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Greening the workplace

Virginia ranks fourth among the states in terms of new sustainable office and institutional space per capita

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In a largely dormant commercial construction market, green has become a growth industry. Although sustainable buildings have been around for decades, their proliferation had long been limited by the perception that construction was complicated and costly.

Not anymore. According to McGraw-Hill Construction, 35 percent of architectural, engineering and contracting positions are now green. It defines “green” jobs as those in which at least 50 percent of the work involves projects that focus on sustainability. By 2015, McGraw-Hill expects that figure to reach 45 percent, with the commonwealth among the forward ranks of the movement.

In fact, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) placed Virginia fourth among the states last year in the amount of new office and institutional green space per capita — more than 19 million square feet or 2.42 square feet per capita. 

The reasons for the green buy-in are chronicled in a variety of reports from real estate research firms CoStar, CBRE and McGraw-Hill, which all track trends in the commercial market.  Using USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, and, to a lesser extent, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star ratings as a basis for determining greenness, they document numbers that have a most agreeable crunch for commercial developers.

For example, according to the latest figures from McGraw-Hill for 2011, LEED buildings reduce operating costs — by 13.6 percent for new buildings and 8.5 percent for retrofits. They have higher lease rates, too — $30.16 per square foot versus $27.62 per square foot for non-green space — and outperform market occupancy rates by more than 2 percent.

Building sales? Also sweet. LEED buildings sell for an average of 11 percent to 13 percent more per square foot than their non-LEED competitors. Not easily quantifiable, but still a critical consideration for owners and occupants of these buildings, is the cachet that going green adds to their image.
In a salute to green work spaces, Virginia Business previews a few from across the state:

Commercial developer BPG Properties Ltd.  was well versed in the advantages of building green when it decided to pursue a LEED rating for its 165,000-square-foot office building at the Commonwealth Centre in Chantilly. “We wanted to gain a competitive edge,” says Brian Fitzgerald, senior vice president in charge of the company’s Washington office. “Additionally, institutional investors recognize greater value when acquiring operating properties designed and built to higher standards of sustainability.” 

LEED ratings come in four levels: certified, silver, gold and platinum. They can be based on a slew of factors, including energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, water and land use, and access to public transportation and recycling. Last year, Fitzgerald says, the $24 million BPG office building became the first in Northern Virginia to earn the top platinum rating.

Of particular note is the structure’s extensive storm-water system of swales, ponds and a rain garden.  Other features include low-emitting construction materials and an energy-saving white roof. The building is now 80 percent leased at a rate of $33 per square foot.

Of special interest to tenants, which include the General Services Administration and defense contractor CACI International, is a design that provides exterior views from 90 percent of the regular work spaces. “If the sun is up, the lights should be off,” says Robert S. Berz Jr., an architect with RRMM in Norfolk and chairman of the Hampton Roads Green Building Council. Lights are the second-largest consumer of energy in a building, he says. Studies have shown that more natural light also makes a difference in employee productivity, retention and health.

Vivian Loftness, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture specializing in sustainable building, explains that simply giving people more access to daylight can lead to higher productivity. “People get up from their desks less often in green buildings,” she says. A 2011 survey by CBRE, McGraw-Hill and the University of San Diego, found that 16 percent of occupants of green buildings reported higher productivity. Better air quality and the use of less toxic building materials and cleaners also can reduce absenteeism rates from respiratory problems such as asthma and allergies.

The Wells Fargo Center in Norfolk, the first high-rise in the Hampton Roads area to earn LEED gold, made natural light a priority when it decided to pursue certification: 93 percent of its workspaces have views of the outside. 

“A lot of thought went into cost to value,” says Sharon Swanberg, assistant vice president for S.L. Nusbaum Realty, developer of the 22-story commercial center. “We asked, ‘could we afford to do it [go green]? Did it make sense to do it?’ ”

It did make sense. State-of-the-art plumbing fixtures have resulted in a 43 percent water savings, and electronically controlled water and lighting systems have reduced energy consumption. About three-quarters of the project’s construction waste was recycled and about half its building materials came from within 500 miles of the project. Convenient access to light rail also figured into its gold rating.

The 255,000-square-foot, $160 million building, which opened in 2010, is now 85 percent leased at about $30 a square foot, Swanberg says. “Tenants want to be recognized for taking care of the environment.”

That was certainly the case when Julie and Paul Weissend decided to use a 1907 electric railway car barn in Richmond as the shell for the offices of their Dovetail Construction Co.  “We wanted to create a healthy and inspiring environment — with whimsy,” says Julie Weissend.

Maintaining the exterior profile of the historic structure was also a must. The upshot is that Weissend believes her office is the first “three-fer” in the country: a certified LEED platinum building that is net zero energy (which means it produces at least as much energy as it consumes), and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Last year, the Dovetail headquarters won a Special Recognition Award for Sustainable Design from the Better Housing Coalition of Richmond.

“Everything was an experiment,” says Weissend of the $1.5 million, 6,800-square-foot project. “It is a green buffet.”

Innovations in what actually is a building constructed inside the railway car barn include geothermal heating and solar arrays; floors of concrete and cork; waterless urinals and ultra-low-flow fixtures; counters made from aluminum scrap and cabinets made from recycled sunflower seed hulls. Keeping watch over the building’s systems and how they are performing is a Web-based monitoring tool.

A yellow brick walkway leads to the front door. Weissend says that downtown Richmond, which looms in the near distance, is her stand-in for Oz. But others might argue that the wizard is closer by — not behind a drafty curtain — but behind Dovetail’s well-insulated front door. 

CRE Interiors: SnagAJob, Henrico

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