The planet's biggest energy hogs are the buildings where many people work and live. Structures that are at least four stories high gobble 65 percent of the nation's electricity. And as the nation approaches Earth Day on Tuesday, it's worth noting that such buildings are emission fighters' newest target.
Instead of relying on piecemeal approaches such as installing a rooftop garden or solar panels here or there, California and many other states now require that all new government buildings be certified as "green," or eco-friendly. Officials also are stepping up efforts to set an example for the private sector. California is considering granting preferences to private owners of more eco-friendly buildings when renewing leases for government offices.
Big effort, big symbol
With the roof-to-basement strategy, government officials have landed upon a comprehensive effort to reduce carbon footprints in chunks sometimes as big as a city block. A new building certified as green also serves as a big symbol for the movement's quest for maturity, advocates say.
"All the people in the L.A. region want to come to my place to work," said Cho, chief engineer of the futuristic California Department of Transportation regional headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, a structure that opened nearly four years ago and is an example of the eco-friendly measures the state is promoting. What's drawing job applicants is the sleek horizontal architecture with healthier indoor air and lots of natural lighting, he said.
Occupying one block, the 13-story Caltrans building was constructed with a monolithic photovoltaic wall -solar panels-to be 35 percent more energy-efficient than state building codes require. It features elevators in one area that skip two floors at a time to encourage workers to use the stairs.
Many states and the federal General Services Administration, the country's largest commercial tenant, are using green-only construction to nudge the private sector to overcome concerns over "green premiums" for new buildings; they cost an additional 5 percent or more, according to government officials and industry representatives.
"By exerting the leadership, we hope we can get a groundswell response from the commercial sector," said Roy McBrayer, manager of California's green building initiative.
So far it's hardly come close, especially as the specter of a recession and the home foreclosure crisis chilled construction, particularly in residential projects.
While industry officials say green homes are still a strong niche, the number of certified green buildings remains dramatically low across America with only 1,325 certified so far, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. The non-profit council implements a universally accepted method for authenticating a green building, under a rating system called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
Points for features
The council's criteria enable developers and architects to select from several efficiencies and conservation measures, such as energy-efficient heating-cooling systems or recycling initiatives, when designing a green building. The project is awarded "points" for the sustainability features until it achieves certification, which has four levels: basic, silver, gold and platinum.
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The Caltrans building, for example, has been granted the third-highest level.
The number of green buildings is expected to rise once the council reviews 11,000 pending applications.
"There's definitely a long way to go," said Taryn Holowka, spokeswoman for the council, saying it's a slow process to get the building industry to revolutionize.
"But I think we're off to a good start and it's becoming a mainstream thing," she said.
Lance Williams, executive director of the council's Los Angeles office, said the struggle for green buildings can be tough, "but there are people being converted ... every single day."
The Building Owners and Managers Association International, the nation's largest trade group for commercial real estate, is lobbying Congress to extend tax incentives to retrofit structures for energy conservation-a matters made more urgent by rising fuel prices.
"The biggest part of a green strategy, whether it's connected to real estate or not, is energy," said Brenna Walraven, chairwoman of BOMA International.
With green materials and design, a new building can recoup such costs in the first year or two through energy savings, advocates say. By using recycled carpet or less polluting paints, such a structure also is more "environmentally responsible" and promotes the occupants' health, adherents say.
In all, 24 states including Illinois have developed requirements in the last six years for new government buildings to be green. Meanwhile, 75 cities, 23 counties, 10 school districts and 36 college systems nationwide have green initiatives or incentives, the council said.
Illinois has 18 certified green buildings, including Bolingbrook High School, Orland Park Police headquarters and five Chicago Public Library branches, according to the council. The recently certified Merchandise Mart is an example of the private market making existing structures more energy-smart.
Illinois requires new government buildings to be green, but the state hasn't had a major construction program in nine years, said spokesman David Blanchette of the state's Capital Development Board. In 2004, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley initiated a standard requiring new city-owned buildings to be eligible for certification.
© 2008 Chicago Tribune