Going Green

Going Green

For the first green, soon-to-be-LEED-certified law school in the country, details matter.

When it comes to green construction, few may have more intimate knowledge of the process than the planners, architects, and building-committee members who oversaw the recent construction of the nation's first "green" law school, the new University of Denver College of Law. Ironically, the construction initiative came about more by happenstance than by plan.

The College of Law may have opened its doors in 1892, but in fact was never part of University of Denver's main campus, located instead within DU's Park Hill campus (which was acquired from the Colorado Women's College in 1989). Then, in March 2000, international culinary and hospitality educator Johnson & Wales University purchased a 13-acre portion of the Park Hill campus for its fifth U.S. location, which it occupied in the fall of that year. That December, when Johnson & Wales announced it wanted to purchase the remainder of the 26-acre campus, including the buildings that housed the College of Law, DU saw an ideal opportunity to build a new College of Law facility, relocated to the university's main University Park campus in downtown Denver. It wasn't long, however, before DU administrators asked themselves, "Why not an environmentally responsible structure?" After all, the DU law school houses a prominent environmental law practice, and is headquarters to Earthlaw, a nonprofit environmental law organization (www.earthlaw.org).

George "Rock" Pring, professor of Environmental Law (and one of five faculty members who would be on the building design committee), soon saw a bigger opportunity. When another DU professor asked him whether the school would construct a "green" building (one that would protect all aspects of the environment, including the health and safety of building inhabitants), Pring did some research. "I got excited about the idea of building the nation's first green law school," he remembers. "And when I shared the idea with Law School Dean Mary Ricketson and DU Chancellor Daniel Ritchie, they were equally excited. By the time we went out into the market to interview architects, the whole university community was behind the concept." As it happened, indoor air quality, especially, had been a major focus for everyone involved. "A lot of us have worked in buildings that have SBS--sick building syndrome," confides Pring.

But, "because Johnson & Wales wanted to purchase the property immediately, time was of the essence," recalls Patrick Johnson of Denver-based H&L Architecture Ltd. (www.hlarch.com), which was hired in December 2000 to get the law school into a new, green facility by July 2003--a tight 32 months later. "A project of this size would normally require about 18 months of design work and 30 months of construction," explains Johnson. H&L then quickly brought in Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott (www.sbra.com), a Boston-based firm with a considerable track record designing law schools and libraries, and its signature exterior designer, Geoffrey Freeman.

Pring immediately pushed for a LEED-certified building. LEED--Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design--is a rating and certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (www.usgbc.org), whose green construction standards--the first independent, national standards of their kind--were released six months after H&L was hired. Project applicants for LEED certification accumulate points for various green attributes, although many projects use LEED certification simply as a reference, without incurring the costs of the application and documentation process. "The beauty of LEED," says Pring, "is that USGBC is a practical, professional organization, putting together known architectural design and safety standards that are doable now. It's not Star Wars stuff, but the way buildings should have been built for years." (For LEED certification, 26 of 50 specified standards must be met; DU is planning to meet 30.)

H&L next recommended that Boulder's ENSAR Group (www.ensargroup.com), whose principal architect, Greg Franta, helped write many green building standards, be brought in to serve as energy efficiency consultants. ENSAR quickly educated H&L about LEED standards and underlying issues, and became part of the design team.

The state-of-the-art facility project (now slated to open in August, just slightly off its original target date) thus includes proactive design for indoor air quality through superior ventilation; a smoking ban; a carbon monoxide monitoring system; low-emitting paints, carpets, and composite wood products; and indoor chemical and pollutant controls.

"Getting buy-in from DU's chancellor, Daniel Ritchie, was never a problem," says Johnson. "He immediately saw the value in a green building." Even local contractors were quickly won over. "The assumption is that there will be resistance to doing things a new way," Pring asserts. "But in this case, not only Patrick Johnson, but also several of the suppliers and contractors have since become LEED-certified. Let's not forget: This is a 200,000-square-foot, four-story building. It's a big project, and it's a feather in their cap to be able to say they were involved."

Adds Jason Hainline, an ENSAR associate, "Many professionals who would never have considered sustainability issues before are now doing so because of the LEED standards. It provides the ability to benchmark, and gives them a marketing edge."

Still, it's important to note that green requirements don't always get built into plans up front--and even when they are, there's often not enough overseeing to make sure they're being followed. Dr. Marilyn Black, founder and chief scientist of Air Quality Sciences Inc. (www.aqs.com) and the Greenguard Institute, which certifies low-emitting interior products and building materials (www.greenguard.org), warns that the process is complex because it spans the space from original design, all the way down to the janitor who's going to clean up the dust at the end. (A building "flush-out" for a two-week period before anybody moves in must be included in construction specs.)

Because Johnson & Wales wanted to buy the old law school building contents as well as the structure, all-new furniture was needed for the new law building. Furniture, however, is not yet part of the LEED program (although USGBC has started developing standards for renovations and interiors), so the school doesn't gain any certification points for environmentally friendly furnishings. Still, DU administrators are as concerned about furnishings as they are about construction. "It shows DU really is interested in good air quality, not simply in getting a plaque," says Johnson.

All of the office/staff work systems, classroom chairs, and furniture were selected by Margie Snow, a Denver furniture consultant working for H&L. Snow prepared a six-page questionnaire for vendors, and in addition to getting price bids, she asked about environmental policies, use of environmentally friendly woods, etc. As a result, the new building will be furnished with furniture and systems only from manufacturers with demonstrated environmental health and safety (EHS) policies and practices with regard to recycled and certified raw materials, manufacturing process, indoor air quality, performance and ergonomics, and resource recovery.

Hainline points out that LEED and Greenguard are but two of a number of certifiers now in the green products market. Carpet standards have been in place for a while through the low VOC (volatile organic compounds) program of the Carpet & Rug Institute (www.carpet-rug.com); carpets are infused with anti-microbial agents that reduce mold and mildew. "Most manufacturers are addressing these needs today," he says.

Are up-front costs for green construction higher than for traditional construction? "Not really," says Pring. "Costs are not higher for standard LEED certification. We're looking at a building that will cost around $63.5 million--that's the total cost, including green materials. It's possible that some materials--such as low-VOC paints--may cost a bit more, up front; however, we've found there's often a big debate about whether particular items are dictated by green building standards or are something you would have done anyway. People think they're going to be spending twice as much to build an environmentally friendly building; that's just not so."

What's more, building performance usually more than offsets greater up-front cost (estimated at about 1 percent, for the new law school). Pring anticipates 40 percent less energy use every day than for a regularly designed building of comparable size, so any higher up-front costs for the law school project will be quickly recouped in energy alone, he maintains. In addition, says Pring, the sustainable structure is designed to conserve a great deal of water. Infrared sensors on water faucets, waterless urinals, and other water-efficient fixtures will result in a 39 percent water-use reduction, compared to a conventional building. Natural groundwater will be collected and recycled for landscape irrigation, eliminating use of treated city water--even as the use of native plants and special irrigation technology will result in 50 percent less water used for landscaping. "Yet we're going to the same suppliers we ordinarily would," says Pring. "We're just getting different equipment."

Energy conservation features designed to allow the building to use 40 percent less total energy than a comparable conventional building include: more efficient electric lighting strategies, equipment, and controls (such as occupancy sensors); efficient mechanical systems; high thermal-performance walls, windows, and roof; and high-tech, energy-efficient classrooms, moot court, study rooms, offices, and library. (The school will also offer spaces for electric-car recharging among its 777 parking spaces.) And DU is investigating a contract to purchase one-half of all building energy needs from renewable energy sources, such as wind generation.

"To get payback in utility costs," Johnson points out, "the key is optimizing energy performance. There are often higher costs initially for more expensive insulation, motors, etc., but there will be lower utility bills in the long run."

Another solution? Energy recovery, says energy performance expert Ron Fanning, of Fanning/Howey Associates (www.fhai.com). "Before you expel the bad air, you reclaim the heat, or cool and reuse it; you can recover the expense within a four- to five-year period, depending on the design."

Still, says Johnson, low VOC organic-compound paints that are more environmentally friendly often do cost more, and there's not necessarily a durability payback. "Yet they'll result in healthier, happier building users," he says.

"There are tradeoffs," adds Fanning. "How much can you spend at the outset before you break the bank? A larger investment means a longer time to payback--but it's still 'pay me now, or pay me later.' "

But Black points out, "There aren't necessarily additional costs for materials; they're mostly in the planning and execution. In general, interior furnishings are not going to cost more; the only added expense may be if an IAQ [indoor air quality] consultant needs to be hired. A plan requiring that air quality be tested at the end of construction will add considerably to the bill."

However, notes Pring, such testing is usually not needed if a building flush-out is done prior to occupancy. "Anyway," he adds, "in a university setting, you generally don't need to have an outsider conduct air quality testing; you should have that ability in-house." He concludes: "It's really not that difficult to get buy-in for a green building. Once a university president discovers that the cost of doing it right is going to be recouped, the decision becomes obvious."

"You run into surprises in the construction of any building," says Pring, "but building 'green' actually gave us fewer surprises. One, though, was the difficulty in getting certified wood. The market demand is not yet strong enough, and it takes awhile to build up demand. The chair you're sitting in right now could very well have come from a ghastly clear-cut forest on the edge of British Columbia. It's not just about having a beautiful, safe building, but about pushing backwards up the supply pipeline--all the way to trying to buy local in order to lessen transportation costs. Green building is about trying to reform things all the way back up the ladder."

Thomas Kube, executive director/CEO of the Council of Educational Facility Planners (www.cefpi.org), cites anecdotal evidence that despite the growing awareness of sustainable construction, not everyone is clamoring for it. "Parents, for instance, have an expectation that colleges will provide buildings that are safe and secure--proper locks, egress in a fire, etc.," he says. "But parents don't typically ask about environmental issues at orientation."

Nor is everyone prepared for what can be higher up-front costs in green construction. "As designers, we generally hope to get into the process before a budget is established," says Fanning. "Unfortunately, especially in a higher ed environment, we're often brought in after the budget is set. The school usually has very specific needs they've decided on. And publicly funded institutions, especially, have limited resources and can't move the budget to reallocate funds. Private colleges, though, have more leeway to raise additional funds, dealing directly with benefactors and donors who can be shown why spending more initially will save money down the road." Acknowledging that sustainable structures are certainly not cheap to put up, Fanning concedes, "Public institutions will always be behind; especially now with budget shortfalls, the argument gets lost. Still it's perplexing, because we all understand the need for sustainable buildings."

Before you get too deep into the planning phase, "my advice," says Black, "is to have a documented plan in place at the outset, addressing indoor air quality. Specifications can be generated so they become part of your basic A&D [architecture and design] manual; any architect you bring on board should be familiar with those requirements."

And, advises Hainline, "Administrators should look seriously at the issues surrounding how to increase students' productivity. There are a number of studies regarding how 'daylighting' improves performance, for instance. If I were going to make the effort to build these spaces for kids, it would only make sense to enhance their ability to learn. Classrooms could be more comfortable, not just temperature-wise, but in terms of daylight and air quality."

Whatever you do, Pring advises, don't keep the green construction initiative a secret. "We have many alumni for whom the environment is a priority," he notes, "and our Development office is now using as a fundraising tool the fact that the law school will be a green building. For the universities and colleges that pride themselves on their environmental programs, here's a great recruitment tool--a way to show future enrollees and your public, alumni, donors, students, faculty, and staff that you really do put your money where your mouth is, and practice what you preach."

Jeff Morris is a New York-based freelance writer.


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