Sustainable Design Wins Acceptance

October 31, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Members of a local architectural “green team” report while LEED certification isn’t widely sought after or accepted among clients wanting to build, the notion of environmentally friendly construction seems to have caught on.

Speaking with the Business Journal on this subject last month were four members of the URS Corp. staff in Grand Rapids: Arthur Veneklase, Lorissa MacAllister, Michael Van Schelven and Leonardo Tombelli.

Tombelli is an architect, and MacAllister, a graduate of architecture training, also has a degree in social work. She specializes in health facilities. Van Schelven is a project designer and Veneklase is a mechanical engineer.

They said that the notion of actual LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification generally tends to appeal only to those firms needing certification as part of a larger goal to meet ISO environmental standards.

But MacAllister also noted that LEED certification — which came into being two years ago — was developed to prevent the practice of green-washing; that is, of slipshod designers claiming to execute environmentally responsible or sustainable design while, in fact, doing nothing of the sort.

“LEED was developed to help define what is green, what is sustainable,” she said.

“It’s a set of evaluation criteria to help people understand whether they’re actually getting what they’re paying for.”

But MacAllister and her colleagues indicated that even though a good many firms don’t want to shoulder the expense of audits necessary to obtain LEED certification, they are genuinely interested in environmentally friendly design

“We often get some push-back on LEED certification,” Veneklase said. But he added that growing numbers of clients are curious about what’s entailed in sustainable design and whether it makes financial sense.

“They want a handle on what it is and how it’s accomplished.”

Veneklase said most clients grasp the notion that the thrust of sustainable design is to impose less load on a finite amount of resources. That, in fact, is the feature about the process that seems to interest them most.

And that interest is sufficiently widespread that it has become URS policy to approach every project in the pre-design stage from a sustainable standpoint.

Such a practice, they said, hasn’t become universal in their profession, but they believe it’s spreading rapidly. And two reasons that it is doing so, they indicated, is that the cost of energy keeps rising and the Federal Services Administration has mandated sustainable design for federal buildings.

Likewise the rise in energy prices has induced many school districts to undertake such construction.

And what it all comes down to, the group agreed, is that while sustainable or environmentally friendly design may — although not always — require more in capitalization, it often can lead to substantial pay-offs in reduced operations costs and increased productivity.

“That doesn’t actually apply in hospitals,” MacAllaster said. She explained that in hospitals, elements of the infrastructure, for instance, are so specialized that no operational savings and pay-offs are possible.

“But we came up with a way to evaluate, point by point, to show owners potential annual savings as opposed to up-front costs,” she said.

“With health care costs, the pay-backs are unobtainable,” she added. “But others have significant pay-backs within five years or within two years.”

On the other hand, Veneklase said, many sustainable features — such as orienting a building to the sun or using modern HVAC systems — entail no special “green” capital at all.

“There’s not much cost, either, to certification that lumber isn’t from a rain forest,” he added.

Van Schelven noted, too, that sustainable development is an old, old notion.

“It’s a concept that has existed forever,” he said. “When people placed buildings centuries ago, they did so to take advantage of water flow and sunlight.

“The only difference today is so many more tools and technologies are available.”

As far as Tombelli is concerned, the roots of modern sustainable design lie in President Roosevelt’s 1909 initiative to halt wholesale woodland clear-cutting, and in the 1962 publication of “Silent Spring,” which alerted the nation to the downside of modern chemistry.

One irony of the energy-saving component of sustainable design is that — particularly in schools — it calls for large windows.

Thirty years ago, in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo, school districts throughout northern states spent millions to prevent heat loss. They did so by partially boarding up the windows of thousands of schools.

Veneklase, who played a central role in the systems design of the Forest Hills Central High School, says that because sustainable design is holistic, it today calls for large windows.

The reason? He said testing shows that abundant natural light enhances student performance.

“The tools are now available to let us look at things more holistically,” he said. “When they were converting a window to a solid wall, they were pre-focused on one building system,” Veneklase said.

“Improved glass quality saves on heat loss,” Tombelli added. “And we now have improved performance in the windows, improved performance of the walls, improved performance of the roof, and we can improve the performance of the mechanical system.

“It’s not a series of bits and pieces but it’s holistic.

“Those all work together to improve the interior environment. In a school it can enhance student performance. In a business, it can improve worker productivity.”

Veneklase explained that modern sensors and controls have sharply improved building ventilation, to the benefit of students in schools and workers in offices — and, ultimately, to the performance of both.

MacAllister said a pilot project in sustainable development is to be launched in 2004 to ascertain whether similar investment-benefit ratios can emerge from LEED-variety improvement of older buildings.    

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