Software to help make it green

Green Matrix cross-references topics of sustainability with the standard phases of project design

November 01, 2003 |

No doubt about it. Planning, designing, and building with an eye toward sustainability is more than just a fad. In the last three years, the amount of square footage registered for certification by the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council has grown to more than 139 million square feet, according to the USGBC.

Within the same time frame, membership in the council (which includes building owners and developers; architectural, engineering and design firms; contractors and builders; product manufacturers; environmental organizations; colleges and universities; state and local governments; and federal agencies) has grown from 250 to nearly 3,400 organizations. But for many of its members, and for those in the construction community at large, going green is a relatively new — and confusing — practice.

"If you're on the design end of things, it becomes a daunting task to begin to look at these [sustainability] issues," says Kit Ratcliff, principal and president of Ratcliff, an Emeryville, Calif.-based architectural firm. "They're all over the map. Nothing is really coordinated and everybody is kind of jumping on the bandwagon. They're either coming up with new products, a new slant on things, or saying 'I'm recycling this' or 'Hey, I have a new product that's more efficient than my last product.'"

To help designers, the firm has developed a tool to simplify this search. "What dawned on us was to create a matrix," says Ratcliff architect Dan Meza.

The firm's Green Matrix CD-ROM (currently in beta testing) cross-references topics of sustainability with the standard phases of project design, thereby illuminating appropriate strategies for a particular phase of work. Listed under a horizontal heading are five typical sustainable topics: site, water, energy, materials, and indoor environment. Listed vertically are seven design phases: pro-forma, master planning, pre-design, schematic design, design development, construction documents, and construction/post-occupancy.

The design strategies for a specific condition lie at the intersection of topics and phases. The user clicks on the intersection under consideration and is led to more specific information on the strategies and further resource links — some of which may reside in the data file as rules of thumb or as links to independent Web sites.

Prior to the CD-ROM, the Green Matrix existed only on paper as a listing of sustainable headings with an underlying synopsis of strategies, says Meza. With the help of the firm's committee on environmental design resources, the team "developed it further to include Web resources, rules of thumb for calculating different strategies, and in some cases all sorts of graphics and diagrams to explain certain strategies," Meza adds.

Ratcliff used its Green Matrix recently on an indoor recreation project. The 50,000-sq.-ft. recreation center located near San Jose, Calif., will have a gymnasium, natatorium, and fitness room, and a communications center with a senior center, youth center, and multipurpose room.

As the design team got together, "we didn't really have any concrete resources to deal with," says Ratcliff. "So I went to the Green Matrix. I knew we were in master planning/schematic design and pre-design phases. I then went to site sustainability. In that corresponding box was a synopsis of strategies: building placement, open area, preservation, and determining whether the site was a brownfield. So the matrix gave me a synopsis of resources to consider for that particular phase under those particular conditions, including which aspect of the LEED category we were concerned with."

LEED, or the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, has emerged over the last few years as the sustainability/green rating standard. Currently, more than 4% of all new commercial construction projects in the U.S. by square footage are registered for certification under LEED, according to the USGBC.

LEED credit points are awarded based on five categories of performance: sustainable sites, energy and atmosphere, water efficiency, indoor environmental quality, and materials and resources. There are four rating designations: Certified (26-32 points), Silver (33-38 points), Gold (39-51 points), and Platinum (52 or more points). Additional credits can be earned for innovation and design not specifically addressed in the other green building categories.

"The LEED rating now has a lot of cachet with government agencies and a lot of private institutions," says Meza.

Using the Green Matrix may also produce financial benefits. "On a small private school construction the firm did recently, we first looked at conventional gas with heat exchangers for heating," says Ratcliff. "Then by referencing the matrix, geothermal was also considered and ultimately chosen. After four to five years, they [school officials] estimate that their heating will be free."

Meza says one improvement slated for the Green Matrix is to make that connection more evident. "Right now the substance for the LEED rating system is embedded, not clearly identified," he says.

There is no charge for the CD-ROM, but to create an exchange of information, as well as a database for future updates, Ratcliff requests that users fill out and return registration information. A free copy of the Ratcliff Green Matrix Version 2.0 is obtainable through

"We just hope people register for it and contribute to it," says Meza. "It can help an enormous number of people."

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