Why Green Buildings Are the New Normal in California

Many green building practices are fairly routine now across the country, but some companies and nonprofits have gone far beyond the standards to reduce the environmental impact. Could this become the new normal?
Image source: Flickr CC user bobarcpics

A few years ago, companies would issue news releases when they installed energy-saving lights and appliances, loaded solar panels on the roof, or recycled the lumber and carpeting left over on job sites. Environmentally friendly building practices are now routine, and in California, they are required.

Across the country, it is becoming more newsworthy when a company fails to adopt some “green” building techniques than when they do. In California, implementing eco-friendly building practices has been a non-issue since 2011 when the state adopted the nation’s first statewide building code. Among other things, that act required developers to take steps to reduce the amount of water used in construction, to recycle construction waste, and to install energy-saving systems and appliances.

Nationwide, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) remains the standard for new construction. While the standards have been recently updated, LEED remains a points-based system, and a company can shoot for one of four levels of certification. But the new normal means that these days, not only are companies frequently meeting the highest LEED certification level–they are exceeding it.

Some Green Buildings Have Gone Beyond LEED

Some companies and non-profits are now aiming for “net zero” use of water, waste and materials. They are attempting to create buildings that waste virtually nothing and produce more energy than they use. The Bullitt Center in Seattle has been called the greenest building in the world. That is up for debate, but the building does push green practices to the extreme. The 50,000-square foot, six-story building collects rainwater on its roof that is filtered down into a 58,000-gallon storage tank in the basement. A solar array on the roof — which resembles a giant paper airplane overhanging the street – generates enough energy for the building. Tenants are given energy budgets and have to pay for overages, as the building is designed to produce all the electricity used in the building.

Other projects have also gone beyond the norm without breaking the bank. In San Francisco, the 19-story One Bush Street obtained LEED’s highest certification level with a less-than-$100,000 investment. In the 1990s, the owners removed asbestos and aggressively recycled and composted waste materials, a move that has saved a reported $25,000 annually. The building uses nearly 80 percent less water than the surrounding buildings. Much of the savings were achieved when the building’s staff began to water the plants manually rather by using an automatic irrigation system. Also, a yearly average of $75,000 was saved on 11 energy improvements to the HVAC, electrical, and lighting systems.

In Cincinnati, another company installed a 3,500-foot pellet stove on the second story of their building, further implementing a hand-washing station over the toilets so the water could be reused in the toilet bowl. This building also made a habit of composting its scrap wood and shipping any carpet scraps to a recycler in Seattle. The building also clipped off the ends of old aluminum blinds to fit them onto new windows. For this project, energy-saving features have cut costs by an estimated 25 percent.

Green Buildings Can Provide a Glimpse of the Future

Companies have also moved into buildings as tenants, making changes in the rest of the building that exceed expectations. In Atlanta, the design firm Cooper Carry took over two floors of a 50-story downtown skyscraper. In an effort to save energy, the lights automatically turn off when natural light fills the room–that move alone saved an estimated 35 percent on lighting costs.

When developers go beyond the existing standards, they reveal the way of the future, and that future shouldn’t intimidate anyone. The foundation that owns the Bullitt Center admits that the building was more expensive to build (roughly 23 cents more per square foot). They also conceded that it would have been more profitable to construct the building to code, and then flip it to a real estate investment trust. However, once fully leased, the building will turn a profit, and it has been designed to last for the next 250 years. So, this building — on the far extreme side of green commercial construction — can be profitable now, and stands to be profitable for decades.

Green features present intriguing opportunities for developers. As we have seen, some companies are saving tens of thousands of dollars each year on energy costs. These improvements may also ultimately make the building more valuable and marketable.

If your company is considering a new construction project that incorporates green building practices or wants to make environmental improvements to your existing building, you don’t have to go it alone. You can get a thorough analysis of the costs and benefits from a consultant whose community values align with your own. Contact DCG Real Estate today to learn more.