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City hikes the bar on Green Building by taking the LEED

Monday, July 10, 2000 by

Will require city projects to meet Silver Certification level

The City of Austin is considered a national leader in Green Building practices and aims to keep it that way. To that end, the City Council on June 8, with little or no notice in the press, directed City Manager Jesus Garza to see that the city sets the example by meeting new standards that raise the bar even higher.

The resolution passed by the council requires that future buildings are designed and built to qualify under a new national LEED Green Building Rating System promulgated by the US Green Building Council . LEED is the acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The LEED standards establish specific criteria for sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor air quality. Points are attained within each of these categories for achieving compliance. The total points achieved equate to a LEED Green Building Certification Level. A minimum of 26-32 points qualifies a structure to be LEED Certified; 33-38 points qualify for LEED Certified Silver Level; 39-51 points for Gold Level; and 52 or more points for Platinum Level. The City Council directed new city buildings achieve Silver Level.

Fred Blood, the city's sustainability officer, says the LEED standards are primarily aimed at office buildings, whereas the city's Star Rating Program is applicable to residential structures.

While these new standards will result in better buildings, there is at least one potential barrier to implementation: cost. The council directed that the new City Hall and those projects approved by voters in the 1998 bond election "be built to the highest LEED Certification appropriate without requiring additional appropriations from council." Not everyone agrees that Green Building costs more than other types of construction, however.

Richard Morgan of Austin Energy, manager of the city's G reen Building Program, says, "If you take an existing design and try to 'green it up,' it will cost a lot of money." On the other hand, starting from scratch with a Green Building design might cost no more than an extra 2 percent to 3 percent, he says. Building green could wind up costing less–a lot less: "The US Navy claims that using sustainable building practices reduces costs 25 percent," Morgan says.

Blood is adamant than sustainable building is not more expensive. "I believe it's an urban myth that following Green Building standards costs significantly more," he says, "and if it does cost more, the extra costs are quickly made up in the first five years of the operation budget, because these buildings are so much more energy efficient."

The new City Hall project has been programmed to decide what goes where but it is unclear whether the design firm of Cotera Kolar Negrete & Reed, in conjunction with lead designer Antoine Predock, will be attempting to follow the LEED standards. Obviously the council resolution lets the project off the hook if it costs more to follow the LEED certification standards. Morgan says any direction given to the design team will come from the Public Works and Transportation Department. "We hope to have input," Morgan says. Blood adds, "I'd be embarrassed to say we can't hit the silver standard" on the new City Hall.

A major consideration when considering Green Building is that upfront construction costs might amount to less than 10 percent of a building's life-cycle cost. Morgan says that 80 percent to 90 percent of the life-cycle costs are tied up in the productivity of employees. Raising productivity anywhere from a half-percent to 3 percent with Green Building techniques–for example through effective natural lighting, good air quality and comfortable working conditions–could pay back any extra costs of building green in as little as a year or two, Morgan says, if there are any more costs. "We don't believe you need to have extra costs to build green," he says.

Morgan says that while there are many variables in making calculations for rating a building, construction that simply complies with the existing City Code gets new buildings within striking distance of LEED Certification, around 23-24 points, he estimates. That's because the city developed sustainable building guidelines as directed by a 1994 council resolution. A Green Building program was specifically required for the construction of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Morgan says. And an extra 10 percent to 15 percent has been included in funding for projects included in bond elections to accommodate sustainable building. Further, sustainability consultants are hired for each project, Morgan says. The LEED standards simply ratchet up the program. "This sets hard targets," Morgan says. "The points are just a way of measuring."

The LEED standards are so new that no building in the nation has been certified yet. "No one in the country has been certified to rate buildings yet," Morgan says. But that will soon change, as LEED training workshops are slated to begin next month, and one has tentatively been scheduled to be conducted in Austin in October, most likely for two days. "Some of the staff here worked in developing LEED," Morgan says. "It's just a matter of getting certification." The workshop will be open to the city's Green Building staff, other city staff and, if space is available, to members of the American Institute of Architects, Morgan says.

Morgan notes that many structures built or retrofitted of late were good examples of sustainable building, including the Brown Building at 8th and Colorado, the R.E. Johnson State Office Building at 15th and Congress, the Austin Lyric Opera building at Barton Springs Road and Bouldin Avenue, and American Youthworks offices at 4th and San Jacinto.

Blood worries, however, that there is a "disconnect" that needs to be repaired in how people think about constructing new buildings. "If you are constructing a building you will occupy, you are concerned with (life-cycle) costs; if you are building on speculation, you don't care. I'd like to bridge the gap between the people constructing a building and the people occupying it…We build 'stupid' to try to save a buck, and in the long term we spend more."

"I'm meeting with individual architects and asking them to step up to the plate," Blood says. "(Green Building) is not leading edge, but it's over and above standard architecture."

Dr. Laura, take this…The Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus (ALGPC) is planning to turn up the heat on Dr. Laura Schlessigner, whose radio program is catching flak for comments made about gays. An item in the Austin American-Statesman on July 8 out of Washington said automobile insurer Geico has decided to stop running ads on Schlessigner's show, which is carried locally on KLBJ-AM 590 and, according to the ALGPC, will begin running on KEYE-Channel 42 beginning Sept. 11. The ALGPC is meeting in the AFL/CIO Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Monday, July 17, to plan a demonstration for July 28 that will "coordinate a major effort to target local sponsors of the Dr. Laura radio show." "We want to let her local sponsors know what she is saying about us and how we feel about sponsorship of hate speech," said ALGPC Co-chair Allan Baker. "And we want to let Austin's gay and lesbian community to know who her sponsors are, so they can make decision about whether they should patronize businesses who subsidize hate speech." For more info, call 474-0750 or visit the ALGPC web site at

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