Friday, August 25, 2006

Engineers and Green Buildings by Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED AP

The green building industry is going nowhere but up. In 2005, the green building industry had a significant expansion and growth in the U.S. For the first time ever, new LEED-NC (New construction) project registrations topped 1,000, adding more than 130 million gross sq.ft. of project area, and more than 150 LEED-NC projects were certified, topping 100 for the first year ever. The U.S. Green Building Council’s annual Greenbuild conference and trade show expects to attract nearly 12,000 people to Denver in November, making it the world’s largest, and the number of LEED Accredited Professionals (LEED APs) exceeds 24,000. LEED-NC version 2.2 has been successfully introduced, along with a simplified documentation and project management system, LEED Online.

Many external events continued to work to promote green buildings. Oil prices surged above $75 per barrel in July and threatens to stay at elevated levels for a long time. In November 2005, the U.S. government’s hyper-conservative Energy Information Administration published its long-term forecast for oil prices and estimated oil prices in 2025 at $54 per barrel in 2005 dollars, up 65% from its year-earlier estimate of $33 per barrel. Increasing oil (and natural gas) prices, the drumbeat over global warming intensified by the movie An Inconvenient Truth, and the prospects of uncertain supplies because of volatile geopolitical factors have changed the psychology of the public for the first time in a generation, toward a concern for energy conservation in buildings.

Even President Bush and the Congress got into the act, passing the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT), providing for dramatically increased incentives for solar and wind power, along with strong support for energy conservation in new and existing buildings. Although the incentives are scheduled to expire at the end of 2007, many seasoned Washington observers expect them to be extended in 2007. In 2006, President Bush went on the road in mid-February to tout his new focus on ending America’s recently discovered “oil addiction.” (“My name is George Bush, and I’m an oil addict!”)

Just to show that architects get the message that, as captain of the ship, steering buildings toward less energy use is their responsibility, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) issued its most ambitious policy statement yet, declaring in a December 2005 position statement supporting sustainable design that new buildings should reduce currently consumption levels by 50% by 2010. The problem, as anyone who works daily in building design will acknowledge, is that architects and engineers have few clues how to accomplish this goal, within current building budgets. And, with costs for ordinary buildings exceeding $200 and even $300 per sq.ft. in major metropolitan areas, most construction budgets are stretched to the breaking point. Absent new financial and institutional arrangements there is simply no more “upfront” money for building energy conservation.

What might all this mean for consulting engineering firms? A recent survey of market growth projections, conducted by McGraw-Hill for the U.S. Green Building Council, predicted that education and government sectors, followed by institutional and office buildings, would show the highest growth rates, from 48% to 65%, over the next year.

External factors continue to have a dramatic effect on the construction industry and indirectly on the financial viability of green buildings that carry higher initial costs. Commercial construction costs escalated dramatically in 2005, led by 20% higher costs for concrete and steel, owing to higher fuel costs and dramatically increased construction demand in China, India and other Asian countries. This means that engineers are going to have to embrace integrated design approaches, to provide higher-performance buildings on the same or less construction cost.

Many engineering firms seek to differentiate their services by increasing the number of LEED APs on staff, aiming at 40% to 50% or more of their professional staff. Each firm in the design and construction industry that wants to stay competitive in the green building market arena needs to move in this direction. Having a strong sustainability program in-house will be one of the few ways consulting engineering firms can hope to attract new talent and to keep ambitious engineers on board.

The main sticking point for rapid LEED project growth continues to be the perception that these projects cost a lot more. In 2005, Turner Construction repeated its initial 2004 green building industry survey, with similar results. In this survey, 68% of 665 executives surveyed believed that higher construction costs were the major factor discouraging construction of green buildings, while 64% cited lack of awareness of benefits. In terms of the cost and complexity of LEED documentation, 54% cited that as a contributing factor, while 51% cited short-term budget horizons of clients, 50% cited long paybacks (average eight years), and 47% cited difficulty quantifying all the benefits of green buildings.

Clearly there is a lot of work to do, in the world of architecture and engineering, to start making buildings more efficient. However, the “perfect storm” is now in place, for the first time in a generation, for building owners and developers to listen to the message of energy-efficient building design. It’s time for professionals to start getting the tools, products and techniques in place, using the process of integrated design, to tighten up the energy use of buildings.

An earlier version of this column appeared in the April 2006 issue of HPAC Engineering magazine, References:”Green Building Smart Market Report,” McGraw-Hill Construction, November 2005, 44 pages, available from, p. 12.See “Engineering a Sustainable World,” available from Interface Engineering, for an example of how a Platinum LEED project can be designed with less initial MEP costs. Order a copy from

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Double Bottom Line: Doing Good and Doing Well by Peter Pike

Real Estate Cares... "Yes!", readers responded to August 8th's Dispatch, Socially Responsible Real Estate. Who Knew?. Real estate investors are doing good AND doing well.

David Keiran of the New Boston Fund in Boston writes that his firm's Urban Strategy America Fund (USF) offers institutional investors a "socially responsible" real estate vehicle. USF "seeks a double (and often triple) bottom line return and provides our investors with strong financial returns and measurable socio-economic impacts in the areas in which we invest. The triple bottom line return comes in the form of sustainable green development, which is part of our overall fund development strategy."

USF closed on its first property, Olmsted Green in Mattapan, MA, ten months ago. With a projected IRR of 19%, this 552,190 square foot mixed-use development "will include 287 workforce housing condominiums, 153 affordable rental units, 83 units of senior housing and a 123-bed skilled nursing care facility."

Skip Case at Case Industrial Partners in Columbia, MD, must be one of the few brokers who has taken "both of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) courses. ... Having rubbed elbows with some very hotshot LEED people, it is interesting for me to note that their biggest push is towards commercial and public office buildings where creature comforts are of paramount importance. Being the industrial guy and USGBC member that I am, I look at the billions of square feet of roofs on warehouses and distribution centers nationwide (not to mention the retail big boxes) and think, 'Wow, if only we could do living roofs on these…' [Pike: Check out Ford's new 454,000-square foot living roof at their Dearborn Truck Plant.]

Dan Winters at Evolution Partners in Washington, DC, writes that his firm "only represents developers building or rehabbing LEED / Energy Star buildings. "To us, it’s a sign of both a quality real estate developer and a quality firm. Frankly, they make for inspiring clients. ... With nearly 20 federal government agencies and three branches of the military signing an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) on green building in January 2006, coupled with nine states and 40-plus municipalities adopting green building legislation, it makes for a compelling story."
Reprinted with permission from

Planet Wedgies by Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED AP

An article in Scientific American, (September 2006, presents “A Plan to Keep Carbon in Check.” Written by two Princeton professors, the article looks at all the ways to solve the climate problem of excessive carbon dioxide buildup for the next fifty years, using current technologies. This may seem like an extremely conservative viewpoint, but if we look back fifty years, we will find that we are still producing electricity and fueling our factories, cars, offices and homes with the same fuels: oil, gas and coal. After a brief “blip” of nuclear power, the U.S. turned away from it, with the result that no new nuclear plants have been started since 1974, more or less.

The professors, Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala, published their initial findings in the peer reviewed Science magazine two years ago. What they do is contrast two futures, the first based on a “do-nothing” premise, i.e., continuing with carbon emissions at much the same rate as the past thirty years. The result is 14 billion tons per year of carbon emissions by 2056, which would triple “pre-industrial” levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with almost certain significant climate changes.

In the second, more positive future, emissions are frozen for fifty years at today’s level of 7 billion tons of annual carbon inputs, then reduced by half for the next fifty years, holding total carbon dioxide concentrations at only double the pre-industrial level, less than fifty percent above today’s atmospheric concentrations.

Socolow and Pacala identify two long-term trends that may help accomplish part of this goal: a transition from manufacturing to service economies all over the world, and the “substitution of cleverness for energy,” for example, the development of more energy-efficient appliances and aircraft engines.

To look at solutions, the two professors developed the notion of “stabilization wedges” (hence the title of this article) that would each avert one billion tons of carbon emissions per year fifty years from now, starting at zero today. This would move the annual carbon emissions from 14 billion tons back to 7 billion.

How does all this relate to green buildings? The authors lay out fifteen potential ways to get seven stabilization wedges, which would each yield 25 billion tons of total emission reductions over the next fifty years. This is “sustainability thinking” on a grand scale. One of these wedges requires cutting electricity use in homes, offices and stores by 25 percent. Think of it: cutting 50 percent of energy use in homes, offices and stores over the next fifty years would itself contribute nearly 30 percent (two of the seven wedges) of the emission reductions needed to avoid drastic climate change. This is a grand challenge for designers, builders, developers and government agencies.

And guess what? It’s not that hard to cut energy use in existing buildings by 25 percent over that time frame, and a piece of cake to cut electricity use in new buildings by 50 percent over the same time frame. In fact, the AIA-supported “Architecture 2030” protocol ( calls for cutting new building energy use by 60 percent by 2010, just four years from now. Add to that major ramp-ups of wind and solar use in buildings and you’ve got another wedge, or nearly half the problem solved.

So, here’s a challenge for designers, contractors, equipment makers, planners, lenders, investors, clients and everyone involved in the building industry. Look at your next project: if it’s not cutting electricity use by at least 25 percent in an existing building, go back and redesign it. If it’s not cutting electricity use by at least 50 percent in a new building, consider whether your firm will be competitive in five years. Can you design and construct high-performance buildings on a conventional building budget? If not, figure out how to do it.

The 21st century is shaping up to be a “design century.” We should all be encouraging fresh approaches to building and community design that reduce energy use while maintaining high levels of environmental quality and design excellence. In the long run, i.e., the fifty-year level, the greatest challenge is to the education community. If the current ways of teaching architecture, engineering and building are not yielding the planet-friendly results we all need, isn’t it time to “re-design” the entire curriculum to turn out designers with a planetary conscience and the skills to implement one, two or more wedgies?

Jerry Yudelson is Senior Editor of He can be reached by email to and via his consulting firm, Greenway Consulting Group, LLC,