The topic was indoor air quality, and Catherine Bobenhausen, a mild-mannered industrial hygienist who is one of New York State's foremost experts on the subject, had been invited to address the group about testing for pollutants. She used a lot of jargon, but she didn't mince words. Rather than constantly testing for noxious chemicals in our air ducts, said Bobenhausen, we should construct buildings that are less toxic and better-ventilated.
The assembled construction experts, most of them members of the U.S. Green Building Council, didn't disagree, but neither did they let Bobenhausen off easy. For the next hour, she fielded a barrage of pointed, technical questions about how to build for cleaner indoor air. Time is too precious for an academic discussion. These hands-on pros want to design and construct their buildings "greener": to use energy more efficiently, preserve clean air and water, provide healthy indoor environments, ease strain on the infrastructure, and last for the long haul. Natural daylight as an alternative to electric lights, central air filters to flush out pollutants--old ideas, perhaps, but in the cost- and risk-averse world of real estate development, such measures are still radical.
Similar early-morning conferences are regularly taking place around the country. Not looking to be martyrs for a half-baked cause, industry people are signing on to green building precisely because they believe it has a real chance of becoming standard practice. They are betting that over time more of their colleagues will agree. "Sustainable, high-performance building is an opportunity for a cleaner, leaner and greener future," says Susan Kaplan, a manager of green-building projects for the Battery Park City Authority, which mandates that all new construction in Battery Park follow a strict environmental code.
But don't look to the New York City Department of Buildings, which regulates construction, to force the city's developers to build green. Even now, nearly 400 volunteer experts from all areas of the industry are working in 13 technical committees to rewrite New York City's massive building code, combing through it word by word, and there's little chance that the revisions will include requirements for green building.
The committees are working from a shared desire to reduce construction costs, maintain safety standards, and strip out mandates they consider nonessential. They are trying to adopt a "performance-based" code, which sets minimum benchmarks for, say, a building's energy efficiency, but does not explicitly state ways to meet the standard. "The heart of the difference between prescriptive and performance-based codes is that prescriptive can strangle out development of new concepts and new technologies," says Marzio Penzi, an associate commissioner at the Department of Buildings, responding to the suggestion that the new code could require builders to go green. "We want to include language that will enable new technology--if the designers chose to do it. We want to point in the right direction, but we're not going to tell you exactly how to get there, because we want you to always be coming up with better ways."
Most of the country follows the same approach when it comes to regulating construction. While interest in green building is booming, only a few cities--notably Boulder, Colorado, and Richmond, Texas--have written mandates into their building codes.
The green-building vanguard have concluded they're better off not fighting for government regulations. Instead, professionals like those gathered at Bovis think it's more essential to convince their colleagues that adopting sustainable building practices is simply good business. They reason that once enough builders and developers start using the materials, mechanisms and techniques they've pioneered, those products will become less costly and more available, skills will spread, and practices that are now unusual will become the norm.
"The government could just outright legislate it, but I believe in choices in this world," says Petr Stand, a New York architect who specializes in urban renewal projects and has been opting to build green for years. "The goal is to get a building that is joyous, not just another box with windows. But there will be resistance to the city telling builders how to build. So we should at least give developers the choice, and they could be incentivized. That route is more palatable politically and economically."
Think back to pesticide bans or regulations that limit logging in old-growth forests. By relying on the marketplace to promote positive change, the green building movement is utterly different from most earlier environmental campaigns. And there is a lot at stake. Residential and commercial buildings in the U.S. collectively consume more than a third of the nation's energy, two-thirds of electricity and 40 percent of raw materials. They also account for large shares of greenhouse gas emissions, solid waste and air pollutants linked to respiratory illnesses such as asthma.
How buildings are made, and what they are made of, has huge consequences for the health of their occupants, too. "There is strong evidence that characteristics of buildings and indoor environments significantly influence the occurrence of communicable respiratory illness, allergy and asthma symptoms," concluded William Fisk, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in a landmark 2000 study. The Environmental Protection Agency agrees: It lists indoor air quality as one of the top five environmental health risks facing Americans today. The buildings we live and work in, it seems, can actually make us sick.
Fisk's research points to solutions. He offers evidence that improving the air filtration in existing buildings can result in tens of millions fewer cases of asthma, colds, flu, and other afflictions known or thought to be environmentally related.
But green building advocates know they can't win their case with developers based on public health benefits alone. "Decisions about energy performance and efficiency are always bottom-line decisions," explains Alan Traugott, a principal at the global engineering firm Flack + Kurtz.
So they are putting the business case front and center and have already succeeded in bringing major real estate developers on board. In Pittsburgh, for instance, the nonprofit Green Building Alliance, run by Green Building Council board member Rebecca Flora, has been directly pitching CEOs of big corporations on the benefits of building green. The greater Pittsburgh region now has the highest concentration of certified green buildings in the country, all of them privately developed.
One of the Green Building Alliance's first big wins was convincing PNC Financial Services to go green with a 650,000-square-foot office building in downtown Pittsburgh. Says Flora, "My biggest coup was hearing the head of the bank talking on the radio about his new green building" after it had been completed. "That's what you need: People whom others in the community look to as trendsetters talking proudly about green building."
The green building movement has made the marketplace its battleground in part because of who leads it: mid-career, middle-aged building industry professionals. While they hail from varied fields--including construction, architecture, engineering, manufacturing, real estate and development--they are all accustomed to making decisions based on the bottom line.
But from the beginning, these individual entrepreneurs collectively functioned as a movement. Just 15 years ago, they were simply a loose network of specialists who occasionally got together and mused about the possibility of transforming the built environment by using sustainable design techniques. Their interest was sparked by concern for the environment, hunger for an intellectual challenge and a belief that Europe's successful experiments with green building could be replicated in the U.S.
Traugott was an early convert. He remembers attending a conference in the early 1990s and meeting a developer named David Gottfried, who had given up his post at the helm of a major Washington real estate firm to sow the seeds of a green building boom. Gottfried's pitch to new builders like Traugott was that environmentalism and capitalism could be complementary forces--entrepreneurs could do well by doing good. "I signed on immediately," Traugott recalls.
At first, the campaign run by Gottfried and a handful of other pioneers grew slowly. It didn't catch fire until Gottfried, along with Mike Italiano, a Washington-based environmental attorney, and Rick Fedrizzi, the head of environmental communications for a leading heating, air conditioning and refrigeration company, had the idea of starting a green building organization for industry professionals.
They and other colleagues founded the U.S. Green Building Council in April 1993. From the beginning, says Traugott, it focused on achieving consensus among its diverse membership about the importance of sustainable design, and about how to make the economics of green building work.
To do that, it soon became clear, members would have to agree on what "green building" actually means. "People would call something a green building and everyone else would say, 'Prove it,'" recalls Bill Browning, another of the council's cofounders. "Was it a kind of green, some shade of green, partially green? Nobody knew because there was no way of saying, 'This building performs well and these are the metrics by which it's gauged.'"
In 1999, the council finally agreed on a rating system: LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It soon became the industry standard. A building certified with LEED is given points for green techniques in six categories, including energy efficiency and water conservation. A building with a sufficient number of points becomes "LEED-certified." [See "What Does 'Green' Mean?" page 25.]
"Probably its strongest contribution has been in creating a consensus-based organization that represents all the players in the building industry," says Hillary Brown, one of the council's first board members and founder of the New York City Department of Design and Construction's Office of Sustainable Design, which assists public and private green building projects citywide.
Armed with LEED as a yardstick, the green building movement quickly went mass. Before LEED, the council had 115 member groups. Today, it has nearly 4,000. From 1990 to 2001, 18,900 homes were built across the nation that fit municipal green building standards. There were 13,200 constructed in 2002 alone.
Even brown-and-gray New York City is showing signs of green. The first projects here were high-visibility, high-cost buildings done by big-name developers with a personal interest in environmentalism. In 1999, developer Douglas Durst completed the first speculative green commercial building in the city, a 48-story office tower at 4 Times Square. And last year, developer Russell Albanese opened the Solaire, the first luxury apartment building in New York City that meets the Battery Park City Authority's strict green guidelines for residential development. A similar set of guidelines is close to being finalized for the rebuilding of Ground Zero.
A number of other major green projects that at least partially follow LEED standard are undergoing either planning or construction, and sustainable building advocates believe these will go far toward transforming the New York City marketplace. They include a new wing of the New York Hall of Science, the new Bronx Criminal Courthouse, the Queens Botanical Garden Administration Building and four new development projects in Battery Park City. "We could see in the area of 14 million square feet of sustainable development in lower Manhattan in the next 10 to 15 years," says Tim Carey, president and CEO of the Battery Park City Authority. "I think that creates a market."
The market is growing day by day. Materials are becoming less expensive, and more widely available. Know-how is spreading among builders and engineers. But a perception still exists that it costs more to build green. So does it?
The answer is, sometimes. Depending on what features architects and engineers incorporate, green buildings can cost more, the same or even less to construct than their conventional counterparts. The Green Building Council has tracked national green development over the last decade and found that the average up-front or "first" costs of green buildings are 2 to 7 percent higher than for standard models. A more recent study conducted by Capital E energy consultants found the average to be zero to 2 percent in California.
"First costs" is a term that constantly comes up in the green building business. It refers to the expense of initial construction, including both "hard" costs like bricks and "soft" costs like general contracting services. Green builders argue that measuring the price of construction purely in terms of first costs obscures the larger financial picture. They say developers and landowners have to look more seriously at the price of heating, cooling, and maintaining a building once it's occupied. Most green features can pay for themselves many times over, and often do so in a short period. For example, buying special double-glazed windows means less heat escapes, so money is saved from buying a smaller boiler and using less fuel.
Those long-term considerations mean a lot to developers of housing for low-income tenants--developers like Mary Spink of the Lower East Side People's Mutual Housing Association. A few years back, during renovations on a residential building on East Fifth Street, Spink installed an energy-efficient heating system, with the help of her friend Henry Gifford, a mechanical engineer. Immediately, her energy bills went down 40 percent.
"The only green it had to do with was money," she says of the decision to use the special heating system. It worked so well, she says, smiling, that "we decided to go all the way with the next one."
The next one is now under construction--a new 38-unit residential building on East Third Street reserved for families earning less than about $24,000 a year. Gifford brought on board Chris Benedict, a well-known green architect, to design the project. Financed with subsidies from the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, 299 East Third will be the most environmentally sophisticated residence for low-income tenants in the city. "There's not much better we could do here with unlimited money," says Benedict, "and we've done it for practically no money."
According to Spink, the work at East Third Street has been made possible in large part by the dedication of Gifford and Benedict to making the best building possible. "I'll tell you the truth," says Spink. "She's a control freak, and he's a genius."
What Spink and a few others are learning is that building green, and the long-term savings in operation and maintenance costs, makes perfect sense for affordable housing developers. It also makes sense for low-income tenants, who are disproportionately likely to live in housing and neighborhoods with bad air quality.
Several Bronx-based community development organizations, including Nos Quedamos and Mount Hope Housing Company, have also begun incorporating green design techniques into local housing and other projects. Nos Quedamos completed 30 freestanding homes at the end of 2002 that incorporate nontoxic insulation, high-performance windows, and high-efficiency heat and water systems. Mount Hope is currently working with Croxton Collaborative Architects to design a 45,000-square-foot community center that will maximize natural daylight, aggressively filter air and feature an accessible, vegetation-covered roof.
Keith Fairey, chief operating officer of Mount Hope, explains that his organization is concerned by the high asthma rates in the area and is therefore interested in "creating a new type of environment that encourages the well-being of the people who experience it." And, of course, he's keeping an eye on his own bottom line. Says Fairey, "We are looking at doing sustainably designed buildings that can yield great return in efficiency and cost."
So why aren't more affordable housing developers following their path? For one thing, says Robert Politzer, president of GreenStreet Construction and Consulting, one of the leading green building firms in the tri-state region, use of the most sophisticated methods and materials has not yet moved from a handful of elite design firms into the rest of the architectural and engineering professions. While there is growing awareness in the field about the possibilities, as long as builders remain uneducated about the details, they will be hesitant to suggest new techniques to their clients. "The fear is quite real," Politzer says. "The only thing worse than a failed construction project is a failed military campaign." As long as there isn't enough architectural and engineering talent out there who know the tricks for getting the work done well at a low price, affordable housing developers are faced with prohibitively high first costs.
Nonprofit developers in particular face another obstacle: An important source of funding, the New York State Green Building Tax Credit, is available only to commercial builders. "I know other nonprofits trying to do sustainable design," Fairey says. "We think it makes sense both environmentally and economically, but we need some help in meeting the first costs. That's what it's going to take for groups like ours to step into the fray."
But don't think luxury developers always have it easy. Most green builders still face an age-old problem for budding businesses: They're the little guys. Although materials are more and more available, green building remains a specialty niche market driven by the biggest customers, and that means materials just aren't readily available when and where smaller builders need them. "If you have a big enough construction job--if you're the Solaire--you can get whatever you need," explains Bomee Jung, director of GreenHomeNYC, a nonprofit that builds awareness about environmental issues in small buildings. "But if you're doing a small project and want to substitute [green products], that's going to be harder to find in New York."
Politzer constantly struggles with the limited supply chain. "It's not like you've got a green Home Depot or a one-stop shop for green building products," he says. Recently, Politzer's installer was in the middle of a job and ran out of a special adhesive used to lay nontoxic cork flooring. The only glue he could quickly get from the nearest lumber yard was the standard, noxious variety.
Only recently has demand been high enough to make selling green materials potentially profitable, and just a few entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the opportunity. One of the only dedicated local distributors is Bronx-based Environmental Construction Outfitters of New York, run by Paul Novack. Sitting in his warehouse filled with cotton insulation and bamboo flooring, Novack laughs, "We almost went under a few times." What sustained his business, he says, was cornering the niche market of hypoallergenic products for people with chemical sensitivities. Novack claims his revenue has increased 30 percent in each of the last three years.
But even with an ever-improving private marketplace, without a major increase in demand for green building products and skilled practitioners, moving green building into the mainstream will remain a dream. By themselves, individual firms don't command enough capital to lead the way to a greener future. For all their faith in the private marketplace, leaders at the Green Building Council do want government to play a role--as a large-scale purchaser of materials and design and construction work.
A few big cities such as Seattle and Chicago, as well as a handful of smaller localities, have adopted LEED as the standard for all future government development projects. Others, including Santa Monica, California; Lakewood, Ohio; and Frisco, Texas, have adopted their own rigorous green standards for public projects.
Government is both the nation's largest landowner and largest customer, making purchases worth 20 percent of the gross national product. Spending on construction and related materials reaches into the billions of dollars every year. As it is already doing with renewable energy, government can set an example for the private sector.
There is also a more traditional way that government can help: agencies can offer incentives, such as sales tax abatements on green building materials. In New York City, that idea is already catching on. "The council is actively researching all possibilities for facilitating green building," says Councilmember James Gennaro, who chairs the City Council's Environmental Protection Committee. Although it's premature to discuss specific initiatives, he promises that "the public can look forward to significant action from the Council on green building incentives this year."
Meanwhile, the Bloomberg administration is taking it slow. The Department of Design and Construction, which builds and renovates certain public facilities, recently set a requirement that all of its construction projects must use low-toxicity and recycled-content building materials. But so far, the administration has declined to make LEED or the Department of Design and Construction's recommended guidelines mandatory for public construction projects. Ed Carey, a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office of Environmental Coordination, reports that "the topic of sustainability has been coming up a lot in various meetings and different conferences" and that "the mayor feels it is a major issue we need to address." A number of city agencies are co-sponsoring a green building design competition that offers $5,000 prizes to 10 finalists.
All of which is a start. But Battery Park City's Tim Carey, whose agency reports to the governor, not the mayor, is not impressed. He maintains that local government can and should lead the way--aggressively. "If the government won't do it, then how can you tell a developer to do it?" Carey says, his voice rising. "If there is any stumbling block right now to adopting LEED in New York City, it's because the government is the one not agreeing to live up to that standard."