Virginia companies embrace environment-friendly practices

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Robert Burke

Ken Lanford grew up building bridges and highways in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. By 16, he was working in his family’s construction business. After leaving to earn an engineering degree at Virginia Tech, he returned in 1985. Today, he is president of Lanford Brothers Co.  in Roanoke.

Yet, nothing in all those years of working with concrete and diesel fumes prepared Lanford for some of the choices he has now. The company is expanding its headquarters, and Lanford is trying to be as environmentally sensitive as his budget will allow. That’s why he spent a few weeks this winter trying to Ken Lanford grew up building bridges and highways in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. By 16, he was working in his family’s construction business. After leaving to earn an engineering degree at Virginia Tech, he returned in
1985. Today, he is president of Lanford Brothers Co.  in Roanoke. Yet, nothing in all those years of working with concrete and diesel fumes prepared Lanford for some of the choices
he has now. The company is expanding its headquarters, and Lanford is trying to be as environmentally sensitive as his budget will allow. That’s why he spent a few weeks this winter trying to decide whether to grow plants on the roof of the new 4,800-square-foot addition. A green roof can cut heating and cooling expenses but costs about $25 a
square foot — nearly twice as much as a traditional roof, says Lanford.

No wonder he sounds a little like Kermit the Frog — it’s not easy being green. “We’re not sure we’re going to do that,” he says. He might just go with plants on a portion of the roof.

There are other cost-benefit questions. He could add a bicycle rack and build showers for workers who might pedal to work instead of driving. His building contractor came to him with this choice: Do you want standard metal partitions between bathroom stalls or are you willing to shell out more for walls made from recycled materials?  It’s already a given that Lanford will pay for thicker insulation and energy-saving windows. “From a business sense, it’s the right way to go because of the efficiencies you can get from using these materials,” he says.

Based on the performance of other green buildings, odds are good that Lanford will save money on energy.  The fact that he’s working through the steps of going green underscores the growing attraction of an environmental ethic. What used to be a fringe movement has moved mainstream, driven not only by public sentiment but by proven benefits
to the bottom line.
After all, what could be more important than saving Mother Earth? It seems everyone wants to be an eco-champion, business included. In Virginia, the push to become a greener state is seeding everything from state strategies on energy conservation to new entrepreneurial initiatives. In fact, green-oriented businesses are growing like kudzu with offers of everything from green design, alternative fuels and locally grown produce. One Richmond area restaurant, Edible Garden, relies on local farms for the majority of its ingredients, with food grown primarily within a 100-mile radius.

“Business leaders are recognizing the power of the ‘green’ marketplace,” says L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia’s secretary of natural resources and chairman of the state’s newly formed Commission on Climate Change.  In fact, he thinks the population in general recognizes that the need for clean air, water and lands doesn’t have to conflict with the economics of business.

Climate change concerns

Driving the momentum for all things green is the growing consensus among scientists on the dangers of climate change. In February 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that there is a 90 percent likelihood that global warming is caused by human activities. Virginia shares in the blame: carbon dioxide emissions rose dramatically, 34 percent, between 1990 and 2004, according to one public advocacy group.

With public concern about the need for environmental stewardship, businesses are finding that green-friendly policies can help with hiring and retention.  Sudhakar Kesavan, CEO of Fairfax-based ICF International, leads a company that helps corporations craft energy and environmental practices and reduce their carbon footprint. Clients include Duke Energy, DuPont and Time Warner. “All the large companies we work with say that employee retention is a main issue,” he says. Employees “want you to demonstrate the values of being green and being sustainable.”

That rings true for large companies in fields such as energy-generation or transportation, which generate pollutants. In Virginia, Dominion Resources and AES are investing in wind power and other alternative energies.

Other companies are making a green statement with corporate headquarters. Richmond-based CarMax, the country’s largest retailer of used cars, was the first large public company in Virginia to build a headquarters that won green certification. Meanwhile, MeadWestvaco, a global leader in packaging materials, is building a headquarters on
the banks of the James River in Richmond. Its sustainable design will include a reflective roof to manage heat absorption, thus reducing energy costs. 

Meeting environmental standards

When it comes to green building, the LEED rating system sets the benchmark.  It stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is run by the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council. For schools, residential projects and commercial projects, LEED has specific standards in a wide range of areas, including energy
conservation, indoor air quality and sustainable site planning. There are four levels of LEED certification: certified, silver, gold and platinum, with platinum being the highest.

The program is growing fast. The first LEED standards were released in 2000, and today there are nearly 1,300 LEED -certified projects in the U.S., and more than 45,000 LEED-accredited professionals. Virginia claims a small share of LEED-certified projects, with 41, but that’s up from just 10 in mid-2006. Plus, there are 276 LEED-registered
projects in the commonwealth (which means they’re seeking LEED certification), ample evidence that businesses and homeowners are buying in.

Some of these savings require little investment and maybe just a memo.  Andrew Grigsby, owner of Culpeper-based Commonwealth Sustainability Works, says many companies fail to turn off the lights or leave computers humming all night.  “To see an office at night with the lights on, they’re just throwing money away. And nobody has a business
strategy to throw money away.”

The green movement is gaining converts in commercial real estate. Eric Oliver is president and founder of Falls Church-based EMO Energy Solutions, a business that helps clients design energy-efficient buildings. In the past 18 months, Oliver says, his firm’s monthly revenues have tripled. “Where I’m really seeing it is from developers and the real estate building managers. Four or five years ago I would … tell them about energy efficiency and they would agree with what I said, but they didn’t want to pay me to do an energy audit. Now they’re coming to me and saying, ‘We need to reduce our costs. We want to make our building green.’”

There’s good reason to do so in his area. Maryland’s electricity rates have gone up 70 percent in the past year, he says. Those price hikes haven’t happened in Virginia because rates have been capped. However, they come up for review in 2009 and could be adjusted up or down. Oliver says real estate marketers are feeling the pressure from socially conscious consumers, too. “People want these [green] buildings. So they’re telling architects and developers. It’s not coming from the top down; it’s coming from the ground up.”

Oliver’s firm has worked on energy planning for about 130 LEED projects. He says savings are substantial and upfront costs relatively small. Buildings that barely meet the standard for LEED certification might see a 10 percent to 15 percent drop in energy use — a decent return. But Oliver says builders “who are really aggressive [in applying LEED practices] are going to see a 45 percent change” in energy use. He adds that fears about energy-efficient materials and designs spiking up costs are unfounded. “There’s a common myth that LEED buildings cost an extra 30 percent. Most cost about 3 percent more,” he says.

Besides, growing competition among firms looking to supply materials or advice for green development should keep costs down. Oliver is also chairman of the Virginia Sustainable Building Network (VBSN), a nonprofit organization that promotes green-building practices and has members in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. The group’s Web
directory lists about 175 companies in Virginia alone. “The more companies that offer products and services to do this, the more costs come down,” he says.

Virginia not a leader

Still, Virginia has not been a leader in adopting green-building practices.  “Virginia is way behind as far as local states go” in pushing green development, says Oliver. As part of the VSBN lobbying effort, Oliver recalls that a proposal to adopt LEED standards for state buildings failed to win General Assembly approval a few years ago. The group pushed similar legislation during the recent session, but it was left in committee. 

Other parts of the U.S. are further ahead in developing regional strategies for reducing carbon emissions. New England states have created the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to regulate emissions. Western states such as California are pushing the issue, too. In the mid-Atlantic, 22 municipalities in Pennsylvania with a population of 350,000 agreed in February to purchase 20 percent clean energy by 2010 as part of the Pennsylvania Clean Energy Communities Campaign.

With green practices, there’s a lot of on-the-job learning.  Pennsylvania-based Liberty Property Trust opened a 75,000-square-foot office building in Chesapeake in December 2006 and earned a Silver LEED certification. It’s nearing completion now on another large sustainable office building in Henrico County’s Westerre Business Park.

The Hampton Roads project was the first LEED building Liberty Property built in Virginia. Before construction started, Liberty’s project manager Louis Liakos called together architects and contractors for a “green” summit meeting. “You have to have everyone buying into it,” says Liakos. Workers have to sort construction debris on site.
Materials need to be bought locally when available. “At first it was almost overwhelming. You think, ‘What did I get myself into?’”

Construction went smoothly, and the building was fully leased in nine months. Liakos says LEED building practices added about 1.5 percent to the total construction cost. “I think you can do a lot better now, but this was the first one we did.”  He adds that energy costs are about 20 to 25 percent less because of the LEED components.  Plus, the building is a healthier environment. “When you come in the building, what you smell is what you don’t smell. We don’t use any petroleum-based materials, so it’s like you’re outside. People were surprised.”

Lanford Brothers’ new headquarters in Roanoke is a learning experience for everyone involved. It’s the first LEED project for the project’s architect and its contractor, Lionberger Construction.

“ … I think it’s going to be a huge issue in the next few years,” says Angie Baughman, Lionberger’s project manager, who has an undergraduate degree in architecture and a master’s in construction management, both from Virginia Tech. She’s working on her LEED certification and will be the first at Lionberger to obtain it. “It’s great that we’ve landed this project so we can say that we’ve actually done one.”

The Lanford project also will help teach a new generation of builders. Under the direction of Annie Pearce, an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s Myers-Lawson School of Construction, students are studying the entire process: they’re videotaping Lanford’s meetings with his architect and builder and following Lionberger reps as they talk to trades workers. When it’s all done, Pearce hopes to have a case study.  “The neat thing about this project is, everybody’s doing this for the first time,” she says.

The Lanford addition is nothing especially fancy — a regular office for a family business that employs nearly 250 people during the busy summer months. The project includes renovation and changes in the existing building, plus the new space. Pearce says Lanford “wants to be a model for everybody who hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon yet,
without going crazy.”

Lanford prefers to think of the project as “a real-world example of how you can make it happen.” Plus, he has learned a new word: sedums. They’re hardy succulents, the plants most conducive for vegetative roofs in the Roanoke area. Or the direct opposite, one might say, of concrete and asphalt. 

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