Nonprofits LEEDing The Way

August 18, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — A leading LEED builder said nonprofit organizations are true leaders in attaining LEED certification for their projects.

Rockford Construction Co., the area’s largest builder with 13 LEED-accredited employees, pointed out that half of all structures that have been LEED certified in West Michigan over the past five years are owned by nonprofits, which certainly don’t comprise anywhere near half of the building ownership in the region.

“Some of the initial projects were really all nonprofits. They were some of the leaders in the entire movement. I think it’s becoming more of a mainstream movement in people’s thinking now that energy is becoming more pricey and operational expenses are being looked at more critically than they have in the past, and I think more companies are starting to consider it,” said Michael VanGessel, CEO of Rockford Construction and co-founder of the company with John Wheeler.

That 50 percent share may be exclusive to West Michigan. Across the nation, nonprofits are responsible for just under 20 percent of all LEED-certified projects, which typically cost up to 15 percent more than conventional projects in the early LEED years.

VanGessel said local nonprofits jumped on the LEED bandwagon because of their organizational cultures, as they often consider themselves stewards of the environment and show compassion toward the materials that nature provides. VanGessel said the energy cost savings resulting from that stewardship has played a role in their decisions, but it is secondary to their concern for the environment.

Then there are the handful of local individuals who have stirred that nonprofit fervor.

“We have had leaders in this city that, through their philanthropic dollars, have really wanted to platform LEED,” he said.

VanGessel named former Steelcase Inc. executive Peter Wege as the primary leader. Wege, author of “Economicology,” a popular book that mixes environmental concerns with modern-day economic factors, was the first to fully encourage LEED developments locally, and he backed his enthusiasm with green grants from his foundation.

“He wrote the book, and then LEED became almost kind of a tangent of that very thinking — obviously in different terms, but still closely related. He has always been giving. But he put a credo down on his giving that he wasn’t going to do anymore giving without a project being a LEED project, and we were right alongside with him on that,” said VanGessel, whose firm ranks top in the state and 44th nationally for the number of LEED projects completed and has been at the forefront in reviving old downtown buildings for adaptive reuse.

Just a few of the recent Rockford-managed LEED projects VanGessel named were St. Anthony’s rectory, the new West Catholic High School gymnasium, Keystone Church, the InnerCity Christian Federation headquarters and the new Grand Rapids Art Museum.

“Those are projects from people who get it,” he said, while adding that his firm has 26 LEED projects in various stages under contract.

But VanGessel said construction in the city embraced the general sustainable philosophy before the U.S. Green Building Council was formed and created the LEED guidelines.

For instance, Rockford Vice President of Marketing and Communications Jennifer VanSkiver said the firm’s renovation of the former Steketee’s Department Store, a key building on Monroe Center, was completed ahead of LEED, but the company followed that attitude when it bought, redid and filled the eight-story structure.

“If you’re not going out in a green field and building these office parks that can be done in vacant office buildings and warehouses in downtown Grand Rapids, it’s a multiplier. Not only are you using all these buildings that are perfectly fine and good to use, you’re not creating new streets and all these hot spots in suburbia,” said VanGessel.

“Those (fields) can be left alone or be turned into parkland. Certainly, the long term provides opportunities for those to be something better than an office park that is difficult for people to get to and costs them a lot of money to do that. We recognized the value of the urban core, and that put us close to people like Peter Wege,” he added.

Rockford Sustainability Coordinator Deb Sypien, who is the point person for all the company’s LEED work, said the USGBC has registered 1,388 green-certified projects nationally and has quite a backlog of applications that it still needs to go through.

“That number includes any level of certificate for LEED, and that includes silver, certified, platinum, gold, core and shell, existing building and contract interiors — projects all across the board,” she said.

Of the 1,388 projects that have been certified nationally, Sypien said 259 were projects by nonprofits. So nationwide, nonprofit organizations are responsible for 18.7 percent of LEED projects. As for Michigan, 70 LEED projects have been done, and nonprofits are responsible for 25 of them, or 35.7 percent.

“In West Michigan, there are 38 alone. Nineteen of them are nonprofits. In West Michigan, that’s 50 percent,” said Sypien.

So in West Michigan, which Sypien largely defined as Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties, nonprofits were responsible for 19 of 25 LEED projects in the entire state, or 76 percent.

“So you can see, as she drilled down from national statistics, then to the state of Michigan, then to West Michigan, how proportionally larger West Michigan is in terms of its nonprofit LEED certifications,” said VanSkiver.

Rockford was responsible for managing nine of the 19 local nonprofit projects. But, as VanSkiver noted, the numbers don’t tell the entire story.

“We also have a short list of projects that were built to LEED specifications but did not go through the actual certification process, and that was early in the process,” she said.

“But for us, there is one that stands out; it is the 70 Ionia building. We call it the BETA building — the one with the big sail that was designed by BETA Design. It was done many years ago when it was a little more of a daunting task to get (certification) done.”

Gazing into their crystal ball, the Rockford crew felt local nonprofit organizations will continue to be LEED leaders. VanGessel said going LEED is getting less expensive as subcontractors become more versed in the specifications, so more certified work will be done. Sypien agreed and thought the nonprofits in the area would continue to go for the LEED because of who they are and what they stand for.

“I don’t think it’s going to change,” she said. “I think it’s going to get more important, due to the fact of how we live our lives. The people who are participating in the nonprofits are thinking that this is important to the environment.”

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