Green building techniques hit close to home

I have seen the future.

It’s located a stone’s throw from the State Capitol in Olympia in the form of the Washington Public Utility Districts Association headquarters. Completed in 2007, the building is the state’s highest-rated green building and one of the greenest in the nation. As environmental concerns grow along with energy and water costs, green buildings are becoming ever more popular. One day they’ll be the norm in Federal Way and around the Puget Sound region.

Building design and construction is getting a lot of attention lately because buildings leave a huge environmental footprint. In the United States, buildings account for nearly 40 percent of our carbon emissions, as well as 70 percent of our electricity consumption and 40 percent of our use of raw materials. With an outsized impact like that, buildings present an opportunity to reduce environmental impact.

Environmental savings represent economic savings waiting to be captured. Reduced electricity and water consumption means a lower operating cost for green buildings. The WPUDA building features the state’s largest solar panel array on its roof and on sunny days (I think we still have those despite our recent weather), the building is actually selling excess energy back to Puget Sound Energy.

I was able to learn firsthand about the WPUDA headquarters through Federal Way-er Brett Thomas, who works for Mountain Construction, the WPUDA’s green builder. I met Brett through one of the school district committees this articulate father of 2 serves on. He’s one of those dedicated parent volunteers who works hard behind the scenes to support our school district. When I found out his day job included constructing the state’s first Platinum LEED green building, I pestered him for a tour.

The association’s headquarters is a textbook green building, using every bit of space wisely. The two-story wood and brick-faced building nearly fills the entire lot, with parking underground to save valuable space. Every aspect of the building’s construction contained green components, from the certified sustainably grown lumber to the high-tech windows that block solar heat, while allowing visible light to fill the workspaces.

Environmental and costs savings are not the only benefits of green buildings. They are typically healthier, more pleasant buildings for people to live and work. Building materials and furnishings are non- or low-toxic, making for healthier air to breathe. Use of natural light is emphasized — my fluorescent-averse eyes reveled in the building’s soft, natural light. All in all, the association’s headquarters seemed like a healthy, productive place to work.

The U.S. Green Building Council certifies green buildings according to its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Standards, which focus on five key areas: sustainable site development, building materials, energy efficiency, water savings and environmental health. Depending on the performance over these areas, a building can attain rating of Certified, Silver, Gold and the highest possible rating, Platinum.

While some green features are pricier than the standard approach, the cost of green building has come down significantly as more green buildings are built. Upfront costs can also be recaptured through savings on operating costs.

Just about any quality building project can incorporate Silver LEED standards at roughly the same cost as the standard approach. “Now, we look at (green building techniques) on all projects,” Thomas says.

There’s nothing in the Federal Way city code that would prevent green buildings like the one Brett’s firm built. The WPUDA Building, though, was a “statement building” for a nonprofit association whose mission involves energy and water conservation. It’s not likely that we’ll see a builder with similar incentives in Federal Way soon.

Instead, green building is likely to develop in Federal Way as components of larger buildings.

The Federal Way School District has incorporated green building elements in its newest schools, Sequoyah Middle School and Todd Beamer High School. The planned Symphony development will be built to LEED Neighborhood Development standards that include a host of green building elements.

Homeowners can also play an important part. There are numerous ways to build green features into home remodel projects. In fact, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Web site now features a guide for green home renovation (www.greenhomeguide.org). A quick look at the site generated a long mental list of renovation needs for my 45-year-old house.

Yes, green building is the future. I just didn’t realize the future would hit so close to home.

Chris Carrel is a Federal Way resident and executive director of Friends of the Hylebos: chinook@hylebos.org.

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