Building green is about more than just the buildings

January 26, 2011 |

There is a growing sense among those who take sustainable design and construction to heart that building green buildings alone is not enough. We have to take their location into account, too.

If you stick a LEED Platinum building out in the middle of nowhere, the building itself may be an energy miser, but every employee, visitor, and supplier will consume lots of energy and pump out tons of greenhouse gases to drive to it.

One of the more egregious examples of such misguided planning is the U.S. EPA’s New England Regional Laboratory, which earned LEED Gold early in the game (version 1.0). The EPA chose a site in North Chelmsford, Mass., 22 miles from downtown Boston and a 45-minute drive from Logan Airport (“if no traffic hangups,” says the lab’s highly optimistic website). True, a commuter rail has a stop about three miles from the lab (with a connecting bus), but I doubt that many employees or visitors use it.

Looking back, I’m chagrined that we at BD+C were guilty of praising the project (“Walking the Walk”). Instead, we should have asked: Why is the federal agency that is charged with protecting the environment not locating its regional lab on a site more convenient to Boston’s very workable transit system?

To its credit, the U.S. Green Building Council has become more appreciative of the link between a building’s location and its true overall greenness. The USGBC has provided funding to the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology for the CNT to further develop its Transportation Energy Index, a tool for measuring the impact of building location on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

As Julie Wernau reported in the Chicago Tribune, CNT compared the impact of a 145,000-sf building housing 200 employees in three locations: downtown Chicago, a city neighborhood (Hyde Park), and a northwestern suburb (Hoffman Estates).

To commute downtown, employees would emit an average 16.2 pounds of carbon and use 87.5 kBtu of energy, vs. 22.5 pounds of carbon emissions and 145.2 kBtu for the average commute to the suburban location. The Hyde Park commute was the best: only 12.7 pounds of carbon emissions and 80.7 kBtu of energy use.

Of course, the model depends on a lot of assumptions and variables—for example, assigning the correct percentage of employees who would carpool, take rail, or drive alone. That’s why the CNT is refining the tool.

But even this somewhat crude model provides strong evidence that choice of location is crucial to determining whether a building can be called truly green over the course of its useful lifetime. The decision on where to locate offices and facilities is one that corporations, institutions, and nonprofits with a sustainability charter will need to give much greater consideration in the future.

One solution to the commutation problem that is quite literally gaining traction these days is light rail. Thirty-five U.S. cities have such systems, with another 13 under construction.

That’s a good sign. As we note in this issue (“Mixed-Use on Steroids,” page 26), greater concentration of live/work projects, in the form of mixed-use and transit-oriented developments, is crucial to making both cities and suburbs greener and more livable.

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