Ever since An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's eye-opening documentary on global warming opened in 2006, the level of awareness among the general public on environmental issues has skyrocketed. Since then, there have been sobering nationwide conversations about what can we do to lessen the impact we have on our planet and its resources.
In keeping with this conversation, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) brings together industry professionals to promote so-called 'green' buildings that are environmentally responsible as well as healthy places for people to live and work.
As a means of defining what 'green' is, USGBC offers its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, a nationally accepted rating system.
LEED helps the USGBC keep its finger on the pulse of green building and development all over the country by offering a benchmark for the design, construction and operation of green buildings.
Green buildings might look like regular buildings from the outside, but builders who put them together know that some very key aspects go into their design and construction.
"A green building is a high-performance building which is more environmentally responsible, healthier and more profitable," explains Ashley Katz, communications coordinator at the USGBC. "Green buildings use less energy, less water and fewer resources. They also have less of an impact on the environment and are healthier places for their occupants."
LEED for New Construction and Commercial Interiors puts the focus on the construction or major renovation of a building.
The USGBC also offers LEED for Existing Buildings, which allows buildings over two years old to get certified by making changes that will make the building friendlier to the environment and healthier for those residing within its walls.
Those who want to work toward LEED certification of their building—whether that is a developer working on a new construction or an existing building trying to become more energy-efficient—will find everything they need to get started on the USGBC's website www.usgbc.org.
LEED works on a point system. If you earn the minimum 26 out of the total 69 points, your building will certify at the basic 'certification' level. Buildings that earn more points than this will enter into the silver, gold or platinum levels.
Points, or credits, may be earned in the five main LEED categories: Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Materials and Resources, Energy and Atmosphere and Indoor Environmental Quality.
LEED offers credits for such things as proximity to public transportation, reduction of heat island effect, reuse of materials, use of materials with recycled content, use of renewable energy, protection of the ozone and increased ventilation.
The reduction of potable water usage is a big issue. "A lot of people maintain that water is going to be the next oil," warns Craig Kneeland, senior project manager for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). "It's ridiculous that we pay to treat water and then use it to flush away human waste."
Green Good for the Globe
The reason behind LEED is simple: in the United States, buildings account for 39 percent of the total annual energy consumption. Buildings also account for 71 percent of total electricity consumption, 39 percent of CO2 emissions and 36 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to Katz.
But green buildings reduce these extreme statistics and help save 30 to 50 percent of energy, 38 percent of CO2 emissions, 40 percent of water and 70 percent of solid waste, Katz reports.
Chris Moss, founder of Moss Real Estate Group, New York City's first green real estate brokerage, puts it succinctly when he only half-jokes, "We don't want New York to be under water."
Moss, whose green office space in Soho utilizes fresh air, natural light and wind-powered electricity, donates a percentage of his gross revenue every year to environmental charities as a member of 1% for the Planet.
"We've simply tried to reconsider the way that our industry does business," he explains. "We educate developers about living green. We've gotten them excited about it and gotten them to commit to it on the order of many, many hundreds of thousands of square feet in New York City just this year."
One of the downsides to convincing developers to build green is cost.
"What we're asking people to do is re-think the way they do business," says Kneeland. "That's one of the obstacles [of LEED]. The construction industry is astonishingly conservative."
Kneeland in no way thinks these costs should discourage the green building movement.
"A green building enables us to meet our needs while still leaving enough on the table for future generations to live as well as we do," he says. "People are finally tuning in to the importance of conserving energy and reducing our carbon footprint. Green buildings can be a part of that."
Green Living is Cheaper
According to Katz, the initial registration fee for the LEED certification program is $450, which gives the project team access to a variety of project management resources. The average certification fee is about $2,000, depending on the size of the project.
"The confidence that comes with LEED certification really makes it worth it," Katz professes. "Independent third-party verification means you know your building is saving energy and water just like it was designed to do."
And that's one of the beauties of living in a green building: your costs for water and electricity should be considerably lower.
"The energy savings from just switching light bulbs is pretty dramatic," Moss argues. "Many of these [green] systems are designed to save energy and water. Energy and water cost money. So, over the long haul, the value of the building goes up and dollars out of pocket can go down."
"It's hard to say what becoming LEED certified for existing buildings will cost since it's going to depend on the condition of the building in the first place," Kneeland asserts. "Some cost-estimating companies have discovered that most reasonably well-designed buildings have 12 to 18 points right from the get-go without doing anything different whatsoever."
Katz reports that the average payback of a green building over its lifetime is 20 percent.
"Once your building is operational, you start saving money," she says. "Add in the health and productivity benefits for the building's occupants, and the benefits for the environment, and it's clear that green building makes both economic and environmental sense."
Easy Being Green
The cost considerations involved in going green may become less of an issue when you think about how living green can improve your health and level of comfort.
"How much is your life and your health worth?" asks Kneeland.
"A green building is going to be a substantially more enjoyable place to live in terms of fresh air, light, indoor air quality," Moss maintains. "People love green buildings."
Kneeland tells the story of a young woman with asthma who couldn't sleep through the night until she moved to the Solaire in Manhattan's Battery Park City, the nation's first green residential high-rise building.
"She hasn't had any problems since then," he says. "They have increased ventilation and a lot of filtration and were very, very careful in the materials that they chose for the building. So you have a direct correlation between a green building and improved health care."
Battery Park City is one neighborhood that "leads" the way in "LEED" standards. The Visionaire, which uses an intricate water filtration system for toilets, has a green roof and gets 35 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources, is the only residential building in the country to earn the LEED platinum rating. The previously mentioned Solaire, located at 20 River Terrace was the first gold-certified building in the country. Tribeca Green, a 24-story residential tower at 325 North End Avenue, is also rated gold.
Riverhouse is a gold-certified building that uses a geothermal well to heat and cool the common areas, and features solar panels, microturbines and insulated windows. The solar panels, known as photovoltaic panels, will produce electricity for the building. These panels will benefit Riverhouse residents by producing free electricity after the initial investment cost, connecting to the utility grid allowing excess energy to be sold back to local utilities, increasing grid reliability by preventing blackouts during peak demand hours and requiring little maintenance and a lifetime of 30-plus years.
Outside of Battery Park City, The Helena, at 601 West 57th Street, meets the gold standard and touts that 50 percent of the building's purchased energy is generated by wind power. E7 project, a boutique condo in Williamsburg uses a geothermal system to heat and cool the building and is aiming for silver LEED status. Greenbelt, a warehouse in Williamsburg being converted into silver LEED certified apartments, was built using salvaged materials from the warehouse and uses solar panels to power some of the building. Dozens of other projects around the city are also aiming for LEED certification.
Does Going Green Put You in the Black?
As a real estate broker, Moss estimates that apartments in green buildings will fetch 10 percent more in the market than non-green apartments.
"LEED certified buildings, especially those that are platinum, are dramatically different buildings than non-LEED certified buildings. It's certainly not apples to apples," he says.
"Sustainable real estate properties lease more rapidly than conventional buildings," Katz comments. "And they command higher occupancy and rental rates."
Additionally, LEED certified buildings may qualify for tax rebates, zoning allowances and other incentives. These incentives differ by state and city; you can check out the USGBC website to view a listing of them.
Small Things Add Up to Big Things
You don't have to be a green builder or buy a newly constructed green condo to make a difference. Even those in existing buildings can move toward being more green - and earn LEED certification points along the way.
"Older buildings have some really wonderful creative opportunities to retrofit," Moss asserts. "You have so many opportunities to make use of junk—the idea of 'waste equals food.' It could be insulation made from recycled blue jeans or concrete in which you use recycled fly ash. You have so many opportunities to take waste material and turn it into part of a new building."
Moss recounts the story of a developer who had the idea to reuse scrap iron in a condo conversion he's working on in Soho. The iron, which he removed from the old loft building, will be used to create a new façade for the building.
"You can do all sorts of new things when you start thinking in terms of reuse and through the filter of sustainability," says Moss. "I think it makes a project very exciting."
Individual residents can use sustainable cleaning products, upgrade light bulbs, reuse already-used water to give the plants a drink or install sunshades that help cool your apartment without expensive A/C.
"A lot of us leave the air conditioning on day in and day out, even when we're not in the building. You should turn it off when you're not there and shave usage," advises Kneeland. "In this way, you can reduce your own costs, generate revenue and reduce the use of the dirtiest power plants during the time of the year when you least want to be introducing pollution."
People can work with their board and fellow residents to create a plan that rethinks the waste management system, creates a bicycle storage room to encourage the use of public transportation, organizes a carpooling system, uses low environmental impact pest control, changes light bulbs throughout the building, adds flow restrictors or puts timers on the lights in the hallways.
Some of these items might earn you LEED certification credits. But, even if they don't, you're moving in a direction that will not only improve the enjoyment of living in your building but also improve air and light quality, and possibly even increase the value of your building over time.
"Everyone can get involved," Moss says. "New construction is great, but if you are just a person who lives in a co-op or condo, you can still be mindful about this type of stuff."
Domini Hedderman is a freelance writer and an aspiring novelist living in Erie, Pennsylvania.