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[greenyes] Green buildings
Title: Green buildings

Developers Start to Think 'Green'

Timothy Ivy for The New York Times
A PROGRESSIVE SCHOOL BUILDING: Willow School in Gladstone, considered the state's "greenest" building.

Published: January 23, 2005


WHAT will it take to turn development in the Garden State "green"?

Some of the leading developers, architects and land use experts who favor conservation-minded, environmentally sensitive projects gathered at Rutgers University recently to chew over the issue, and delivered a somewhat surprising consensus: even in this highly built-up state, where the profit motive has long prevailed, the green movement is beginning to take root.

 Lisa Westerfield, president of New Jersey's chapter of the United States Green Building Council, conceded that the state seems to be "kind of pulling up the rear" nationally in terms of the number of new projects begun with green standards in mind.

 But the turnout at the seminar on "Sustainable Urban Design," sponsored by the National Urban Land Institute, was cited as a step forward. Last year, Ms. Westerfield said, there was not enough interest to justify holding the event; this year there were more than 100 attendees.

General knowledge about ecologically intelligent construction is still limited, members of the panel agreed.

Richard F. X. Johnson, vice president of the Matrix Development Companies, based in Cranbury, spoke about getting blank looks when he brings up "LEED" ratings with financial institutions and investors in New Jersey. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a voluntary rating and certification system developed five years ago by the United States Green Building Council. Points are awarded for various aspects of environmentally friendly design, and buildings are given bronze, silver, gold or platinum LEED ratings.

PNC Bank, which has already built several LEED-certified branch buildings in the state, is building five more right now, Ms. Westerfield said. PNC won a gold-LEED rating for its Delaware headquarters three years ago and has made a public commitment to follow LEED principles of design that call for minimizing the environmental impact of construction, occupancy, operation and maintenance and the eventual recycling of a building when it is no longer useful.

Such commitments from companies are still quite rare, however, Ms. Westerfield noted. She said that roughly 5 percent of projects nationally are built to LEED standards - less than that in New Jersey - and that the proportion would need to be 10 percent before the movement could be considered "mainstream." In New Jersey, she observed, the trend is clearly more pronounced in building schools and colleges than in other types of new buildings.

 The Willow School in Gladstone, which opened in 2002 and won a gold LEED award last year, is considered New Jersey's "greenest" building, panelists said. Conceived by Gretchen and Mark Biedron, a couple who wanted a healthy, toxin-free educational environment for their son, the private early-elementary school was constructed with recycled barn wood and pickle barrels, leftover bluestone from the "Big Dig" highway project in Boston and stone benches made from old bridge stanchions.

Mr. Biedron, who heads Solid Wood Construction, a company that specializes in the reuse of old barns, served as general contractor for the project. He hired an environmentalist from Natural Logic, a national consulting service for green projects, and Natural Systems International, a water management firm, to design a water-recycling system. Rainwater and storm sewer runoff at the school site is funneled to a cistern under the parking lot by gravity force and then used to flush toilets. Back to Nature, a small environmentally oriented firm in Oldwick, designed landscaping that uses aquatic plants to remove impurities from the water before it flows into the cistern.

The Willow School recently joined a small group of schools in the country that are making their grounds part of their students' curriculum. Willow's 40 students in kindergarten through fourth grade often take class outdoors and are taught about the ecosystem around them.

Other recently built or renovated schools in the state, including a middle school in Howell, a high school in Kearny and a vocational-technical school in Scotch Plains, feature at least one or two pro-environmental features, like solar panels or the use of recycled materials in construction, Ms. Westerfield noted.

To get more for-profit developers on board the eco-wagon, Mr. Johnson of Matrix said, "you have to convince people the bottom line of green can be black."

One obstacle, he said, is that investors in commercial property generally turn over their investments within five to seven years, while it may take a bit longer than that for a building to pay back the cost of energy-saving features. He suggested that incentives and rebates may be necessary to help to bring down the cost of conservation devices and eco-friendly construction.

Mr. Johnson said that his company builds a lot of warehouses in New Jersey and that building and product designers have not yet come up with ways to significantly reduce energy use in this type of structure.

 Another matter working against green building, in Mr. Johnson's view, is the structure of leasing that prevails in New Jersey: net leases. With a net lease, a tenant pays operating costs, including utilities.

"It used to be cut and dry," Mr. Johnson said. "If an owner had a net lease, the energy costs were passed through to the tenant, and owners did not have to be sensitive about the issue of investing in energy-saving features."

Now, though, Mr. Johnson said, "Smarter tenants are starting to look at the all-in cost of occupancy, the total cost of operating from a particular building."

"At some point," he continued, "rising costs and public awareness will peak, and tenants are going to begin demanding green buildings. That's why we want to brand ourselves as sustainable-building developers."

Another panel member, Randolph Croxton, of Croxton Collaborative Architects, who is known as a pioneer in environmental and sustainable design, said that students in a class for professionals he teaches at Harvard University have begun telling him their clients are demanding greener buildings. "Architects and professionals in the class," he said, "are telling me, 'I lost my last bid because I couldn't meet the requirements on sustainability.' "

Carlos Rodrigues, a planner and urban designer with the Princeton office of Looney Ricks Kiss Architects and a former member of the state Office of Smart Growth, stressed the importance of considering the environmental impact of residential development as well as commercial development.

"For instance, active adult housing," he said. "It's the new hot trend, and we need to be thinking about how to make sustainable development the hot trend along with it."

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