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The Public Sector Pioneers the Case for Green Building

By Nancy Roberts

Government agencies and public utilities often get a bad rap when it comes to innovation: They are seen as cautious, bureaucratic and lumbering.  But a panel* of green building professionals recently made a strong case for public sector buildings, such as hospitals, colleges, and public utilities, as pioneers in sustainability.

Examples from major healthcare, education and utilities facilities were discussed at the gorgeous, spanking new San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) building on July 26, showing how the public sector is making the case for green building. Themes of integrated design, broad stakeholder collaboration, and long-term thinking dominated the panel, which was presented by Agrion, a networking organization for professionals in energy and sustainability.

The discussion took place in a building that is walking the talk. The new HQ of the SFPUC, the latest  LEED Platinum building in the city, is a model for sustainability.  Officially opening this month, it will consume 32 percent less energy and 60 percent less water than similar buildings, and has a 50 percent smaller carbon footprint. (Learn more about the building here.)

Stretch goals: going beyond the compliance baseline 

Megan White of Webcor Builders noted that the job of the LEED AP was to lead with passion, acting as a kind of cheerleader to test and model the technologies and materials that go beyond compliance for now, and which may become the model for building codes down the line.  For the SFPUC building, going beyond LEED means installing a Living Machine: an engineered wetlands system that treats 100% of wastewater - 5,000 gallons a day - on site.

The long horizon advantage

One advantage the public sector has is the knowledge that any building they create needs to last and work for their constituents for a long, long time.  Most new buildings constructed list a 30 or 40-year time frame, which can make the initial expense of some sustainability measures  harder to justify. The new SFPUC building utilizes a a 100 year time horizon; the combination of building ownership and environmental assets will realize future ratepayers approximately $3.7 billion in savings over the expected useful life of the building ($500 million in 2011 dollars.)

Design for progress – beyond obsolescence

Panelists noted that technology – and its costs – change rapidly, making today’s unreasonable expense seem brilliantly foresighted years down the line. The technology that seems to cost too much today (say, PV or other renewable energy options) may be normal and cost effective in the time it takes for a building to rise. For example, the California Academy of Sciences has the capacity to double their current solar capacity with more cells when it becomes feasible. Similarly, risk aversion has its costs, as it can costs more to go back and re-engineer or replace. Melanie Bonn gave the example of a hospital that some years ago was wary of installing low-flow toilets; there is now far greater cost to retroactively installing the fixtures than if they had been in place from the start, yet now the hospital is moving forward with the new fixtures anyway.

Unchained from some of the pressure of short-term financial gain, public sector builders are more free to experiment with sustainability initiatives that serve the longer time horizon and broad concepts of stakeholders that guide their actions. This is an ideal that eventually will help create sustainable spaces for all businesses.

*Participants in the July 26 session included Megan White of Webcor Builders, Melanie Bonn of Fong and Chan Architects, Charles Neal from the Peralta Community College District and Shelby Campbell, project director, 525 Golden Gate with the SFPUC. Rich Chien of the City and County of San Francisco moderated.

Nancy Roberts, Green MBA, is an associate at Gigantic Idea Studio.

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