Archives For LEED

Tight economic times have a way of recalibrating priorities. According to a recent study, although the economic weight of the recession has caused a small retreat in sentiment for green building in design and construction professionals, the vast majority still promote building sustainably to their respective clients, helping to stoke a global green building industry worth $558 billion in 2009. Fewer, however, remained supportive of seeking LEED certification for buildings as a means for a more public display of green efforts.

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On Tuesday I trekked over to the Javits Center on the West Side to spend the day at the Green Buildings NY expo. Overall it was an interesting collection of professionals and products that focused on managing and fitting buildings for sustainability. I had the chance to talk to a number of people and sit in on some conference sessions. Here are some of the highlights that the expo had to offer:

Efficiency through Water Reuse

AllianceEnvironmental_LogoI find it fascinating how seasoned professionals of any industry can create a presentation to highlight all of its environmental short comings. Edward Clerico of Alliance Environmental LLC painted a bleak picture of our water infrastructure. In his efforts to promote on-site filtration and reuse, he began in saying that our system of water supply and disposal uses 8 quads (that’s quadrillion BTUs) of energy every year. At the same time he pointed to how far on-site filtration systems have become and how greywater could become increasingly common. Uses such as site irrigation, cooling tower make-up and laundry washing can help buildings like the Solaire and One Bryant Park cut their water usage and discharge in half.

Green Demolitions

Based out of New England, Green Demolitions offers free demolition and removal of kitchens and bathrooms so that they can be completely reclaimed and resold for use in new projects. The prospective client can enjoy a sizable tax deduction instead of a hefty contractor bill for the removal. Speaking with John Green, manager of their Bethel, NY store, I learned the company donates all of its projects to Recovery Unlimited—a non profit dedicated to helping with substance abuse. Consumers can regularly spend 50%-80% less for a new kitchens, bathrooms or appliances. Their cause has lead them to not only provide a charitable source of income, but divert tons of material from landfills as they promote reuse.

Greenpatch Pavement

Greenpatch is one of the players exploring the new realm of cold asphalt pavement. Hearing “green” and “asphalt” next to each other was surprising to me, but the product specializing in filling potholes and repairing roads has numerous sustainable benefits. Not only does the asphalt require no heat to be applied (which saves a generous amount of energy) but it can also be manufactured at lower temperatures (which saves even more.) Its mix contains 40% recycled asphalt and no petroleum solvents. Unlike other cold-patch products, Greenpatch contains zero Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that normally can leech into the ground or off-gas into the air. Even their packaging is recyclable. Overall, it was an impressive product.

JM Insulation

int_head_logoJohns Manville is a producer of many building products, one of them being fiberglass insulation. Again, normally the term causes environmentalists or green building proponents to roll their eyes and turn back towards soy-based, blow-in alternatives. But these guys are making an attempt to give fiberglass a better name. Their insulation uses 25% recycled glass with 20% being post-consumer glass (more than any other manufacturer.) They actually claim that fiberglass insulation is the largest secondary market for recycled glass. Their new line has removed all formaldehyde, a common ingredient in bonding agents, from their insulation to help with indoor air quality.


Allan Skodowski gave an enlightening talk on the importance of retro-commissioning. Any building seeking LEED certification is familiar with commissioning, a process that tests the designed systems of a building to make sure they function as intended and with peak efficiency. But Skodowski, who helps commission buildings for Transwestern, says that existing buildings should also be commissioned to ensure their systems are not falling into lethargy and negligence. As technologies improve and systems wear down, most buildings can run at around 78% of average energy costs through commissioning—a number that can drop to 60% with dedicated, consistent study.

one-bryant-parkMany people still seem to be interested in the new Bank of America Headquarters at One Bryant Park. Not surprising really—the greenest skyscraper in the world is something to marvel at. As a result, I decided to do a definitive case study on the building so more people could know exactly how green the skyscraper is. Having had the pleasure of working at Cook+Fox and specifically with Rick Cook and Bob Fox, I can speak to their holistic approach to sustainability and scrutiny that they apply to every design challenge. For those that know Rick and Bob, a finished product like One Bryant Park is no surprise.

The new Bank of America headquarters sits on the corner of 6th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City, overlooking the trees of Bryant Park leading up to the New York Public Library. Owned by the Durst Organization and designed by Cook+Fox Architects, at 54 stories the glass curtain wall skin of the tower rises to 944 and a half feet above the street with a spire that tops out at 1200 feet, making it the second tallest building in the city beneath the Empire State Building. In its 2.1 million square feet, the building seeks to become the greenest skyscraper in the city, and possibly the globe, being the first building of its height to earn a LEED Platinum rating from the United States Green Building Council and the second in the state of New York (after Cook+Fox’s own office.)

It is impossible to find a sustainable solution to a design problem that is not catered specifically to its immediate environment. Cook+Fox started with the site itself as a storehouse of opportunity. There are few concepts more inherently sustainable than density. Placed in the heart of midtown, the decision to build higher with more square feet anchors the project in efficiency from the start. Its location places the building on the same block as two subway stations, now linked beneath the tower, with access to 17 subway lines. Grand Central Station sits only two blocks away to yield an amazing access to the rest of the city and beyond. Utilizing one of the best mass transit systems in the country is essential to supporting more transit growth in our nation and steering the populace away from car usage.

Despite New York’s accomplishments, there are aspects of its aging infrastructure that remain fragile. One of the most prominent examples is its sewage and stormwater system. Like many old, American cities, New York was built in an age known for unbridled expansion and industrial strength—not environmental stewardship. As a result it has a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system which means that rainfall brings stormwater flowing into the sewage pipes. Even a small amount of rain can cause the sewers to reach capacity and stress the treatment facilities of the city. To relieve the congestion a mixture of rain and raw sewage overflows directly into the Hudson river. Any effort that minimizes the release of sewage or stormwater from a site lowers the risk of environmental damage by CSOs.

One Bryant Park collects every drop of rainwater that falls on its site, nearly 48 inches per year. A series of collection tanks distributed throughout the floors can store over 329,000 gallons of water that is used for irrigating plants and flushing the building’s toilets. But it does not end there. Greywater treatment on the site takes water from the building and treats it for use in the cooling towers that returns water back to the atmosphere in the form of vapor—essentially completing a cycle back to nature. Cook+Fox helped to cut the building’s water usage by half employing low-flow lavatory sinks and waterless urinals.

The building also stands as a prime example of how our cities can move towards a decentralized energy grid. Right now, our national grid is a bit clunky and kind of like a leaky pipe. For many power plants, pointedly the throng of aging coal plants in the US, as much as 66% of the energy produced can be lost right out of the stack in the form of heat. An additional 7-10% is lost in transmission so collectively three quarters of the energy we produce can be lost before it even gets used. The tower proves to be perhaps the best example to date of tapping into onsite generation. A 4.6-megawatt, natural gas-fired cogeneration plant provides two thirds of the buildings electrical demand and is expected to reach 77% efficiency (zero transmission.)

The usage of the energy is also maximized to provide the least amount of stress on the surrounding grid. At night, while demand in the building is low, the power will be used to make ice in 44 storage tanks in the basement of the building. During the day, this ice is allowed to melt and used to cool the air of the building, drastically lowering its energy consumption during peak hours.

OBP 1When it comes to air quality, the building pushes the envelope again to deliver fresh air to the entire building that is filtered of 95% of particulates. Even more commendable is that the air that leaves the building will thus be notably cleaner than the air that goes in, rendering the structure as a public air filter for midtown. When the air does reach building occupants, it comes through an underfloor air system—a pressurized air plenum beneath removable floor tiles, that brings tempered air closer to occupied space rather than originating from the ceiling.

Sustainability is a cyclical concept knowing that there is no finality to the life of any process or product. Rather it is merely the prelude to another use or stage of existence. In order to minimize the impact of new construction it is vital to use materials that decrease the net lifecycle costs of the project including the material that comes in and the waste that goes out. One Bryant Park managed to surpass its goal of recycling 75% of its construction waste to end at 83%. Additionally, with materials such as concrete with blast furnace slag and 60% recycled steel, the building contains 35% recycled content.

One way to tackle energy savings is by incorporating efficient fixtures for workplace illumination. One Bryant Park chose to tap into more daylight for workspaces, evident by its clear exterior. By using baked frit to reflect light outside of the main vision plane, each floor has floor to ceiling glass that allows light to penetrate deeper into spaces and minimizing the need interior lighting and providing views of the city.

In two industries (New York development and corporate banking) where cost is always paramount it may seem counterintuitive that this team placed so much time and equity in making sure that their building embraced green qualities. Moreover, the fact that a financial institution was convinced that sustainable systems would prove profitable investments is a boon to the movement as a whole. So how did that work exactly? Yes, saving water and energy also saves money but the payback on such systems takes time and is likely not large enough to be considered a revenue stream. What turned heads was looking at how work conditions affected the productivity of employees. While the figures for environmental productivity are constantly debated, consider only 1% of a common working day: 5 minutes. The firm estimated that increasing the 1% increase in productivity of the workers in One Bryant Park would yield $10 million every year (a number clearly visible on the balance sheet.)

In many ways One Bryant Park stands as what will hopefully become a new standard in high rise, urban development. Like any successful ecology, all parts of the building process must be in concert in order to create a product of such caliber. From client, to tenant, to designers and builders, all components of creation and use were necessary to reach such an outcome.

[UPDATE:  An article on New Republic took a stab at trying to diminish the progress of One Bryant Park while also taking a jab at LEED. My response to that article can be found here]

piles of bricksOne cannot talk about sustainability for long without eventually encountering “resources.” Every product stream, mechanical process and human action has a source of incoming energy. Our capitalistic market has a couple of favorites that craft the battlements for daily conflicts between corporations and citizens: wood, oil, water, coal. Businesses stuck in narrow focuses of how to utilize and maximize stores of natural resources are fending environmentalists off with a stick and the fight will only get more painful. Sooner or later they will lose. Our country will no longer drill for new oil and the amount of coal we burn each year will progressively decline. What will define the next surge of resource harvesting in the economy over the next century?

Well renewable energy is an easy pick. Wind and solar power will continue to be perfected to peak levels of efficiency and their position in the marketplace will continue to grow, but one of the greatest latent sources of value in our culture is decidedly unnatural. It is available almost anywhere in the country though its particular characteristics vary from one source to the next. Public demand for it is currently a small portion of the greater marketplace but it will only rise over time. The source is our existing buildings. The resulting growth market is deconstruction. Continue Reading…

sustainability cards

In the beginning of the millennium when environmental proponents were deciding how to gain support and spread a message they turned to sustainability and efficiency. We do not have to look far to see their success. The green movement caught on and spread through buildings, company policy and consumer products. Recently the environmental lobby has shifted to focus more on global warming, believing it to be their ace-in-the-hole, but the tactic may be making them more enemies than friends. Those trying to add depth to the ranks of the environmental advocacy and speed up action may want to rethink how they are playing their hand.

Advocates of global warming continue to ramp up their efforts to try and shift cultural and economic norms. Their message comes with increasing levels of severity and apocalyptic predictions culminating to the latest meeting of Climate Scientists in Copenhagen that foretold of a worst-case scenario of carbon dioxide levels that could threaten humanity’s existence by the year 2100. This kind of news is distressing to some of us, but to a large portion of Americans it is simply tiresome. The recent Gallup poll shows that many conservatives have gotten more impatient with global warming claims, ultimately dismissing them as a liberal plot for allocating government funds and more regulation. They stand more than willing to call what they deem is the environmental bluff of a warming planet.

People are listening.

Naturally this only frustrates those who believe they are warning us of our self-perpetuating misfortune. More research only makes the calls for action louder which only makes the non-believers that much more skeptical. Soon it will not matter whether or not global warming is real or if our situation is dire. Opponents will believe they have won and go somewhere else to hash through war, terrorism or trade deficits. By then there will be so many lines drawn that bringing people back to the table will be a feat in and of itself.

In a consumer market a salesman with a product often gets more response than an activist with a cause and when it comes to sales, the pitch can be more important than the product. Selling ‘green’ effectively requires not only knowing all the cards you have in the deck, but knowing the right time to play the right card and still have one or two up your sleeve. We are not short on potential markets: companies, non-profits, homeowners, parents, children and of course the government, but none of them are looking for exactly the same thing. Each group can be linked to ways to accommodate their goals via more sustainable means. Failure to do so can lead to another danger: naysayers can be prone to believing that global-warming, environmentalism and sustainability are all synonyms, potentially souring them to valuable initiatives beyond cap-and-trade or greenhouse gas regulation.

sustainability paths diagram

The trick is that the case for environmental stewardship is not a one-card hand. One of the great things about sustainability is how many different ways that it addresses problems in America. Southern US cities suffering from drought would be attentive audiences for water efficiency. Businesses are eager to learn how using new materials or less packaging can reduce cost as it reduces waste or how greener buildings can increase productivity. Residents of Los Angeles and Phoenix should be avid listeners of air quality solutions. Northeasterners are more excited about high speed rail lines while other smaller cities may be more interested in streetcars. Most Americans are pro energy independence for our country. All of these things can be linked to sustainable goals and progress of our society as a whole. The more people become educated about specific options that directly affect their everyday life, the more opportunity they have to educate others.

The Product (RED) organization is a great example of commercializing a cause as a way to reach a capitalistic audience. “RED” companies like Apple, American Express and Starbucks link product lines sales to donations for combating AIDS in Africa. Although the organization does not release the amount of total donation funds to date, their success has been widely acclaimed. Critics of the program ask why do people have to pay more for a product instead of just donating? With all the advertising that our society fosters, Americans may just not be programmed that way. The marketing pitch helps a person feel like they get something for giving something. The LEED system is another example of taking the concept of building green and fitting it to Americans: making a recognizable and fashionable product.

We find ourselves at a key moment for two reasons: a time when environmental action is crucial and a time when we can decide how we want to emerge from this recession. Emerging with greater support in more arenas of the green lobby could be better than more resistance towards a concentrated call for stemming global warming.The thing we need to remember (and sooner or later conservative opposition will learn) is that in this game there is no giant pot in the middle that we are gambling for. Our goal is to make everyone better players. After all, when it comes to the environment if we are not all eventually on board we all end up as losers.

LEED. Yay or Nay?

leedFifteen years ago the United States Green Building Council coalesced into being and created a standard for rating the level of sustainability achieved by our additions to our built environment. We know the system today as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED. Over the years the system has attracted many followers but also its share of critics that point out the inevitable imperfections in the system when in reality, despite its flaws the system was and still is exactly what the movement needs. Continue Reading…