Leading The Way: Green Building in the Lowcountry
Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.
Have you heard? Green is the future of the building industry. No, that doesn’t mean we’re all going to live in houses of the same color. “Green” is the catchall phrase for technologies and materials that improve a building’s energy efficiency. If you pay utility bills, you probably understand the appeal.
The Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based market research firm, reported earlier this year that U.S. green building materials sales totaled nearly $57 billion in 2008 and that they are projected to increase by 7.2 percent per year through 2013. According to the Freedonia report, that rate of growth is greater than the projected growth of overall building expenditures over the same period. The Reuters news agency recently ran a story claiming that the worldwide market for green building materials will reach $571 billion by 2013.
What is this green building thing they’re all talking about? The people to ask are the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). They are a non-profit association and the self-appointed gurus of green—also known as “sustainable”—building in America. The USGBC has established a certification system that is widely believed to be the standard measurement of what is a green building and what is not.
The certification system is called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). LEED is a voluntary program that evaluates buildings on a list of criteria: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, locations and linkages, awareness and education, innovation in design and regional priority. You can learn more about what all that means at the USGBC Web site: usgbc.org, but do that later. For now, stay here and read about LEED certified buildings on Hilton Head Island…and green paint.
Right now, there are two LEED buildings on Hilton Head—one commercial and one residential. Since the residential unit is under construction, we’ll have to give the nod to J Banks Design Group’s headquarters as the island’s first LEED certified building. The 18,000-square-foot structure at 35 Main Street serves as the interior design firm’s administrative and management offices, design studio, warehouse and retail store.
The benefits sought by J Banks in obtaining LEED certification include lower operating costs, increased asset value, waste reduction, energy and water conservation, and a healthier working environment. This is accomplished, in part, by use of advanced materials that, while they may cost more than conventional materials at the front end, can produce various long-term payoffs. Greater energy efficiency reduces a building’s ongoing operating costs, and an improved working environment makes happier, more productive employees.
For instance, paints and other coatings used in the building are all “low-VOC” or “VOC-free. VOC stands for volatile organic compounds. Those are the nasty little devils found in “old fashioned” paints that emit toxic fumes into the air. “They are competitive price-wise and just as durable as any regular paint,” said John Meeks, business development manager at Grayco. In short, the paint doesn’t smell bad and it doesn’t make you sick.
Another example is found on the roof, which is constructed of “high-albedo” materials. That’s a fancy way of saying that they reflect light and heat to help to keep the building cool without turning up the air conditioner.
LEED is not only about whiz-bang newfangled technology, though. Some of the things that can help a building achieve certification have nothing to do with expensive, high-tech materials and systems. Some of it might just make you say, why didn’t I think of that?
The conference room walls and other wood paneling and trim throughout the J Banks building were crafted out of trees cut down to clear the building site. There wasn’t enough to use for the floors, but those are made of recycled barn siding. Outside, the landscaping features mostly native, drought-tolerant plants, eliminating the need to use an irrigation system and resulting in savings on the water bill.
Maximizing the use of natural light is another way to reduce energy consumption as well as create a more pleasant indoor environment. You can’t entirely light the interior of a building with sunlight, but architects today are finding ways to get as much natural light as possible into every nook and cranny. The J Banks building uses light shelves at the windows to reflect and project sunlight deep into the building. It can’t completely replace artificial electric lighting, but it cuts down on the usage.
Business practices having little or nothing to do with the building itself can also contribute to earning a LEED certification. J Banks makes it standard practice to recycle all paper, glass, plastic, metal and cardboard. When a piece of paper has finally exhausted its useful life—printed on both sides, etc.—it’s off to the shredder and used as packing material. Also, for the extremely dedicated, J Banks installed bike racks outside and showers inside to encourage employees to leave the car at home and pedal into work.
J Banks moved into the new digs in June of last year and, according to marketing director, Anna Ruby, the employees are big fans. “The natural lighting creates a more energetic mood,” she said. “And we have had fewer sick days. Some employees have actually adapted some of these practices into their home life as well.”
On the residential side, Bluffton-based homebuilder, VanGeison Construction, has broken ground for what will be Hilton Head Island’s first LEED certified private residence.
The homeowner, a gentleman by the name of Ernst Bruderer, is an enthusiast for the advancement of green building and an early adopter of the applicable technologies. The house, located in Windmill Harbour and projected for completion this December, will effectively be a showcase for some of the latest innovations in green building including materials, building systems, and practices. Even some that are not quite ready for prime time.
One example is roof-mounted solar panels to generate electricity. Does this mean that life without electric bills is around the corner? Not quite. Solar panel technology has not yet advanced to a point that will free our homes from the electric grid. “It’s not economically feasible yet,” said VanGeison’s Clayton Colleran. “The array that we are installing will provide roughly 20 percent of the overall energy demand for Mr. Bruderer’s home.” Colleran said that at the present state of solar panel technology, it would take about 25 years for a system to pay for itself. However, the Bruderer home will incorporate other conservation elements expected to offset that particular downside.
Some of those measures are:
• Spray foam insulation applied to exterior walls and crevices that will provide superior insulation to more conventional materials.
• Energy Star rated windows that reduce indoor air temperature fluctuations and allow the HVAC system to work more efficiently and inexpensively. Energy Star is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy program for rating the energy efficiency of household appliances and other products.
• Geo-thermal heat pumps, using constant below-ground temperatures to heat and cool the home and generate hot water.
• A filtration system to recycle water from showers, sinks and laundry to be reused for toilet flushing.
• A rainwater harvesting system that will collect and store rainwater to be used for landscape irrigation.
Another cool new tech feature in Mr. Bruderer’s house is the lighting. “We’re installing LED lighting throughout,” said Colleran. That’s light emitting diodes and they’re the real future of electric lighting. You haven’t heard much about it because it is still emerging and everybody’s talking about compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL) right now. It will be several years at least before LED technology is ready for mainstream home lighting use, but when it comes it will be far superior to CFLs. In contrast, LEDs last six times longer, use half the electricity, cost less than half as much to operate, and they don’t contain dangerous mercury.
Some of this stuff in the Bruderer home is a bit advanced for the average homeowner, but keep in mind that we have barely scratched the surface of all the tips and techniques out there that can contribute to a more energy efficient house or commercial building, and a healthier indoor environment. If you’re thinking of going in the green direction, here are a few online resources to get you started on your research.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you…the volume of info is overwhelming:
USGB, South Carolina Chapter: www.usgbcsc.org
National Association of Homebuilders: www.nahbgreen.org
EarthCraft House: www.earthcrafthouse.com
Energy Star: www.energystar.gov