Flag-waving aside, USGBC looks to make business case for green

December 01, 2002 |

In what amounted to a celebration of sorts for sustainable design in the U.S., the first International Green Building Conference held Nov. 13-15 in Austin, Texas, drew 3,500 attendees — an impressive number, considering organizers expected 2,000 attendees at most. Interest was so keen in fact that registration for the conference was cut off weeks before the event.

"We couldn't accommodate any more registrants," says Christine Ervin, president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the Washington, D.C.-based host of the conference.

But beneath this excitement, officials grappled with how the USGBC should take its next step towards facilitating the mainstreaming of green building practices in the U.S. While members praise the USGBC's efforts in making the case for sustainable design as the socially conscious thing to do, they say the council now needs to focus on convincing owners and developers that building green also is smart business.

M. Arthur Gensler Jr., chairman and founder of Gensler Architecture, Design & Planning Worldwide, San Francisco, lauds the council's efforts. "They've done a phenomenal job in getting things started," he says.

But to mainstream green building more quickly, Gensler says the council must adjust its marketing strategy. "The USGBC's marketing thrust is that sustainable design should be done for social reasons," says Gensler, a member of the council's Core and Shell Product Committee. "It's a good motive. Unfortunately, to have the impact they want, they are going to have change to a performance-based reason for doing it. Green is good business."

"Art is focused on the commercial sector," says Nigel Howard, vice president and director of the USGBC's LEED (Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design) Program. "He is focused on how high to set the bar. Art's opinion is that we set the bar too high, and that we need to engage the building industry, which we do need to do."

The council's own surveys back this theory. Ervin says the No. 1 issue for members in surveys is their need for help in making the business case for sustainable design. To this end, she announced at the conference the council's publication of a new brochure to assist members in marketing their case. "Making the Business Case for High Performance Green Buildings" includes 10 reasons why going green is good for a company's bottom line (see sidebar at right).

"The private sector has to lead the move to sustainability," says Ervin. "For it to do that, sustainability has to be good business. Developers may not be seeing higher rents from sustainable properties, but in areas such as in Portland (Ore.), they are seeing a larger share of the market. I think developers also may be seeing a change in what tenants are looking for, and a sustainable environment may be one of those things."

Hugh Zimmer, chairman and CEO of The Zimmer Cos., Kansas City, Mo., is a developer who recognizes the business potential of green design. "We think it's good business, as well as good social responsibility," says Zimmer, whose company owns Ecoworks at South Lake, a speculative office park in Lenexa, Kan.

In July, one of the park's six buildings became the first speculative office building in the U.S. to be certified by the LEED Program, receiving a silver rating. "We're marketing the entire development as an evolutionary work space," says Zimmer, who adds that his company is marketing the LEED-certified building "as a place where a company can get more productivity out of its employees and benefit the environment."

While green design has a place in speculative office development, Zimmer says sustainability is not for developers looking to make a fast buck. Describing his company as a "long-term developer" which tends to hold onto its properties, Zimmer says, "We went into this as a long-range project. The idea was that we'd have to carry it for at least five years."

The 350,00-sq.-ft. project was designed by locally-based Gastinger Walker Harden Architects and built by J.E. Dunn Group, and recently received its first tenant, Samsung, which leased 10,000 sq. ft. of space in the building.

Companies and potential customers, such as Ford Motor Co., are adopting sustainable principles into their corporate philosophies, Zimmer says. "And when they come to Kansas City, I want them to come to me," he says.

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