Fear of going into ‘the red’ keeps state developers from going ‘green’

Monday, June 9, 2008 at 3:33am
While many local developers have been slow to embrace ‘green building’ the not-yet-completed Nissan Americas headquarters in Williamson County has 50,000 new plants and a restored wetlands area. Matthew Williams/The City Paper

‘Green building’ has become quite the rage in construction over the several years — but you wouldn’t know it around here.

Governments, in particular, have put requirements in place to go green in construction and get certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

However, commercial developers here have been slow to get on the bandwagon.

“We are seeing components of it,” said developer Jim Caden. “But it’s more popular in other parts of the country.”

Developers are still skeptical about the cost of going green and the payback on the investment.

“Sure everyone wants to be green but at what cost?,” said Barry Smith, president of Eakin Partners.

Smith said nobody was talking about it five years ago when the firm was having Roundabout Plaza designed. SunTrust Plaza next to the Ryman Auditorium was at the beginning of the discussion of green building as it was being designed, he said.

There’s also been the question of whether green is simply an over-hyped fad in design and engineering.

Building ‘green’ runs the gamut from the paint used on the walls to the system churning out heat and air to how stormwater is handled. It all falls under the broad category of “sustainable design and development.”

But the biggest green aspect of construction has more to do with the guts of a building than the exterior. It’s the engineering and mechanical systems.

Mike Leonard, an architect with Brentwood firm Thomas, Miller & Partners and president of the local Green Building Council chapter, said it is a challenge to convince people of the long-term cost savings.

“As an industry, we’ll be asked to justify this more and more,” he said. “We’re getting smarter and better at predicting.”

Initially, calculating the cost of savings was more on intuition, Leonard. That’s gotten more sophisticated now.

“A lot of it’s done with computer energy models,” he said. “We are able to predict energy savings with more accuracy.”

But to get the savings, construction costs can be higher on the front end. And that’s where the challenge exists. A government building can wait for a payback over 10 years or more.

Leonard noted that a NASA building in Huntsville, Ala., reported an energy cost of $1 per square foot. That is 60 cents lower than the building it replaced, according to a report on the first green building at Marshall Space Flight Center.

But a developer who has a three- to five-year ownership period on a building won’t wait for the payback.

And higher operating costs affect value. Smith said ‘green’ would be a premium on rent and tenants balk.

“We’re just not there yet,” he said.

Then there’s the cost of the certification process for the different levels of LEED standards. It’s an arduous process and done by a third-party consultant.

Sometimes, though, companies build to the standards but don’t go through the certification process. For example, Nissan Americas decided against spending the money on the LEED Silver.

“Instead of paying for the certification, we restored wetlands,” said Julie Lawless, a company spokeswoman, about two and a half acres on the Nissan property.

Last September, 50,000 plants were put in the area, and this Spring, “everything turned green,” she said.

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