The Green Building Process Demystified

Questions have been swirling around the building industry about the new big thing, green building.  Will it add cost? Will it add time? Does painting a building green count?  These questions most often involve the sustainable design and construction process, which many people believe too be daunting.

To highlight some of the important aspects of the green building process and show that green building is not a completely new and confusing change in the way we design and construct buildings, I recently interviewed Doug Wittnebel, a principal at the San Ramon, CA office of Gensler, an international architecture and design firm. Doug was the design director for the interior space of the new AAA NCNU headquarters in Walnut Creek, CA.

Here are some excerpts of that interview:

CleanTechies: What sustainable strategies set the new AAA headquarters apart from similar sustainable offices?

Doug: This project differed from other similar projects in three different ways.  One of the ways was early in the process when AAA was selecting a site for the office; a very careful study was done on potential sites to determine the location with the closest proximity to mass transit, in this case BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).  The location of the office is in the newly planned Station Landing, where housing, retail and commercial buildings are being planned together in a very smart and sustainable way.  This is how projects are going to be done in the near future in the Bay Area and around the country.

Another aspect that sets this project apart from other sustainable buildings was the desire of the client to make this project a sustainable one, but more importantly a productive work environment.  They were moving from downtown San Francisco, from a thirty story office tower, where you have all of these groups working on top of each other, separated by floors.  The new office has a far more horizontal layout with 6 floors total.  There is a very wide “communication stair”.   This is unlike a normal staircase in that it is twice as wide and completely open.   It encourages communication, collaboration, and circulation through the building without using the elevators.  In the opinion of both Gensler and AAA, this creates a far more productive environment.

CleanTechies: Did you couple this strategy with an open office plan?

Doug: Yes, we absolutely coupled it with an open office plan.  In this case we designed the office to promote better collaboration and communication but also more access to natural light.  The more access you have to natural light and the outside environment the better you feel, the better you work, the less sick days you take off and the less staff turnover that occurs.

CleanTechies: Do you employ an integrated design process for this project?

Doug: We are one of the biggest believers in an integrated design process.  It is the preferred way of doing things and if we don’t have a plan to follow this process we at least look to bring everyone to the table early in the process to discuss the design.  In this particular case, we were fortunate that the client had a contractor already selected for the project.  That’s a big, big plus.  When you start off on a project with your initial envisioning sessions for how to design the project and how to approach the project and you have the contractor onboard you are all speaking the same language.

CleanTechies: Does the design process for a sustainable building differ from the process for a traditional building?

Doug: It is hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t design sustainably.  It is hard not to be sustainable sometimes when you are designing.  You need to consider natural light, you need to consider energy use, and you need to consider how people get to buildings.  Now that it has been codified and classified as a LEED process as coordinated with the USGBC, it is much more recognized as it has been published more in the various different media forms, but we as a company have always approached things sustainably.

CleanTechies: How do you counter opponents of sustainable building saying that it costs more?

Doug: That is the classic question of all time.  That’s one of the questions that is probably in the owner’s or client’s mind more than anything else.  There is a bigger demand for sustainability from customers out there.  If you don’t have it, people are going to ask why not.  There is also increased regulation from local, state, and eventually federal government agencies that are requiring this.   So hand-in-hand with wanting to be sustainable are also regulations now from government agencies  saying that as costs in energy go up and a resources dwindle you have to build sustainably.  So I know that I am not answering your question yet, but I am trying to give some reasons why it is not just costs that have to be taken into consideration.

… There are considerations that if buildings are bought and sold, that a building that is being sold is far more desirable if it is a sustainable or a LEED building, it increases its market value.

… Now to answer your question directly, there was a 20% energy use savings over a baseline building and an 18% costs savings.   What that means is that in the initial stages of designing and implementation, the specification of more efficient equipment and better use of materials, sometimes equipment may cost more, but over the 3 years, 5 years or 7 years with the return on investment you are going to make that money back with the energy savings and maintenance savings.

Closing the Perception Gap

Doug went on to speak about how to prove these benefits to owners who are hesitant to shell out the additional upfront costs for an improved building.  He mentioned that the benefits increase the value of the building but also other benefits which may go unnoticed.  One public relations benefit that he mentioned was “increasing the clients well being and perception in the local public’s eye.”  It was his opinion that this is a better method of improving a business’ standing in the public’s eye than spending a $100,000 a week on advertising.   Why?  Instead of being force fed the idea that a business is doing great things, the public can see for themselves by seeing the benefits the company is bringing to the community.

Additionally, there are other intangible benefits that sustainable building brings.  Gensler has developed a workplace productivity survey that they distribute to their buildings worldwide.  They take a survey of worker’s opinions before and after a move to a new sustainable office space or after a sustainable improvement to their existing space.  What they are finding is that workers are happier with the eco-friendly space, and this manifests itself in decreased sick days and worker turnover.  Gensler is working to quantify these gains by employing a tool called Activity Analysis.  By observing how people work over a two week period they can discover which types of spaces and buildings increase the amount of time workers spend at their desks and meeting rooms and decrease the time spent in break rooms.

Doug added that, “It has been interesting to follow the recent surge in the past 5 or 6 years of the green building industry with the implementation and adoption of LEED”, and mentioned that is not a trend that will disappear.  Limiting factors of energy and water use are forcing the hands of architects to conserve resources with their design.  “We have to change the way we work and we have to change the way we design buildings to meet these limiting factors.”

What Doug succinctly pointed out is news to many people who are not familiar with the green building movement.  These people, who are often forced to consider employing sustainable building practices in their projects because of mandates or because market trends are forcing their hands, tend to be hesitant to jump on the band wagon.  They are slow to accept change in an industry where some standards and practices date back decades.  These same people question the benefits that they think will add time and money to their traditional approach, but what Doug and other green building experts understand is that it is all in the way you think and approach a project.  Look at life cycle costs instead of just focusing on upfront costs, understand that the sustainability can be ascetically pleasing, and when designing and building in the future think about your how building will affect the tenants that will occupy it and the environment that will surround it.

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Gensler’s Doug Wittnebel talks green building at the bay area’s new AAA Headquarters

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