Green is growing

Mar 14, 2008

By Diane Heilenman
The Courier Journal

Kentucky is going green, slowly.

The new Bernheim Arboretum Visitor Center in Clermont, Ky., scored a prestigious LEED Platinum certificate in December. It is one of 72 buildings nationally with that designation. A renovation of historic Lincoln Hall at Berea College earned a Silver certificate in 2004, the first LEED building in Kentucky. In between are only seven other LEED projects in Kentucky.

But the trend has started. There are 33 LEED wannabes on the list, waiting for appraisal by the U.S. Green Building Council.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is a rating system for the design, construction and operation of environmentally friendly buildings. It is the only such system in the United States.

Legacy Lofts, due to open this year in Louisville, looks for Platinum. Alltech International in Nicholasville, Ky., also is going for a LEED honor, and so is Mammoth Cave Visitor Center, the Oldham County Public Library and the TARC Bus Maintenance Annex for Metro Louisville.

We asked the architects of Kentucky's LEED-certified projects and hopefuls why green is good, what it looks like and why it's so slow to happen.

Green impact

"Generally, Kentucky has been slow to embrace the green building movement; however, that attitude is changing quickly," said Richard Polk of Lexington's EOP Architects, which designed the makeover of the interior of the 116-year-old historic Lincoln Hall administration building after a central portion collapsed in 2001.

"We were the first architects to design a LEED-certified building in Kentucky. … There is currently a bill moving through the House (www. that, if passed, will require state buildings to be designed to meet green building standards."

Polk expects the need for LEED to diminish as green building goes mainstream. "It's my hope that within the next five to 10 years all buildings will be designed and constructed utilizing green building practices for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do."

"The demand will only increase," said Doug Pierson of (fer) Studio in Inglewood, Calif. He is the architect for adaptive reuse of a 100-year-old Louisville warehouse on East Market Street for Gallery NuLu and offices. In fact, Pierson said, 50 percent of his West Coast firm's clients build green beyond LEED credits and don't even bother with certification.

Pat Nall, a principal with Tucker Booker Donhoff + Partners in Louisville, is a believer. He had his first LEED experience getting the firm's new headquarters in a renovated building on East Market green-designed and LEED-certified.

"If I were in a position to be a real-estate developer, all I would do would be LEED projects," he said.

Mark Isaacs is an architect/builder and longtime advocate of sustainable buildings and cities. "We set out to design Legacy Lofts (830 E. Main St.) as a model to the nation of how we could have maximum energy efficiency cost-effectively now. While we believe Legacy Lofts will qualify as a LEED Platinum building, we did not set about to design a LEED building. We set out to go beyond the typical LEED building … to create a viable near-zero-carbon way of life that is affordable now. It was only after achieving that goal that we are certifying the building as LEED."

"I'm 52 years old," Isaacs added. "And I can't wait until I'm 74." That's because 2030 is the year the American Institute of Architects has set as its goal for designing carbon neutral buildings.

What's design got to do with it?

Pierson said he and his partner, Chris Mercier, have found "that our design approach -- innovative research, natural materials, contemporary design -- lends itself naturally to green design. Our design approach, therefore, changes very little from a regular project to a 'green' project. What does change substantially is the process of getting a green building 'certified.' "

"Building green does affect both the design of buildings and the design of cities," said Isaacs. "Buildings will tend to have skins that are more taut, that minimize exposed surface area. But green design also leads to buildings and city blocks that orient and open up to the sun."

The price

"The battle is still up-front costs versus long-term savings," said Pierson, whose clients are committed recyclers and sustainability advocates Augusta and Gill Holland, owners of a film production company and Gallery NuLu. Eventually, Pierson predicts, green design will be less costly. Right now, he said, "proof of green design through LEED certification is healthy because it quantifies your effort on an even playing field; however, the coordination effort and added scope required by professionals -- architects, engineers and builders -- increases the time and effort required to get a building through the process" of certification.

"For example, the amount of material and effort that we spent on saving existing structural wood and reusing it in a thoughtful way has a huge impact on the reduction of the overall carbon footprint left when the project is complete; however, it goes way beyond the single point that we gain for our effort in the LEED certification process."

The rule of thumb in Louisville, Nall said, is for LEED certification to add about 3 percent to the cost of construction projects under $10 million. For projects over $10 million, the percentage drops to around 1.5 percent. The payback from energy savings takes an average of three years, Nall noted.

But, Nall said, "I severely underestimated the boost to employee morale. … We had a record year in terms of productivity last year, our first year in our green building." That translated to a gross increase of 5 percent to 10 percent, Nall said. (A recent study by giant global architecture firm HOK indicated that its green buildings are 25 percent more productive than its non-green buildings.)

"Most owners recognize that the payback in reduced utility bills and increased occupant productivity more than offsets the added construction cost," said Polk. "The problem that EOP Architects has encountered is that owners are resistant to pay the administrative costs associated with a LEED submittal. (It's $450 just to get on file.) Owners are also resistant to adding building commissioning services, a LEED-mandated activity."

Commissioning is like a shake-down cruise, he said. It's important with complex interrelated systems. In truth, Polk said, all new construction gets commissioned somehow, but LEED requires a systematic process led by engineers.

The payback

Isaacs said LEED and green design are not just nice financially and to occupants. "According to the U.N. climate scientists, there is the real possibility of eliminating life on this planet over the next 100 years if we do nothing about our use of fossil fuels. Just as important, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas production 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020."

Still, he said, "(My wife) Sally and I are moving into Legacy Lofts when it finishes late spring/early summer because we want heating, cooling and hot water bills averaging under $10 per month for ourselves."

Reporter Diane Heilenman can be reached at (502) 582-4682.

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