inflation wasn’t affecting price. The team also met individually with many of the subcontractors to review their bids and confirm that they included all sustainable design features. “[The subcontractors] were generally open to and supportive of the sustainable design concepts, in spite of it being new to most of them,” Pientka says.The results of this comparison are encouraging: Although some upfront costs were higher in the Concept Building, quantifiable energy cost savings compared to ASHRAE Standard 90.1 were approximately $1/square foot/year. Maintenance costs were lower due to high-performance materials that were designed to last. “The key conclusion from this project is that a USGBC LEED Gold-rated building can be designed and built for about $4/square foot cost premium (compared to the TomoTherapy building), provided that holistic design principles are used,” explains Pientka. “A sustainably designed building is affordable, as the $4/square foot cost premium adds about 50 cents/square foot to the annual rent. This appears to be a tremendous value considering the energy savings, reduced storm water runoff and increased groundwater recharge, improved indoor environmental quality and resultant improvements in employee productivity, and overall societal benefits.“It is hard to quantify the benefits to employers that result from creating a sustainable space with outstanding indoor environmental quality,” states Pientka. “There is a growing body of evidence that improved productivity, employee retention, and reduced absenteeism result from a workspace designed for sustainability. With labor costs averaging about $150/square foot/year, it’s easy to see how a small improvement in productivity or absenteeism will quickly pay for itself.“Societal benefits are also difficult to quantify. How does one put a value on capturing rainwater on-site and allowing it to recharge the local aquifer rather than letting polluted rainwater drain into a local lake?” However, the company made decisions not to pursue a garden roof or raised flooring for the HVAC system while designing the Concept Building, citing that not every high-performance system is suitable for all facilities.As Pientka points out, sustainable design doesn’t come from employing a set of piecemeal changes, which create minor reductions in resource use and total life-cycle cost. It requires simultaneous consideration of all aspects of interlinked issues – like site and climate, building orientation and form, and visual and thermal comfort – to optimize all parts of the project. “In the end, an integrated approach often creates multiple benefits, allowing many sustainable buildings to cost minimally more than a standard building, even though some of their components may be noticeably more in cost,” emphasizes Pientka.

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