Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Green Stamp Of Approval

Business Week
September 11, 2006

Architects and their clients are scrambling to win eco-friendly certification

The makers of the Prius hybrid car are big on green buildings, too. At Toyota's (TM ) U.S. headquarters in Torrance, Calif., "no-flush" urinals and rainwater recycling help cut freshwater consumption by 94% compared with a conventional design. The company's new "salmon-safe" distribution center in Portland, Ore., filters water running off its parking lot, preventing oil from seeping into the Willamette River. And on Aug. 29, Toyota opened its first green dealership in suburban Dallas. On the building's west side, a "green wall" covered with Japanese Ivy keeps offices cool by soaking up the hot afternoon sun.

All three facilities have either won or applied for certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, a 13-year-old nonprofit that has become the ultimate arbiter of eco-friendly construction. The Washington (D.C.) outfit has more than 6,000 members, from one-man architectural studios to corporate giants such as Wal-Mart Inc. (GM ). Over the past six years it has administered the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) rating system for the greenest of buildings, 560 of which have qualified.

It's a sign of how far the council has come that architects now compete for clients by listing how many LEED-rated buildings they've designed. The group figures that 5% of all current nonresidential building construction in the country -- some $10 billion worth -- is seeking certification. "This movement has created a whole new stream of economic development," says council co-founder and CEO S. Richard Fedrizzi. "We're at a tipping point."

The buildings are a hit with companies and employees alike. Biotech company Genzyme Corp.'s $140-million headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., features 18 indoor gardens, adjustable thermostats in every office, and mirrors on the roof that reflect sunlight into the atrium. The company says sick time among employees is 5% lower than at its other facilities in the state and that 58% of staff report they are more productive in the building.

Leed certification is based on a 69-point checklist. Installing bike racks and showers for employees who pedal to work produces one point. On-site power generation can score up to three points, depending on how much clean electricity is produced. Once scored, a building can win one of four awards: certified, silver, gold, and the greenest designation, platinum. The points system intensifies the competition between designers, says Rives Taylor, an architect with the Gensler firm: "Everybody wants to say they built the greenest high-rise or greenest retailer."

Not everyone loves the process, though. Auden Schendler, director of environmental affairs for Aspen Skiing Co., co-wrote a widely circulated critique of the program last year. He complains that the LEED process is too costly, too bureaucratic, and doesn't always reward the best environmental options. Final approval requires computer modeling of the building's energy use and reams of documentation, a side business for architects and consultants that can add up to $50,000 to the cost of a 10,000-square-foot building, according to Schendler's critique. Fedrizzi says the council is trying to address such complaints: It introduced an electronic document filing system earlier this year to streamline the process.

LEED won't ever be foolproof. As new technologies and building types are included, the standard evolves. Adobe Systems Inc. (ADBE ) is seeking certification for all three of its office towers in downtown San Jose, Calif., under a program that evaluates retrofitted buildings. Yet despite having high-tech green systems, such as a lawn sprinkler system that takes cues from weather forecasts, Adobe scrambled to cut power during a recent heat wave. Then it hit on the perfect solution: Workers lowered the blinds.

By Christopher Palmeri

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