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Save the Earth— and Some Cash

Green Building Can Benefit the Environment and the Bottom Line
The photovoltaic roof on the new Food Bank of Western Mass. is already producing significant energy savings over a traditional roof.

The photovoltaic roof on the new Food Bank of Western Mass. is already producing significant energy savings over a traditional roof.

It’s called ‘green,’ or ‘sustainable,’ building, the practice of incorporating environmentally friendly concepts into design and materials. It’s not exactly a recent phenomenon, but it’s gaining greater acceptance as home and business owners and developers realize that the practice is not simply the right thing to do — it can also help on the bottom line.

A recent expansion of the Food Bank of Western Mass. doubled the space at the Hatfield facility from 17,000 to 35,000 square feet. The facility, which once could store 2 million to 3 million pounds of food at any given time, can now stockpile up to 9 million pounds.

It’s a recipe for electric bill sticker shock, right? Well, not exactly.

Thanks to a new photovoltaic roof, which features panels that harness solar power, the Food Bank saves some $5,000 in electricity costs annually; in fact, the cutting-edge roof generates some 10% of the building’s total energy.

“This way, we’re able to experience a 35%-per-square-foot reduction in energy costs,” said Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank. “So while our total energy costs have increased because of the new space and new freezers, our per-square-foot energy costs have been greatly reduced.”

Morehouse said the Food Bank’s interest in incorporating what is known as ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ design in its expansion project eventually led to a $250,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation to install the energy-saving roof. Recently, the U.S. Green Building Council awarded the facility its gold certification, one step below the highest level, platinum, for its efforts.

“We’re a food bank; we rescue food from the food industry and are able to turn that around with very little waste,” Morehouse explained. “The way we look at it is, if we minimize our overhead costs, that plays right into our mission, helps us be stewards of the environment, and sets an example for other businesses in the Pioneer Valley.”

It’s an example that others are already taking seriously. In this issue, BusinessWest examines why a combination of cost savings and environmental stewardship is convincing state agencies and construction leaders that sustainable design has a clear future in the Bay State.

Crunching the Numbers

In 2005, the Mass. Sustainable Design Roundtable, a public-private partnership of more than 70 professionals involved in design and construction of buildings in Massachusetts, was convened under the direction of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA) and the Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM), and funded by the Mass. Technology Collaborative.

The group examined sustainable-design concepts — which consider site selection, waste minimization, energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor environmental quality, and other environmental and health factors in construction — with the goal of fostering dialogue about green-building issues among public and private design and construction professionals and other experts.

The roundtable also examined barriers to sustainable design and discussed ways to promote widespread incorporation of sustainable design practices and technologies into all state government construction. It eventually determined that, like the Food Bank found, the initial investment in such practices is often followed by long-term cost savings.

“Across the country, initial experience with both public- and private-sector buildings that incorporate sustainable design principles is demonstrating that operating-cost savings provided by green buildings are considerably greater than any additional upfront or ‘first’ costs,” wrote Robert Golledge Jr., secretary of the EOEA, and David Perini, commissioner of the DCAM. “First-cost premiums, if present, generally do not exceed 4% and commonly have simple payback periods of as little as three or four years.”

In fact, the roundtable cited one comprehensive study of green buildings claiming that an average cost premium of $3 to $5 per square foot produced direct operational savings of about $15 per square foot over 20 years. Recent efforts to use such practices on Massachusetts public schools showed an even greater rate of return, the Roundtable claimed, with average cost premiums of 3% to 4% resulting in long-term savings of at least six times that amount.

“Although the most advanced green buildings have been operational for only a short period of time, initial evidence of their improved performance is highly compelling, most notably energy cost savings of at least 20% and up to 50% compared to baseline,” Golledge and Perini reported. “At a time when energy costs are high and getting higher, the ability to reduce energy consumption and gain significant financial savings is perhaps the single most significant benefit that green buildings provide” — savings that offset the extra up-front costs that green building often requires.

Green buildings also help to protect and conserve water resources, they continued, as well as providing a market for recycled and environmentally preferable products, and creating improved working and learning environments for building occupants.

None of that surprises Jeff Hayden, executive director of the Kittredge Business Center at Holyoke Community College, which opened in 2006 with a ‘green roof’ covering 2,500 square feet of its fourth-floor roof.

“A portion of the fourth-floor roof is a green roof,” Hayden said. “It essentially takes care of itself in that there’s very limited maintenance that needs to be done on it. That was part of the design — the fact that it would operate on its own. Essentially, it’s the first public building in the Commonwealth to have a green roof, and it’s part of our effort to look at these issues.”

The roof has been populated with native ground cover, grasses, and plants — a modern design concept that students in the environmental science program may eventually incorporate into their program of study. HCC officials intended for the roof to attract some of the birds and insects native to the area, as well as reducing water runoff from the building and lessening the environmental impact on a neighboring brook — one way the campus could preserve some of the rural, woodland feel of its surroundings.

“As a matter of fact, one of our college priorities for the coming year is to add a plan around sustainable development here on campus,” Hayden noted. “We’re looking at education in relation to the carbon footprint that we make, and to implement green policies that will help with more environmentally sensitive development of the college as we go forward.”

Easy Being Green?

That, in a nutshell, is why green building has become an attractive option for some developers; they see it as a crossroads of two desirable outcomes, cost savings and environmental impact. In a state as progressive as Massachusetts, these are no small concerns.

Take the Food Bank, for instance, which didn’t stop at the photovoltaic roof; it also replaced its inefficient diesel refrigeration units with ozone-friendly refrigerators and freezers, and used more natural light in its offices to cut down on fluorescent lighting.

“The features of this building are low-ozone-generating and low-toxicity,” Morehouse said, adding that any unusable food is donated to local farms as animal feed, and all paper products are recycled to generate additional revenue.

“To receive this top-of-the-line green building certification is an extremely difficult and complicated road,” said Peter Wood, vice president of sales and marketing at Associated Builders in South Hadley, which worked with the Food Bank on the project. “It’s called sustainable building because it’s developed from a green concept but is also sustainable in the business market.”

The U.S. Green Building Council certified the Food Bank through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, which provides a set of standards for environmentally sustainable construction.

Most recent and current LEED-certified projects in Massachusetts are located in the eastern part of the state, but there are several in Western Mass., including the Mount Holyoke College Science Center in South Hadley, as well as an addition and renovation to the college’s Blanchard Campus Center; the Koch Center at Deerfield Academy; and the North Adams Public Library.

The roundtable, for its part, has called for the adoption of minimum green building standards for all new construction and major renovation projects overseen by designated state agencies — standards that take into account both environmental impact and long-term operating costs.

Considering that buildings in the U.S. account for 40% of total energy consumption and 70% of total electricity consumption, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, as well as using more than 12% of fresh-water supplies and generating 25% of all solid waste, these are no small goals.

“Buildings have a significant impact on our budgets,” said Golledge and Perini. “The Commonwealth already commits more than $1 billion of public money each year to building construction and renovation projects. The state constructs a range of buildings for a variety of uses, from schools, hospitals, offices, and courthouses to colleges, prisons, park facilities, and affordable housing.”

But public-sector activity isn’t enough, Morehouse said, which is why the economic benefits of sustainable design must be effectively communicated. “The bottom line,” he asserted, “is that it’s going to take government support to convince the private sector to invest in green technologies to reduce costs for businesses and households alike. This is common in other countries; we’re behind the curve.”

As for Holyoke Community College, “I think it’s very important for us to do what we can to maintain and enhance our environment, especially since we are a community campus and have a lot of people driving cars here,” said Hayden. “We need to provide an example to our students and the community.”

It’s an example some are shouting from the rooftops — be they shingled, covered with grass, or powered by the sun.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]

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