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Getting in on the green scene

Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2010

Not that long ago, "green building" in Juneau meant your siding needed replacing, or at least some serious power washing. And the historic buildings that give downtown Juneau its character were designed to meet early 20th century ideals like "western prosperity" and "the hometown you left behind," not "a smaller carbon footprint." A few decades ago, architects, engineers, and builders would have responded to requests for "net zero energy consumption" and "sustainable resource use" with blank stares. And the phrase "water conservation" might have elicited guffaws and referrals to the local MD.

Courtesy Of Joe Mccabe
Courtesy Of Joe Mccabe

But the world, and our rain-bejeweled corner of it, is changing. Like their counterparts across the globe, architects in Southeast Alaska now have a better understanding of how buildings affect the global environment, and the effect is significant. For example, buildings currently account for 50 percent of energy consumption in the U.S. By comparison, transportation, though always in the media eye, accounts for only 25 percent. Sustainable, or "green," architecture is the practice of designing to minimize, or even eliminate, the negative environmental impacts of buildings.

Green Architects

Architects understand that thoughtful design of the built environment has the power to transform people, communities and cultures. We just didn't know how complicit we were, historically, in transforming the earth's climate as well. Fortunately, we have the power to stop the damage and possibly reverse it.

In fact, both of these goals were discussed in depth in October at the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Alaska Chapter annual convention in Sitka and the AIA Pacific Region Chapter annual convention in Eugene, Ore. Several architects from Juneau attended both conferences and came away with valuable information and the motivation to use it at home.

There are two main keys to making this possible: the creation and educated use of green design standards and requirements by building owners and financers that these standards be met in all new buildings and renovations.

Green Design Standards

There are several green design standards Juneau's architects and engineers can follow. The U.S. Energy Star program focuses on reducing energy use, a primary weapon against climate change. The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard focuses on reducing energy use as well, but also requires the sustainable use of other resources (water, wood, metals, etc.), and the design of non-toxic buildings that promote human health and well-being. The Living Building Challenge standard builds upon the LEED concept, but takes the goals to their ultimate conclusion - buildings that "harvest" all of the energy and water they require, use sustainable (preferably local) resources and materials, manage all building waste on-site, are entirely non-toxic and do all this while inspiring the users through built and natural beauty. Sounds idealistic, but buildings are already being built in the U.S. that meet this standard, and it gets one thinking of the possibilities. Though the Green Star program offers tools for assessing the design of a building, LEED and the Living Building Challenge include third party compliance reviews and building certification.

Currently, by state and local law, Juneau's architects must use the International Building Code (IBC) to help them design safe, healthy buildings. Published by the International Code Council (ICC), the IBC ensures the construction of structurally, mechanically and electrically sound buildings. It also requires architectural design that promotes the safety of building users and their ability to evacuate the building in the face of life-threatening events. In the future, possibly as soon as 2013, the IBC will include an International Green Building Code and Juneau will have the option to adopt it for all buildings built in the CBJ. It's exciting that an essential tool for the health and safety of humans will soon also work to ensure the health of the global environment.

Savvy Building Owners

The primary owners of non-residential buildings in Alaska are its cities, school districts and the State, as well as many private and corporate entities. The Municipality of Anchorage has followed the route of many Lower 48 cities and adopted LEED standards as a requirement for most of its new city-owned buildings and major renovations. Juneau is preparing to do the same for CBJ owned facilities.

Because architects rarely finance their own building projects, building owners also need to be committed to changing how their buildings affect the environment. The generally accepted premium paid for a green building is 3 percent of the construction cost. In reality, 3 percent is minimal compared to how much a building cost can fluctuate based on any number of design decisions made by the owner or architect, as well as factors outside of the project's control. And many of the design features required for a green building result in savings in other areas. For example, increasing the insulation levels of the exterior walls, roof and windows can result in a smaller heating plant. A smaller heating plant is less expensive to purchase and maintain while a better insulated building consumes less energy, saving money all around.

The use of materials with recycled content or non toxic products may be harder to recognize as having a financial benefit, though. And in Juneau there are precious few materials or products that don't have to travel long distances to get here, requiring lots of research to find the nearest sources, which are rarely the least expensive. Building owners need to have a vision of how their facility affects more than just a bottom line to commit to some of these green building features. But the more that do, the more the market will shift to make things easier and less expensive.

Juneau's Architects

The cost of designing green buildings is stabilizing, as well. Each of the three primary architecture firms in Juneau have made a commitment to designing greener buildings for their clients and have added green design strategies to their standard practices. Each of these firms has at least one principal architect qualified as a LEED Accredited Professional, and staff members are following suit.

These firms have all designed buildings to meet green building standards. In Juneau, these include Harborview Elementary, by MRV Architects, and Glacier Valley Elementary, by NorthWind Architects, which were both renovated to meet LEED certification requirements. In Sitka, the Baranof Island Housing Authority office building, by Jensen Yorba Lott Architects, is currently under construction and was also designed to meet LEED certification requirements. Though none of the firms have designed a building to meet the Living Building Challenge, it's only a matter of time and awaiting a request from a forward-thinking client.

The challenges Southeast architects face when designing green buildings are many, but are slowly being addressed. For example, non-standard materials and products are typically special order items. This is a problem during construction if a contractor needs more. If it's not available from local suppliers, the construction schedule or budget can be negatively affected. Also, in general, Southeast contractors have little experience building to strict green standards and, in a competitive bidding environment, the unknown will be bid too high or too low, both of which cause problems for the contractor or the owner.

A Green-Built Future

Though strides are being made in Juneau to design and build greener buildings, these are only first steps. Most Energy Star and LEED compliant buildings use significantly less energy than traditionally designed buildings, but they are dwarfed in number by the existing building stock and new buildings being built to old standards. An energy use reduction of even 50 percent or more in green buildings will not adequately turn the tide of climate change. All new building projects must be fully sustainable as soon as technology and local markets allow and all existing buildings need to be renovated and retrofitted if real change is to occur.

Juneau is not alone as it steps into the coming era of sustainability. Architects and owners in cities throughout the world are taking these same steps; some tentatively, some boldly. Forward momentum is picking up and Juneau will reap the benefits of joining the movement early enough to make a difference, but late enough that strong standards and tested practices are already in place. Juneau is ready to move toward a future where its buildings are designed to a new ideal: "thriving for a few more centuries."

• Sarah Lewis, AIA, is an architect, a member of the AIA Alaska Chapter Board of Directors, and a member of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. She formerly worked as a project architect for the CBJ and is currently a small business owner and freelance writer.



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