Principles of sustainable design, or “green building” have been around for years. These are designs that, among other things, reduce energy use and create more comfortable working environments. Yet they are often dismissed as costly, impractical, and experimental. But green design has come a long way in recent years. The construction cost of an environmentally-friendly office building today is comparable with the cost of more traditional methods, and the maintenance costs are often much lower. Architects and builders across Pennsylvania have learned that, and the result has been a major shift in how buildings are constructed. And the lessons learned there could eventually make their way across the entire Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder reports:
Principles of sustainable design, or “green building” have been around for years. These are designs that, among other things, reduce energy use and create more comfortable working environments. Yet they are often dismissed as costly, impractical, and experimental. But green design has come a long way in recent years. The construction cost of an environmentally friendly office building today is comparable with the cost of more traditional methods, and the maintenance costs are often much lower. Architects and builders across Pennsylvania have learned that, and the result has been a major shift in how buildings are constructed. And the lessons learned there could eventually make their way across the entire Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder reports:
The Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum Marsh lies just around the corner from the Philadelphia International Airport. The refuge is also home to the Cusano Environmental Education Center, celebrating its first anniversary as what many consider to be the city’s greenest building.
The Center’s heating and cooling relies on a geothermal system. About five hundred feet below the Cusano Center, the temperature remains near 50 degrees all year round. Deep wells reach into the ground to borrow heat in the winter, and cool air in the summer.
(Natural sound marsh machine)
The Center also makes use of a “marsh machine,” to clean and recycle wastewater. Refuge Manager Dick Nugent says the machine uses natural processes to filter water through a “constructed wetland” of PVC pipes, gravel, and marsh plants. Nugent says the city water department delivers drinking water, but the marsh machine has a more important use.
“We wanted this here as an environmental education tool. It isn’t as if we needed it for the functionality of this building. The message to take home is that marshes serve a very important function.”
Cyrus Baym is a volunteer coordinator at the Cusano Center. He says people come expecting to learn about nature, but wind up getting something special out of the building.
“The people that are coming in, they see this fabulous building, a lot of space, a lot of glass, and then when you start explaining along with the exhibits the sustainable design features, the use of recycled materials, passive solar windows their eyes get even bigger. They get more excited and want to implement it in their own house.”
Refuge Manager Dick Nugent says there was some additional cost to innovations like the geothermal system and the southern wall of the building, which is made mostly of glass windows. But in the long run, many of those additions will wind up saving money on electricity and heating. And the overall goal isn’t to be frugal, but to teach.
On the other side of the state, another approach toward sustainable design is taking hold.
Pittsburgh is currently home to one-quarter of the nation’s buildings that have been certified as green by the U.S. Green Building Council. The non-profit national industry group represents design, construction, and environmental interests. The council also administers the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system, which judges the overall environmental performance of buildings.
Unlike the Cusano Center in Philadelphia, many of Pittsburgh’s green buildings weren’t designed to be educational tools. The PNC Firstside Center in Downtown Pittsburgh provides workspace for 1800 employees in the bank’s technology and processing divisions.
Elmer Burger was one of the principle architects for the building. He says designing the largest LEED certified building in the country made sense for the project. The large floor space improved communication within business departments, and also allowed for extensive use of natural light.
“With a large floor plate, we had an opportunity to make the ceilings higher and bring daylight further into the building. So you can be as far as 125 feet away from the outside wall and still have daylight in a view.”
Burger says the building’s large windows give employees a view of the Monongahela River, and also save money by reducing the need for artificial light.
Rebecca Flora is director of Pittsburgh’s Green Building Alliance, a non-profit group working to encourage and facilitate environmentally friendly design in the city. She says some non-profit groups are interested in green buildings for ideological reasons, but also wind up getting long-term economic benefits.
“The life cycle value of doing a green building is actually quite significant in some cases. I know with Conservation Consultants, their building actually uses 60% less energy than a traditional building, which can have huge implications in terms of the small operating budgets that many non-profits have to work with.”
Flora says saving money is one of the main factors in getting major institutions like PNC to build green
“The myth that is out there is that green buildings cost more, and that’s one that we’re constantly trying to educate people around in that you get what you pay for. We’re trying to educate people around the fact that green building also adds value, and how do we equate that value with increased bottom line is a real key issue for most people.”
Flora says it’s important to convince clients, and not just architects of the benefits of green design. She says if the demand for LEED certified buildings increases, sustainable design techniques will become more common.
A number of other commercial and non-profit institutions in the city have also chosen green design. Both the Alcoa Corporate Center, and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank are green buildings. And the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center is the first convention center in the country to earn LEED certification
With so many high profile green projects, sustainable design is starting to look like common sense to many architects and their clients. Elmer Burger says the success of the PNC Firstside Center has led the company to adopt a new policy. All of their new corporate buildings will be designed to meet LEED requirements.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Brad Linder.