More on Green Building

Our Director of Environmental Initiatives had a favorite saying.  “There’s no such place as away.”  I get it.  We’re all drowning in plastic.  We poison our water and air.  The Planet Earth documentaries make it clear humans leave a path of destruction wherever we roam.  But we all need a place to live and there are less impactful ways to build homes, along with almost everything else we do as people and businesses and governments in 21st century America.

photo credit to http://www.hazardouswasteexperts.com

We put the “no such thing as away” into practice when we de-constructed part of the old Northstar-at-Tahoe base village.  I have a plaque somewhere showing the ceremonial removal of the hands from the clock on the clocktower building.  We didn’t use a wrecking ball.  I don’t remember anything being demolished.  We literally took the building apart piece by piece and there was a company in the Bay Area who was willing to buy all the raw materials and re-sell them.  I was under the impression they had a massive junkyard somewhere in Oakland where small builders could come shop for secondhand supplies at a discount.

It’s cool to think you can re-use many of the parts and materials from an old building.  I’ve certainly seen the high-end homes using century old recycled barn planks as trophy flooring.  And I’ve also read the stories of thieves looting new construction sites for raw materials like copper.  On the other hand, I have also seen many on-line of videos of old hospitals and hotels being blasted and destroyed and crumbling to earth in a cloud of dust.

photo credit to http://www.vegas.com

I’m not sure where the breaking point is.  I know one of the measurement criteria in obtaining green status for new construction is to eliminate waste created by recycling and to incorporate recycled materials.

The US Green Building Council awards buildings LEED certification based on levels of green.  LEED is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  There are different levels ranging from LEED certified to LEED platinum.  The more elements you can incorporate into new buildings the higher up you can climb on the scale.  It is a point of pride to achieve these standards and they’re not easy.

The problem with residential development though is I don’t think consumers will pay more to buy a LEED home even though it costs more to build, and costs to go through the certification process.  We thought it was a compelling story for the Bay Area market in the early 2000s but while you might feature the story in the sales gallery it didn’t exactly translate into higher sales prices.  It might have been a feel- good factor and a story that got people interested, but certainly not a negotiating point.

With a commercial building the scale of utility savings over the years in a green building can really add up but it doesn’t translate in a compelling way to smaller unit.  In California at least it seems the government is already stepping in to accelerate requirements for green building on a smaller scale.

We did make one green build decision that back-fired big time.  It was a classic example of “no good deed goes unpunished.”  We used recycled rail ties that had been conserved at the bottom of the Great Salt Lake from the time of the transcontinental railroad as siding.  Obviously, the ties were recovered and cut up to make a decorative and supposedly weather proof siding.  It was green.  It was a cool story.  It was new.

photo credit to http://www.amusingplanet.com

But the siding didn’t perform exactly as the architects and builders planned and that created a field day for the construction defect attorneys that hijacked the HOA and created a massive lawsuit for the developer and insurance companies to defend.  More on defect attorneys in a future blog.  This fight got ugly.

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Green Building

Green building is a thing.  It’s a worthy cause and there are some wonderful examples of green building around the world, but I believe it’s still struggling to find footing, especially in the residential sector.

photo credit to http://www.bigtimesnews.com

When I began in the real estate business in the late 90’s as a low-level staff accountant I never heard discussion of green building nor paid any invoices to consultants who were helping companies achieve results in that realm.   By the time we were rolling on California developments in the mid-2000s everyone was talking about green building.

It helped that the owner and leader of our company had gone off to serve a term as President of the Urban Land Institute and green building was something he championed in that role.  We tried, but it never quite stuck.

We hired a Director of Environmental Initiatives.  As far as I could tell that was progressive to create a role in a development company for someone whose job it was to bring sustainable initiatives, training, and education to everything we did.  He drove a hybrid company car long before they were common.  Of course, after a couple of winters in Tahoe snow he realized he got a raw deal.  The other team members with company vehicles were driving SUVs and Audis with all-wheel drive.  He was chaining up his Honda Civic with every new snowfall in a time when there weren’t many electrics or hybrids to choose from.

photo credit to http://www.cars.com

His car story kind of parallels my overall impression of green building.  It’s a great idea, a great story, makes everyone feel good, but it might be a little forced in a way that’s not really paying off for those trying to make a difference.

We were into green building with our new California projects because we thought it was the right thing, thought it would help win project approvals in the town and county, thought it was a good marketing story for the Bay Area consumer, and were genuinely excited to be on the cutting edge of design and construction.

I think green building’s problems are similar to the growing pains we saw in organic produce.  I bought and buy organic but saw the battle over who gets to certify something as organic play out on the grocery store shelves.   It was obvious that some organic claims were pure marketing, and some were real, but hard to pay the organic price when you can’t trust it.  I think the state of Oregon standards were the best, but I can’t remember.   That battle seems to have been solved, or at least removed from the headlines.

Likewise, green building was a free for all, though the United States Green Building Council seems to have emerged as the arbiter of green.  I remember however they didn’t make anything easy.  It’s fine that to get certified green means meeting high standards but based on what I witnessed with our team it seems the USGBC was only slightly easier to work with than the IRS.  They sound governmental, but I hope they’re not.  Frankly, I’m still not sure.  They do produce a nice magazine for you if you’re a member.

Plenty more to cover on green building but will leave that to a future blog.  If you like (or hate) my writing, please follow my blog.  Also, please connect with me on Twitter of LinkedIn.  Thanks.