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The Greening of Urban America

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The importance of housing and the construction industries to the U.S. economy has probably never been more apparent than over the past year. Whether they are active players in the real estate arena or not, investors of all kinds have been affected because Wall Street has been hit, no doubt with your clients among them.

The mortgage and credit crises are having an undeniable effect on the market for single-family homes, but in much of the country other construction continues unabated, and an increasing number of those projects are green, at least to some degree.

My first exposure to energy-efficient building came when I wrote a short article about earth-berm housing in 1980 for World Construction magazine. The basic idea is that you build your house into an existing hillside, or you create an artificial one around your single story structure. It’s been called “under earth, without being underground.” The resultant dwelling is warm in the winter, cool in the summer. Skylights and front windows let in natural light and the home never needs repainting. You do have to mow it, but that’s another issue.

Thirty years ago, the world wasn’t ready for earth-berm housing, but I thought for sure it would take off when the Lord of the Rings movies came out and people could see for themselves how cozy and comfortable hobbit dwellings could be. But there were no builders doing movie tie-ins to build hobbit holes, and I’m still the only person I know who would want to live in one.

Understanding LEED

Hobbit holes aside, there is much being done to make all kinds of buildings–residential, office, and retail–more energy efficient and with a smaller overall environmental impact.

One of the primary driving forces behind this environmentally friendly approach to building is the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a non-profit, self-regulating organization committed to expanding sustainable building practices. USGBC administers the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System, which provides independent, third-party verification that a building project meets the highest green building and performance measures.

According to USGBC, more than 1,500 buildings have received LEED certification since the program was launched in 2000, and there are currently 11,000 projects that are seeking certification.

LEED promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by focusing on five areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. Points are awarded for specific practices in each area and verified by a third party. Depending on the final score, the building is given a certified, silver, gold, or platinum ranking.

For advisors who deal with clients who invest in real estate projects, knowledge of the LEED program is important not only because of the environmental benefits. There are financial payoffs as well in many areas, including tax rebates, zoning allowances, and other benefits.

The New Urbanism is Green

Dean Marchetto, founding principal of Dean Marchetto Architects, P.C., in Hoboken, New Jersey, tries to incorporate sustainability into all of his designs. His firm recently converted a century-old coconut processing and storage facility into condominiums with prices starting somewhere above $600,000, which was the first Silver LEED-certified residential building in New Jersey. The building’s marketing materials call it “Hoboken’s hippest, smartest, and only green residence,” and stress the air filtration system, “spectrally specific glass” windows, “HVAC systems that do not use ozone depleting HCFCs,” and the “carefully selected soils and plants” of its green roof (see sidebar).

“It’s all about making buildings more sustainable–designing and building them in a more sustainable way, so that they don’t require so much maintenance and energy to keep them going,” he explains, noting that sustainability incorporates more than just the design of a particular building. “One of the most important things you can do is build in the right place. It’s not just what you build, it’s where you build.”

Marchetto notes that were he to build the most sustainable, energy-efficient building imaginable in one of New Jersey’s many suburban office parks, the amount of energy used and carbon emissions created by people driving there would far outweigh any benefits provided by the building’s design.

Instead Marchetto is a major proponent of the “new urbanism.” “One of the most important things in LEED about sustainability for me is trying to build near public transportation. It’s really important that we have these transit village type of locations where people live and work in proximate areas so that the energy isn’t wasted just moving back and forth to get to work or to get home. That’s why it’s so important where you build.”

He notes that by 2050, the U.S. population is expected to grow by 40%, and wonders where all those people will live. “The idea of mixed use is extremely important–buildings that have office, hotel, residential, retail, parking, all in the same building. So one of the things we’re moving to–besides building in areas that have transportation–are buildings with multiple uses,” he says.

Although some ideas sound a little more far-fetched than others, Marchetto is certain that there’s a revolution going on in urban planning. He’s currently in the approval process for a 60-story building in downtown Jersey City that would include a Whole Foods in the basement, three stories of additional retail space, a public plaza, several floors of parking, offices, conference space, and about half-way up the building a sky lobby topped by hotel rooms and residences. The skyscraper is topped by solar panels that swivel to follow the sun’s movement and provide some of the building’s electricity.

Another project that he’s involved with would replace an existing parking garage with a building that includes parking, a charter school, ground-floor retail space, and residences. “On the roof of the parking garage is a big enough plot–5,000 or so square feet–where we could plant rows and rows of vegetables. Imagine if people could just go up on the roof and pick some lettuce for dinner or if you were driving by and saw corn growing on the roof. It would really change how people think about what you can do in an urban environment.”

He acknowledges that while the building could never produce all the food for its residents and that the details about the rooftop farm would need to be worked out, anything that can reduce the distance food travels to our tables is a good thing.

Going Green Takes Green

One of the problems with green building, Marchetto acknowledges, is that much of the technology, such as solar panels, is still very expensive, “although it’s becoming more affordable, and more precise, so you get more energy.” He says that incorporating green factors into a building’s design can increase the building cost by 5% to 10%. Some of those additional expenses can be recouped through tax breaks or reduced energy and maintenance costs.

In urban environments, Marchetto prefers to retrofit existing buildings, noting that while it can be more difficult to work with a building originally constructed for a different purpose 100 years ago, it has advantages beyond the aesthetic. While some of the adaptations may be expensive, you don’t have to tear down and cart away the existing structure, not to mention LEED points for saving the building.

“On a building-by-building approach all of these things can apply, but in my mind they’re only a small fraction of the overall approach to sustainable,” Marchetto says. “The biggest, most important thing is compactness and living and working near public transportation and to stop sprawling out.”

Managing Editor Robert F. Keane can be reached at [email protected].