It’s Easy Being Green

It’s Easy Being Green
Just Front Load Your Design
By Josh Chaitin 

Around the Country, we are witnessing the creation of “green” buildings and developments designed to minimize environmental and human health impacts. Developers are starting to catch on to both the cache and the long-term benefits of designing developments around LEED—the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program created by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Projects can be certified at bronze, silver, gold, and platinum levels, with the number of elements contributing to sustainable design increasing with each level of certification.

“The architecture and design community is in the earliest stages of embracing the LEED movement,” says Leslie Klein Koch of Perrault Interiors, a Seattle-based design firm. “And like anything new, the LEED process presents a new set of challenges. Things like site selection, using recycled materials, and creating green roofs are just a few examples of issues that challenge the current mindset of developers, contractors, and architects, not to mention the general public.”

Plan Ahead

The key to a successful green project is to “front load” by integrating environmentally sustainable elements into the project’s design early in the planning process. Developers often assume that front-loaded design and planning will add to project schedule and budget. While greater upfront investment is sometimes required, those in the know have come to realize that these costs are usually recovered, with interest, through lower long-term maintenance and utility expenses, decreased liability, and greater resale value.

While the LEED standards might be viewed as the prevailing standard for green building among some builders and property developers, multifamily residential communities designed with an eye toward sustainability pre-date these standards by several years. For example, Village Homes a planned community with apartments and single-family homes in Davis, Calif., completed in 1981, shows how the attention to green design has paid off in spades in the long run.

This sizable development was created with the intention of making a community with a design that respects and integrates the natural environment and provides residents with benefits such as lower utility costs. Because of green design elements, properties at Village Homes have increased significantly in value over time. Turnover is very low, as long-time residents often opt to remodel or expand instead of moving to a larger home elsewhere. And when a property goes on sale at Village Homes, it fetches a premium price.

The attention to design before the developers broke ground is, in large part, what made Village Homes revolutionary for its time, and such a successful green project in the long run. The project’s developers, Michael and Judy Corbett, had foresight into how a livable community should be designed and managed to make it successful. They also knew that to get future residents interested in the development, they would have to be involved in decision-making as the project evolved over time.

Green Projects

When Village Homes was completed, the availability of sustainable building materials was limited and nationally agreed upon green building standards were virtually non-existent. Today, many green design and building products are available internationally. And, many communities are embracing this concept of sustainable design.

In Portland, Ore.’s, up-and-coming Pearl District there are several condominiums that meet LEED standards, which are aesthetically appealing, and are clearly attracting buyers, as the city has seen the residential population in the downtown corridor grow significantly as these properties become populated.

Seattle is on the same path in terms of the number of condominiums populating the skyline, and some condo developers are embracing the idea of green building through the careful application of the LEED standards. The Mosler Lofts, a mid-rise condominium tower that will be completed in 2006, is aiming for LEED silver certification.

In order to achieve this goal, Mark Schuster, the owner and developer, knows that environmental impacts and resource efficiency can’t be afterthoughts. He’s working with Mithun, a Seattle architecture and design firm with deep experience in LEED design. Schuster and his team embraced front-loaded design, by addressing these green issues in the very initial stages of the project.

The project is set to include design features, such as a green roof—a rooftop that incorporates a living plant surface—which will filter contaminants from rainwater and provide a beautiful gathering space for residents. Buyers will be able to choose not just the appliances that come with their homes, but also the placement of walls, the rugs, paint colors, and a number of other design criteria—all of which are constructed of sustainable materials.

The 10-foot-high ceilings will add to the feeling of openness and this will be complimented by better air quality from passive ventilation and the lack of off-gassing from paints and surfaces impregnated with toxins like formaldehyde. These features will help create a beautiful, healthy living space that actually contributes to the quality of the outdoor environment while helping residents breath easier inside the structure.

Choices for materials for the interior design space are just as important as the choices made for construction materials. Types of paint, countertop surfaces, flooring, and upholstery all play a part in minimizing a building’s overall environmental footprint. In some cases the benefits of green design and LEED are realized quickly, in the form of energy savings or reduced construction costs per square foot. In other instances, the payoff may take longer. “The challenges of the LEED movement will reap many benefits in the long term, both environmentally and financially,” says Koch. “Although its financial benefits may not always be immediately apparent, they will reveal themselves in years to come when natural resources become more and more valuable as supplies decrease.”

Clearly, these suggestions are just a starting point for integrating green design into a multifamily residential project. Consult the USGBC’s Web site at for more information on making your next project green. The ultimate goal is to design properties that take into consideration environmental protection, while benefiting the owner’s and developer’s bottom line.

Josh Chaitin is an account supervisor at The Frause Group, a public relations, marketing, and business analysis firm. He specializes in promoting sustainable practices, in construction, development, and management for his clients. He may be reached at

How to Be Green

How does one know where to begin and how to plan at the front end? Klein Koch of Perrault Interiors, suggests the following starting points when planning for a green design:

* Select low volatile organic compounds (VOC) alternatives, as opposed to traditional interior design products and materials. These include composite woods and alternatives (such as bamboo) to traditional wood floorings, carpet systems that are made from materials with lighter chemical loads, low VOC emitting paints and coatings, and cabinetry manufactured without toxins such as formaldehydes.

* Establish the air quality standards you wish to meet early on in the design process. Americans spend, on average, more than 90 percent of their time indoors, where pollutant levels are often quite higher than outdoor levels. “Sick building syndrome,” where building occupants experience health problems as a result of poor ventilation and high levels of contaminants from construction materials and furniture, has led to higher liability for building owners and managers. Planning for better indoor air quality through the proper selection of materials goes a very long way toward minimizing these risks.

* Choose high performance windows; these typically include features such as “low-e” glass coatings. High performance windows may cost more, but they will provide savings in heating costs that over time will contribute to cost recovery. Integrate day lighting into your design—this will help bring natural daylight into the building and will reduce energy costs.

* Purchase recycled building materials and purchase building materials that are produced locally. These steps will help the environment, the local economy, and will save you money on transportation costs.

* Purchase efficient appliances; washing machines and dishwashers consume both water and energy, and the refrigerator is an appliance that is always on. That said, there are numerous appliances on the market that operate much more efficiently than their predecessors. Consult the Department of Energy’s ENERGY STAR program to find models that provide the highest performance. Some cities give rebates for purchasing more efficient appliances so check with your local utility.

* Use native plants in landscaping that are drought tolerant. Xeriscaping is the use of native plants that can survive in the local climate without lots of water. Landscape architects familiar with this concept have been able to design beautiful exteriors while preserving precious water resources. The outside and inside design are connected and, with the right design, one can benefit the other in terms of energy efficiency and water usage.