Green Building Goes Mainstream

National attention and a growing list benefits push wider adoption of Green Building.


Green building is gaining national attention as a growing number of government agencies, commercial developers, and home builders, are making environmental performance a priority. And with good reason. Industry research shows that the built environment accounts for 35 percent of the country’s energy use, 30 percent of raw materials consumption, and 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and waste.

Projects such as Chicago City Halls’ green roof, Four Times Square in Manhattan, Pittsburgh’s new convention center, the green renovation of the Pentagon, and new Audubon nature centers are demonstrating that green building is achievable and can indeed be successful. In the residential sector, single-family home builders such as Newmark Homes in Austin and Hedgewood Homes in Atlanta are attracting national attention for environmental innovation. Until recently, however, green building in the multifamily sector has had a low profile. That’s about to change. Pioneering developers and property companies who have invested in leading edge “green” projects are discovering that there is an emerging market for environmentally friendly apartments and condominiums.

In New York City, the environmentally advanced Solaire residential tower, developed by the Albanese Organization, achieved 100 percent occupancy within six months of opening in 2003. In Silver Spring Maryland, the eco-friendly Blair Towns apartments owned and managed by the Tower Companies are at 100 percent occupancy — three percentage points ahead of the company’s other residential projects. In Los Angeles, where an under supply of housing virtually guarantees rental of a building that meets code, builders and developers in the Playa Vista development have found that environmental innovation gives them a competitive edge for sought- after building sites — and a receptive ear from public officials.

Green building — sometimes called high-performance or sustainable building — is an approach to development and construction that promotes environmental and human health. Green building designers and builders work with natural systems, rather than against them, to maximize building performance. Because the production of energy carries the greatest environmental cost, energy conservation and non-polluting renewable energy are a primary focus of green building projects. Green building also calls for more frugal use of natural resources such as water and wood, integration of recycled and renewable materials, and protection of sensitive eco-systems on the site. Because of attention paid to low-emitting materials and good ventilation, indoor air in “green” residential buildings is generally much healthier than in conventional projects, and green buildings release fewer pollutants into the environment.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a coalition of building professionals founded in 1993, is setting performance standards for environmental building. Developers and building owners can certify their projects as “green” based on a point-based system called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Other organizations including NAHB, Southface Institute, and many municipalities are also creating measurement systems for environmental performance. One important aspect of LEED and several of the other systems is commissioning. Before achieving certification, building owners must hire a third-party expert to verify that all of the building’s systems are working as intended.

Apartment buildings and condominiums are already a step ahead of single family housing when it comes to the environment. Multifamily buildings conserve land and concentrate resources in a single, convenient location, unlike single family homes. Sandra Leibowitz, a green building expert and LEED consultant who has worked on several dozen high-density projects, says that multifamily buildings are “all about efficiencies.” She points out that structural systems and enclosures, materials, technologies, land-use including parking, roadways and drives, and energy efficiency can all be maximized in multifamily projects. Operations and maintenance are more efficient too. “Those economies of scale can translate into lower monthly energy costs, better environmental performance, and more opportunities for affordable housing,” says Leibowitz.

Smart growth advocates have been pushing for more high-density housing near public transportation in transit-oriented development (TODs) as a tool for environmental and land conservation.

At Playa Vista, the sustainable development project in West Los Angeles on the site of the former Howard Hughes estate, project planners were able to conserve 70 percent of the 1,087-acre site for open space by concentrating 5,800 units of multifamily housing on 336 acres of multifamily lots rather than 4,400 single family homes on quarter-acre family lots. By doing so, they were able to save precious wetlands and natural resources, and provide community amenities for all of Playa Vista’s residents.

Leibowitz says that the best multifamily projects are those that combine efficiencies and locational advantages, especially in mixed-use settings, with green building. “Building owners and managers who take advantage of the environmental opportunities inherent in apartment buildings can really make impressive advances on behalf of the environment.

The Solaire, “the nation’s first environmentally-advanced residential tower” in New York City’s lower Manhattan, is perhaps the highest-profile green apartment building in the U.S. The 27-story, 293-unit rental building integrates a high-efficiency heating and ventilation system, high-performance insulation and windows, solar panels, natural low-impact materials such as bamboo flooring and granite counters, paints with little or no off-gassing, Energy Star-rated appliances, and a sophisticated air and water filtration system. The Solaire’s in-house water treatment plant cleans and recycles wastewater for use in toilets and irrigation. A terrace “green roof” on the 19th floor provides a welcome green space and also protects against storm-water runoff and heat-island effect. The Solaire’s distinctive blue solar panels provide 5 percent of the building’s energy.

“The market response to the building has been remarkable,” says Lydia Haran, director of residential marketing for the Albanese Organization, the building’s owner and developer. The company’s marketing materials invited urban professionals and their families to “live healthy and live green,” emphasizing the quality living experience and services in the building and its environmental innovation.

“The environmental features were part of our overall approach to quality,” says company president Russell Albanese. He estimates that the Solaire uses 35 percent less energy than conventional code-compliant buildings in Manhattan, and emits far fewer pollutants.

The Solaire reached full occupancy within six months of opening in 2003, defying all predictions for a slow market just blocks from Ground Zero. Today, Haran maintains a lengthy waiting list of potential tenants. “One of the biggest selling points of the building has been the air quality,” says Haran. Several families with asthmatic children have reported a dramatic improvement in their children’s symptoms since moving into the building. The project has earned its developer numerous awards and ongoing positive coverage from print and television media.

Albanese developed the Solaire under Battery Park City’s Residential Environ-mental Building Guidelines, and Battery Park City staff worked closely with their developer to support environmental innovation. To date, the Solaire is the highest-rated apartment building under the UUGBC’s LEED rating system, having earned a gold rating. Albanese’s property management company for the Solaire, Rose Associates, manages the building in an environmentally sensitive manner and provides educational environmental seminars to tenants. Rose utilizes a state-of-the-art computer-based information management system to monitor the building’s systems and performance.

The Solaire experience highlights a series of emerging reasons that building developers and property companies are turning to environmentally-friendly building approaches. Chief among them is concern about indoor air quality. Toxic indoor environments, whether from carbon monoxide, materials off-gassing, or mold have triggered chronic health problems and persistent law suits for the industry. Utility costs are yet another reason. Building managers know that electricity, heating, and water bills represent a significant share of operations expenses. Green building approaches can cut utility costs in half while they protect the environment.

From a consumer point of view, an emerging market of renters and condominium buyers are seeking out green projects. Like the customers of Whole Foods markets, who value healthy, sustainably grown food, and car buyers who choose fuel-efficient hybrid cars, these customers readily invest in healthy, environmentally-friendly living environments when given a chance to do so. And like building managers, they appreciate the utility savings associated with green buildings.

In the final analysis, green building pioneers may be on the cutting edge of what will be an inevitability for the industry. Municipalities and oversight agencies are tightening standards for environmental performance across the country. The cities of New York, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Portland, Austin, and others, as well as counties such as Arlington County in Virginia and Montgomery County in Maryland, have introduced tighter regulations for air quality, energy performance, and construction waste management. In regions of the country where water scarcity or watershed issues are prominent, storm water runoff standards and water conservation requirements are becoming far more rigorous than they have been in recent years. And in cities where these standards are not yet mandatory, developers are finding that planners and review boards look more favorably on projects that demonstrate environmental responsibility.

Jeffrey Abramson, a partner in the Maryland-based Tower Companies, saw both an opportunity to do better for the environment and to distinguish his new residential project with green building. The Tower Company’s 78-unit Blair Towns apartment complex in Silver Spring, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., features energy-efficient building design and large, low-e windows that maximize natural light while minimizing energy loss, wood-efficient framing, a combined heating and hot water system, Energy Star-rated appliances, non-toxic paints and carpets, and on-site measures to capture and re-use storm water. Forty percent of the products used in the Blair Towns project contain recycled-content materials, and over seventy percent are locally-supplied, which reduces energy and pollution from transportation.

The Tower Companies has signed a green power purchasing contract with the regional utility provider, Pepco, and makes green power available to Blair Towns residents at a small additional cost. The company also created a comprehensive education program for tenants, providing a “Green Guide” brochure to incoming tenants, environmental orientation sessions, and tips for energy conservation. The company encourages recycling and supports car-pooling and alternative transportation, including ample bicycle parking and electrical car hook-ups. Like the Solaire, the Blair Towns apartments are within a short walking distance to public transportation and area restaurants, stores, and services.

Blair Towns was the first multifamily project to earn USGBC LEED certification. The Tower Companies estimates that the environmental measures at Blair Towns will save tenants at least 30 percent on their utility bills over comparable conventional projects.

Like Abramson and Albanese, innovative developers are recognizing an opportunity to distinguish their products while creating more environmentally responsible developments. Within blocks of the Tower Companies project in Silver Spring, developer Don Tucker is renovating an old office building into a 56-unit cohousing condominium project, Eastern Village Cohousing, with 56 environmentally-friendly units and a green roof. One stop down on the Metro line in Takoma Park, Washington, D.C., developer-builder Russell Katz is completing a 52-unit green apartment building, Elevation 314. In Austin, Texas, investor-developer Steve Bauman is planning a 238-unit mixed-use development to include green apartments and other environmental advances. Bauman, Katz, and Tucker are all making environmental quality a keynote of project marketing.

Standard Pacific Homes’ Los Angeles Division President Alan Boeker didn’t go for green because of market appeal. The demand for housing in Los Angeles is so strong that virtually any building that meets code will find renters. But being willing to take an environmentally responsible approach made a difference in a competitive RFP process. Boeker is building five environmentally friendly condominium projects at Playa Vista, the sustainable development project on the site of the former Howard Hughes estate in West Los Angeles.

“This development was so controversial and attracted such community passions, that frankly, I don’t think it would have won public approval if we hadn’t gone green,” says Playa Vista President Steve Soboroff.

Seventy percent of Playa Vista’s land is reserved as open space and wetlands, and the remainder is developed as high-density apartment and condominium housing.

Playa Vista sells or joint ventures with builders for development of multifamily lots as part of a competitive development process. Builders who want to build on a lot agree to follow Playa Vista’s Sustainable Building Guidelines. Those meeting the guidelines’ point-based criteria, gain competitive advantage in the selection process. The builders also agree to undergo a review process that ensures compliance. Playa Vista staff provide their builders with information on green materials manufacturers, technical assistance, and act as liaisons with city agencies.

Building experts generally agree that the “greening” of a multifamily building project costs one to three percent more than standard construction. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Some projects, like the affordable Erie-Ellington Homes project in Boston, came in at below standard costs by applying whole-building design, making smart trade-offs, and good management. Even when costs are somewhat higher, most owners find that they can make their money back within several years through maintenance and utility savings, or a rent premium. Albanese has successfully achieved a five percent premium at the Solaire over competing buildings in Manhattan.

A growing number of states are offering financial incentives for environmentally responsible building. New York State and Maryland offer tax rebates to developers. Illinois has a property tax exemption program for solar energy. Other states, like Massachusetts and California, utilize utility fees to provide grants for environmental innovation. Many of the municipalities that have implemented tougher environmental standards also provide technical support and information on public and private funding sources for green building. The federal government’s Energy Star program offers rebates for projects that integrate Energy-Star rated products.

Community development corporations and developers of affordable multifamily housing have been among the first to recognize the advantages of green building. As many as twenty five percent of children in poor urban areas have asthma and other chronic respiratory problems. Further, maintenance and energy costs are a constant concern. Colorado Court in Santa Monica, Calif., a 44-unit affordable housing project, developed by the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, is virtually energy independent. Solar photo-voltaic panels and an onsite natural-gas-powered turbine with co-generation meet almost 100 percent of the project’s energy needs. The ambitious project also integrates low-emission products, generous natural light and ventilation, recycled materials, and permeable ground paving on the site.

Environmental innovations at Colorado Court were financed by city and state programs. At Erie-Ellington Homes in Boston, green designers were able to come in below cost and save their client, the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, 50 percent on energy expenses with only modest Energy Star rebates.

One of the most effective things that building owners and managers can do to promote environmental conservation is to build on the community-scale and human proximity in apartment buildings. Convenient centralized recycling centers, ride share boards, plentiful bicycle parking, public transportation passes, and designated parking spots for flex cars and electric car recharging makes it easier for residents to “live green.” Convenient business centers make residents who work at home less reliant on cars. Informational seminars on environmental health, energy conservation, and eco-friendly products help educate and motivate tenants. Amenities such as green roofs and community gardens not only help the environment, but bring residents closer together in community and enhance their living experience.

A very strong argument can be made that when apartment building owners and managers combine the purchasing and material efficiencies available to them with this important community element, they will make apartment buildings the most environmentally advanced housing type in the industry.

Developer Russell Albanese says that he is often asked to speak at industry meetings on the success of the Solaire. At these meetings, he notes, “a developer or builder will tell me why it’s practically impossible to do some aspect of green building that we already implemented at the Solaire.” Albanese acknowledges that it takes a shift in approach to adopt green practices, but emphasizes that “once we made the commitment to green building, we found that there were many ways to solve the practical problems. We just had to decide it was a priority. It’s a matter of mindset to go forward and do it.”

Alan Boeker has taken the environmental practices he first implemented at Playa Vista to other Standard Pacific projects. He’s taking his company green “because we think it’s good practice for our industry and we’re doing well by our customers, our industry, and our environment when we integrate these practices.”

Author: Stella Tarnay