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Going Green

City embraces green building, sustainability

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An alliance of forward-looking businesses, energy-conscious civil servants and environmental advocacy groups in central San Diego has put the city at the forefront of the national push for green building, advocates for the construction tenet say.

Since California's energy crisis in 2001, leaders in the region's private and public sectors have conspicuously begun entering into their lexicon terms like "sustainability" and "smart growth." In a state where up to 56 percent of all energy is consumed in buildings, the sum of these buzzwords for California's real estate industry has been "green building," or adherence to specific construction standards that promote efficiency, conservation and community health.

The United States Green Building Council is the organization that recognizes projects meeting these regulatory guidelines -- awarding four levels of "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)" certification based on a project's site sustainability, indoor environmental quality, design innovation, and water, energy and material use --, but it has been the USGBC's San Diego chapter, the city's Environmental Services Department and an array of local businesses responsible for promoting green building here.

"Going green is more efficient, and it saves money," said Tom Arnold, a former sustainable-community specialist in the Environmental Services Department. "Green is good for the environment, but also for the bottom line."

Green building advocates like Arnold argue that while committing to LEED standards is definitely in the best interest of future generations, it is also profitable, since increased energy efficiency means less reliance on pricey, sometimes unpredictable resources in the future. Indeed, an October 2003 report prepared for California's Sustainable Building Task Force projected a 20-year savings of $49 to $67 per square foot for 33 LEED-certified buildings in the state.

The pairing of environmental and economic benefit has been the international movement's chief selling point -- and a successful one in San Diego.

In 2002, the City Council adopted a resolution requiring that all new city projects larger than 5,000 square feet be built to meet the USGBC's LEED "silver" certification, a standard the state also implemented in December 2004. Also in 2002, the council mandated its Sustainable Community Program, which encourages individuals and companies to embrace environment-friendly measures. The policies followed the establishment of a city Energy Conservation and Management Division, which former Mayor Dick Murphy had recommended as part of his term goal to "pursue energy independence." And in 2003, members of the local real estate and energy communities founded the San Diego chapter of the USGBC.

Since then, three projects within city jurisdiction have won LEED certification: Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) Pharmaceutical Research & Development's drug discovery research facility in La Jolla; TKG Consulting Engineers Inc.'s office in Sorrento Valley; and several of Pfizer Inc.'s (NYSE: PFE) discovery and development campus buildings in La Jolla.

In addition, 20 ongoing projects in San Diego have registered for certification, according to the USGBC. About half of the projects are state-, county- or city-commissioned -- including three registered to the San Diego Community College District -- but just as many have come from the private sector.

Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) broke ground last year on a LEED-registered research and development center in San Diego. The 422,000-square-foot, 12-story building, expected to be ready for occupancy this fall, will use solar panels, clean-running turbines and a co-generation plant, according to Qualcomm spokeswoman Keri Alessio.

A rendering of Qualcomm's "green" research and development center, to be located at 5745 Pacific Heights Blvd. The building features special solar panels, cleaner running turbines, a co-generation plant and other earth-friendly features.

"We participate [in LEED] for two reasons," Alessio said. "For the long-term savings -- to reduce the cost of energy -- and for the social reasons -- to contribute to a healthier environment and encourage other companies to do the same."

While some businesses are hesitant to pay additional upfront costs for a green building -- about a 2 percent premium, or $3 to $5 more per square foot, according to the 2003 study -- the potential for substantial utility savings has swayed many, Arnold said.

"Since the energy thing happened (in 2001), we've been a lot more successful," he said. "The thing that's driving green building right now is that energy prices are going so high."

Other bonuses for businesses include good publicity and improved occupant productivity, according to Arnold.

The city's green building program is among the best in the nation, said John Helminski, senior project manager for the Energy Conservation and Management Division. The Environmental Services Department, of which the Energy Conservation and Management Division is a subsidiary, has been housed since 1996 in Ridgehaven, one of the first local buildings to build with green features like high-efficiency motors, fluorescent lamps and solar window film. The building, which will soon register for existing-building LEED certification, uses 42 percent of the energy consumed by traditional buildings of its size, which translates to annual savings of $200,000, according to the department.

Despite being stalled pending a city reassessment of its finances, the proposed downtown main library has registered for LEED certification, as have several fire stations, including Station 29 in San Ysidro, which will become the first completed city-owned, LEED-certified building upon completion, Helminski said.

Some residential real estate in central San Diego has also gone green. Homebuilder Clear Skies Condominiums is scheduled to break ground in August on Bankers Hill Green, a 10-unit property on Bankers Hill built to conserve energy use, maximize air quality and use homebuilding materials responsibly.

Clear Skies Condominiums is scheduled to break ground in August on Bankers Hill Green, a 10-unit property on Bankers Hill built to conserve energy use, maximize air quality and use homebuilding materials responsibly.

According to Clear Skies founder and developer Craig Brode, green building is as much about preserving inhabitants' health as it is about preserving the environment.

"Anything positive for the environment is good, but green for us is a whole-building approach," Brode said. "It's really saying, how do you build something that's sustainable, that relates to nature in a positive way and that benefits the human immune system. Not too many companies are asking that question and mostly because they haven't had to."

While LEED guidelines for homes are still under development, Bankers Hill Green was designed with them in mind.

One departure, according to Brode, is that Clear Skies' condos contain no volatile organic compounds or formaldehydes in their paint, carpeting, insulation or cabinetry. The Environmental Protection Agency-identified carcinogens are not regulated aggressively enough under LEED standards, Brode said.

"Homebuilders say consumers don't care," he said. "I don't think consumers know to look for green homes. It's going to be a slow change, but it's coming."

Bankers Hill Green condos will be priced between $565,000 and $825,000, according to Brode, but over time any increased upfront costs will be recouped in the form of significantly lower energy bills.

"It's all there," Brode said. "All this technology exists, all the engineering exists. It just takes the will of the people and the will of the developer, and I think that's growing."

Several local builders, architects and engineers have embraced the demand for green building, offering services tailored for green builders and applying for LEED professional accreditation from the USGBC.

"There's more interest now for sustainable-building design than I've ever seen before," said Jamie Schnick, a LEED-accredited electrical engineer and partner at TKG Consulting Engineers Inc.

TKG Consulting Engineers Inc. opened in 2004 San Diego's first LEED "gold"-certified building, a 19,000-square-foot office remodel that uses a 40-kilowatt photovoltaic solar panel system.

The company, which offers green consulting services to interested companies, went one step further in 2004, opening San Diego's first LEED "gold"-certified building, a 19,000-square-foot office remodel that uses a 40-kilowatt photovoltaic solar panel system.

"We know that that's where the industry's going," TKG Marketing Coordinator Angela Gerber said. "We decided not only to build [green buildings] for others, but to make one for ourselves."

The USGBC currently counts 237 LEED-certified and 2,080 LEED-registered projects in the United States and internationally, representing 243 million square feet.

San Diego sustainability advocates continue to look to greener pastures in the eco-friendly cities of Austin, Texas, Portland, Ore., Seattle and San Francisco for inspiration. Supporters also keep tabs on European nations, where energy costs have led the region to become a leading developer of green building materials.

"We're catching up," said Bob Noble, a USGBC San Diego chapter board member and CEO of Tucker Sadler Architects, "and moving forward faster than most cities."

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