Cashing in with Green Buildings

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm

For years, environmental activists have advocated the construction of "green" buildings, instead of conventional buildings, to conserve precious natural resources.

However, an increasing number of bottom-line driven businesses are constructing green buildings or renovating older buildings to make them more "green."

In an era of skyrocketing energy costs and dwindling supplies of fresh drinking water, it pays to be green.

"Absolutely, it can save you money," said Kenneth Pientka, chief operating officer of Madison-based Planning Design Build Inc.

Green buildings have features such as: high-efficiency heating and air conditioning systems; extensive windows for natural light that reduces electricity and heat system usage; more efficient lighting systems; low-flow toilets; waterless urinals; and green roofs with grass and plants (see accompanying story).

The green building features add more to construction costs of a building, but they result in cost savings over the long run, Pientka said.

Most well-done green buildings cost 2 to 5 percent more to build than a regular building, and it takes about three to five years of energy savings to make up for the higher construction costs, he said.

In 2003, Sigma Group moved from space it was leasing in Oak Creek to a new 26,000-square-foot building with several green building features in the Menomonee River Valley in Milwaukee. The company’s services include providing expertise for brownfield remediation. The firm’s new Milwaukee headquarters were built on a former brownfield.

"We wanted to walk our talk, showing our customers that with the right degree of planning and knowledge, you can develop in a brownfield," said Sigma Group principal Kenneth Kaszubowski.

The Sigma Group building has a high-efficiency mechanical system for heating and air conditioning. Such systems cost more to install upfront, but they save money in the long run by reducing energy use, Kaszubowski said.

"It does cost a little bit more, but the payback is so quick," he said. "If you have any kind of long-term vision at all, it makes a lot of sense."

However, green building elements do not necessarily have to add to construction costs, according to Paul von Paumgartten, director of energy and environmental affairs for Glendale-based Johnson Controls Inc. When Johnson Controls built the 160,000-square-foot addition to its downtown Milwaukee Brengel Technology Center in 2000, the company saved $250,000 on construction costs by using green building elements, he said.

"It didn’t cost us more," von Paumgartten said. "It doesn’t have to cost you more."

The Brengel Center was one of the first LEED-certified buildings in the nation, receiving a silver rating. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is the building industry standard for green building certification and is determined by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Johnson Controls also upgraded the older portion of the 440,000-square-foot Brengel center. The facility’s LEED certification was later improved to a gold rating.

The Brengel Center has an indirect lighting system (with T5 fluorescent lamps), which uses less than one watt per square foot. Each cubicle has a personal environment module that controls the amount of heat, light and ventilation for the employee at his or her desk. If the employee leaves the desk, the personal environment module automatically shuts down, saving energy use. The facility also has low-flow fixtures in the bathrooms to reduce water usage.

Johnson Controls saves $333,000 a year on energy costs because of the energy efficient systems in the Brengel Center, von Paumgartten said.

"That validates what everyone has been saying, that green buildings save 20 to 50 percent of operational costs," he said. "Those are big numbers."

Now the company is planning to upgrade its Glendale headquarters. Once that project is complete, Johnson Controls expects its headquarters to be a platinum level LEED building, the highest ranking possible.

Improving building efficiency is a core business for Johnson Controls. The company offers products and services that optimize energy use and improve comfort in buildings.

The company uses the Brengel Center to show customers the benefits of green buildings.

"We have people visiting us almost daily, and they are all interested in green buildings," von Paumgartten said. "Our customers are coming from all over the world to talk to us about green buildings."

New green buildings feature many different systems that reduce the consumption of energy and the use of water.

Some buildings have lighting systems with sensors that adjust the brightness of the lights in the building based on the amount of natural light coming in the windows during the day.

Different types of windows can be used for different parts of the building to maximize the amount of light allowed into the building, but also to limit the amount of heat that comes in.

"Glass technology has really become advanced," Pientka said.

Sigma Group used bow truss construction for its roof, which allowed for the installation of a series of large windows that let a significant amount of natural light into the building, reducing electricity usage.

"Some of the offices, during the day, we don’t turn the lights on," Kaszubowski said.

Extensive natural light also creates a better work environment and improves employee productivity, he said.

Some building owners have installed waterless urinals to reduce water use.

"It works well," Pientka said. "Everybody is worried about the odor. They put a material on the wall of the urinal that makes it very slippery, so the water droplets don’t collect."

At the bottom of the urinal is a special cartridge that releases a liquid that is lighter than urine, so it floats on top of the urine, preventing any odor.

Each waterless urinal can save 40,000 gallons of water a year, which would fill a decent-sized in-ground residential swimming pool, Pientka said.

Low-flow toilets also can reduce water use. Planning Design Building Inc. is experimenting with specialized toilets for women’s restrooms with a handle that can be pushed up to flush for just liquid waste and down to flush solid waste. A typical toilet uses 1.6 gallons of water per flush. With the specialty toilet, the liquid waste flush only uses one gallon.

Liberty Property Trust, a Malvern, Pa.-based real estate investment trust (REIT), has installed waterless urinals and low-flow toilets in the bathrooms of an office building the firm owns in Brookfield at 245 S. Executive Drive. Liberty Property Trust is expanding the building from 60,000 square feet to 72,000 square feet and renovating much of the existing space, adding numerous other "green" features, including aerated faucets that use less water and a drip irrigation system which uses less water to keep the exterior landscaping growing.

"This building is going to use 500,000 gallons less water per year," said John DiVall, vice president for Liberty Property Trust’s Milwaukee office.

The building’s green features will result in at least 10 percent energy cost savings for the facility, DiVall said. The building’s tenants will benefit by paying less for their energy bills, he said. That will help the building compete for tenants with other office buildings in the area, he said.

"We’re going to be able to point across the street and say, ‘We’re cheaper (for energy costs) than there, cheaper than there and cheaper than there,’" DiVall said. "So you can pay us a little more in rent and still have lower operating costs."

The reduced energy costs will help Liberty fill the building with tenants more quickly, DiVall said.

"I know it’s helping us. We’re very close to signing a lease for 1-1/2 floors with a big national company with a lot of employees," Divall said, declining to identify the prospective tenant.

Liberty also will include many of the same green elements in a new 30,000-square-foot building the company is constructing for the U.S. Defense Department in the Park Place business park on the far northwest side of Milwaukee.

"Ground up is easier to do (green) than a core and shell," DiVall said.

Businesses in southeastern Wisconsin increasingly are embracing the idea of making their buildings green, despite the upfront costs, to take advantage of the long-term benefits.

"It’s definitely catching on," Pientka said. "We feel it’s the wave of the future. Some of our clients have embraced it, but others continue to reject it."

"It is a megatrend that is transforming the building industry," said von Paumgartten, who served on the U.S. Green Building Council board for six years. "Most developers are cautious. Most of our construction has always been done on the cheap. They perceive there’s going to be more expense and more risk. The owners of the buildings, they are the ones that are going to drive it and demand it."

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