Shades of Green

in green building, the hot new thing is to renew the old

by by Maggie Lange

Green—it used to mean cold, hard cash. Now, it’s a relatively meaningless buzzword for building something with an ecological conscience. In its most popular shade of ambiguity, green refers to both the environment and the economy. With initiatives like "Green Building," politicians, businessmen, and contractors promise that green creates jobs, saves money, and saves the environment. A win-win-win!

But what is a "Green Building"? There is no systematized term; most buildings that call themelves "green" focus on increasing efficiency of energy, water, and material use.

Earlier this year, the Rhode Island State Congress passed the Green Buildings Act, which required all public buildings to be renovated to meet standards set by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The legislative act explains that renovating public buildings will save energy, reduce water consumption, and improve indoor air quality.

Still its unclear what type of structures the Green Buildings Act encourages. The term LEED is fairly familiar now, but it still conjures up amorphous images of something halfway between the Oz’s Emerald City and a tree house.

In fact, the new LEED certified buildings in the Ocean State look something like that hybrid. The most striking examples are the $60 million headquarters for FM Global in Johnston, which features 98 newly-planted saplings, and URI’s $59 million biotech center, complete with a green roof (patches of vegetation sunning itself and filtering out pollutants).

Opening this weekend, Blue Cross has erected a $125 million green office building overlooking Water Place Park downtown. The company’s president, James Purcell, says making the building green cost about a million dollars extra, but will save $160,000 annually by using efficient airvents and a rooftop tank for gathering potable water. The building also encourages employees to change their personal habits to suit their new professional digs: the building features bike racks and a parking hierarchy that allows hybrid drivers and carpoolers choice spots.

These amenities are neat, but critics wonder how green new buildings—which necessitate construction and thus create more waste—really are. Does FM Global make up for whatever vegetation it replaced by planting 98 new trees? Will a social superiority system based on the gasoline efficiency of cars actually encourage employees to ditch their clunkers?

Environmental experts say the best way to build in an environmental way is not to erect fancy, technologically remarkable new structures. David Stem, who runs and owns the Providence-based building company Stem Contracting and Design, explained, “The hot new thing is to renew the old thing in green building. Bring-ing it back to use again, starting with simple things, like insulation.” Stem entered the green building field as a developer. He didn’t have intention for his Monohasset Mill project, a 63,000 square-foot building downtown, to be green, but he says he got into “adaptive reuse” because of his love for the old architecture. Making old buildings more energy efficient can make them marketable again.

However, renovating a building to meet efficient energy requirements can be remarkably expensive—more expensive even than starting from scratch. Purcell said that with the Blue Cross building, starting afresh and selling the original building was far cheaper than a renovation of their old property. Renovation also requires a lot of reworking and a lot rethinking: at Stem Contracting each structure poses a different set of problems, and therefore has a unique set of solutions. Stem sees his job as “sift[ing] through the puzzle of how to take existing structures and incorporate existing technologies.”

Dave Kessler, who founded a green building company called Native Structures in Rhode Island, said the biggest deterrent to green building is the public’s preconception that it will cost more. “I think we all agree that green building in general, if executed in its holistic approach, it’s a cost that is paid back over time. The return on investment is there,” he said. “Of the people I’m working with, 90 percent of them are doing it for economic purposes, not to save the world.”

Kessler said investing in energy efficient buildings is not just an important business priority to save money, but is an issue of international security. He says that if America concentrates on energy efficient structures, it won’t have to compete for fossil fuels in the future.

“There are six billion people on this planet,” Stem said “With China and India making up 40 percent of the planet, I have a strong belief that when our economy comes roaring back, that energy crisis will go to new places.”

Kessler predicts that in order to avoid a fight over oil “everyone will be scrambling to install insulation and solar.” As Stem sees it, investing in green building will improve both the environment and the economy in the Ocean State, as well as keeping us internationally competitive across the ocean.

Give MAGGIE LANGE B’11 some of that green.