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The Green Gold Of Sustainable Construction

August 21, 2004
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Ron Wilkinson
When it comes to designing today's new residential, commercial, and institutional properties, building construction is a brand new game. The trends of efficiency, productivity, and technology are stronger than ever before and coming together to produce the building excellence required to compete in today's world economy.

The energy crunch of the 1970s was a wake-up call for Americans accustomed to a never-ending supply of cheap heat and power. Not only did energy prices skyrocket, but there was an increasing awareness of the harmful impact of energy production on the environment, including pollution, global warming, and habitat destruction. Contractors working in insulation, thermo-pane windows, premium doors, and waste heat exchangers enjoyed big increases in sales. Builders with a track record in tight envelope construction had an inside track in getting business.

The computer revolution of the 1980s applied modern technology to building HVAC, mechanical, and electrical systems. The application of electronic digital controls promised to produce a more healthy and productive indoor environment while pinching energy pennies. These controls could accurately and economically provide the required ventilation and temperature control in buildings that no longer offered operable windows. Controls contractors scrambled to represent lines of direct digital control (DDC) equipment or market their own products. Since the 1980s, there have been numerous takeovers, name changes, and shakeouts, but DDC equipment still rules. The newest innovations in DDC in the 90s and post-2000 are interactive graphical control interfaces, DDC-linked preventive maintenance systems, and Web-enabled remote system access.

At this point in time, the combination of tightly sealed walls and electronic-brain HVAC systems promises the best of both worlds: lower energy bills and a healthy, productive work environment. This trend towards increasing complexity in building design is coupled with the trend towards increased awareness of the indoor "built" environment. Many office workers still remember buildings that actually had windows that opened. Where does the fresh air come from now? It comes from a computer-controlled HVAC system that needs to work right 100 percent of the time. If a worker feels sleepy on the job, or smells odd odors in the office from time to time, where is that coming from? Many Americans spend half their lives in conditioned environments and are concerned about the safety and health of those spaces. Today's educated, professional workers are more tuned-in than ever to mold and microorganisms in our indoor environment.

Building green cuts energy expenses and also improves the indoor environment.

The Move To Green Building

The growing concern over workplace health, combined with a heightened concern for the environment, has led to the formation of the U.S. Green Building Council and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEEDâ„¢) program. The LEED program limits the impact of the building on the local environment during construction and also limits the energy costs of the building while producing a healthy workspace. The result? A building that is certified to help, rather than hurt, the places we live. Is this important to today's corporations? You bet it is! It is rapidly becoming the best method available of creating a favorable impression with both customers and employees alike.

Socially Responsible Investors (SRIs) make up a large part of the contemporary investing and consuming markets. The SRI group is made up of educated, high earnings professionals who have substantial disposable income, live healthy lifestyles, and spend more than their share of time engaged in outdoor pursuits. In addition, they are well read on the science and politics of environmental problems such as global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, and air pollution, all of which are stated targets to be minimized through LEED-style green construction.

Today's tuned-in SRI workers have seen and read the stories about mold and sick building syndrome (SBS) and will not work in an unhealthy building. Indeed, would anyone imagine a person working out in the gym, taking vitamins, eating low-fat organic foods, and then going to work in a building with mold growing where condensed water is running off unit ventilators? These employees are today's high performers; they are smart, ambitious, and upwardly mobile, but they will not be the sacrificial canaries to a malfunctioning HVAC system. A good quality assurance process is required during construction. An example of such a quality process is termed "commissioning" and is required by the LEED program.

In addition to a commissioned indoor environment, SRIs demand a building that protects the outdoors that they cherish. If a kayaking enthusiast is being courted by two companies and one firm works in a LEED certified building that protects the environment and the other is located in an industrial park next to a polluted creek, which firm is the SRI going to choose? The best employees are absolutely essential to the best bottom line and corporations with their finger on the pulse are seeing that green construction is the best way to make an immediate impact on these sought-after people.

Finally, if a member of the SRI group goes shopping, where are they likely to shop? Will they shop in a LEED certified building or one in an ordinary shopping mall? Remember, these are the same people that spend 50 percent more on organic food because they want to avoid pollution and chemicals. Nestle, Ford, Honda, Toyota, and Herman Miller, among dozens of others, are investing in green construction with LEED certified and commissioned office buildings and assembly plants. And they are not just building LEED certified buildings, but LEED Gold certified buildings, the highest rating possible. These world leaders are betting big on green and the early returns show they are winning.

The exploding popularity of the LEED green building program proves that today's environmentally aware workforce can have their cake and eat it too. They can have a building that minimizes the negative impacts of its construction and operation, and they can also have a work space that is confirmed healthy through the commissioning quality assurance process (a mandatory part of LEED).

For builders and contractors, offering buildings that attract and retain the best employees and customers while minimizing energy costs sounds like a deal that is a pleasure to sell. The green construction assures notice from the SRIs and the reduced energy bills translate into higher building value. Finally, superb indoor environmental quality through commissioning quality assurance retains the best employees while keeping the energy bills low. Green construction works for contractors, owners, and occupants alike.

Ron Wilkinson is vice president of operations for Dome-Tech Commissioning Services located in Edison, N.J. For more information, visit www.dome-tech.com.

Publication date: 08/23/2004

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