'Green' design is sensible in era of great uncertainty

February 16, 2009

The "green" movement has made impressive inroads in building design in recent years, but some buyers of construction are still skeptical due to faulty information they apparently plucked from misinformed grapevines.

Many of these reluctant owners have been misled into believing green construction is nearly always more costly and that the extra expense can never be recouped in merely hypothetical benefits. A New York Times article implied as much in 2003 in a story headlined, "Not Building Green Is Called a Matter of Economics." The truth, of course, is that such claims simply lack substance, are outdated, or are based on factors outside of the project's being green.

Green buildings incorporate environmentally sensitive design to increase efficient use of energy, water and materials, while reducing negative impacts on both human health and the environment—more so than buildings merely built to code.

Several studies have documented that green buildings are only 1 percent to 3 percent more expensive than conventional buildings, sometimes even less, and that any extra initial costs are more than offset over time by significant savings in operating costs and sizable appreciation in the value of the structures.

The experience of at least three states—Pennsylvania, Oregon and Washington—indicates that the additional initial cost of green design has actually declined from the 3- to 4-percent range in the mid-1990s, according to a report prepared for Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

Education is the fastest-growing sector for green building. McGraw-Hill Construction economists said in a 2007 study that green investment by cost-conscious school administrators would grow 5 percent to 10 percent nationally by 2010. The McGraw-Hill research suggested, conservatively, that green schools should cut operating costs 11 percent and energy costs 14 percent, and increase building value 6 percent.

The researchers emphasized, however, that actual results already compiled in some schools showed utility costs falling 20 percent to 40 percent and water use decreasing 30 percent. And another review of 60 schools given green ratings by the U.S. Green Building Council noted energy efficiency improving 25 percent to 30 percent.

A similar green study for the California Sustainable Building Task Force found that "an upfront investment of less than 2 percent of construction costs yields life cycle savings of over 10 times the initial investment." That study analyzed 30 projects recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council and concluded that additional upfront costs in the 2 percent (or $3 to $5 per square foot) range were offset many times over by savings in water, gas, electricity and maintenance.

I would encourage prospective buyers to review a study by Gregory H. Katz for the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative titled, "Green Building Costs and Financial Benefits."

Katz notes that construction buyers have drawn wrong conclusions from the New York Times article.

"Green buildings provide financial benefits that conventional buildings do not," Katz said. "These benefits include energy and water savings, improved indoor environmental quality, greater employee comfort/productivity, reduced employee health costs, and lower operations and maintenance costs."

Noting that the average annual cost of energy in Massachusetts was $2 per square foot at the time of this 2003 study, Katz said "green" buildings use 30 percent less energy than conventional buildings. For a 100,000-square-foot state office building that would save $60,000 in utility costs a year.

I suspect an oft-overlooked dimension of the savings documented in all these studies were the reductions in health care costs. They showed that access to daylight and fresh air and creating an environment free of toxins and irritants reduced absenteeism and use of health care providers.

All this data suggests that buyers contemplating a construction project should first take stock of the needs of a project, and analyze and calculate which green systems and components make economic sense to be incorporated in the design. Buyers should not shy away from devoting a little more time to design of the project if it can result in long-term savings.

To reasonable people influenced by facts, it should be clear that green design is a construction philosophy whose time has come. In an era when the nation is concerned about wildly ranging gasoline prices, dependence on foreign energy sources, conservation of our natural assets, and a sputtering economy, design and construction of easy-to-maintain, energy-efficient buildings should be a high priority.

The evidence is in—and it's persuasive.

Fred Green, AIA, NCAR, is president of Indianapolis-based Cripe Architects + Engineers. Views expressed here are the writer's. 

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