Feature Article - March 2008
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Easy Being Green

By Dawn Klingensmith

Greenbacks & green missions

Specifying green building materials isn't just about what's good for the planet, though. It's also about your bottom line. Green building materials and products can arrest expenses that drive overall operating costs through the roof. At the CSUF recreation center, the culprit was water consumption due to its pool and locker-room showers. After personally ensuring low-flow showerheads would provide ample output and pressure, Willer specified they be used, along with dual-flush toilets that "without going into graphic detail have a handle you flush up or down depending on how much water you need," as she put it. These and other water-saving features are expected to decrease the center's consumption of potable water by 50 percent.

Yet another way to approach green design is to allow your organization's mission to guide your specifications. The Queens Botanical Garden in Flushing, N.Y., is situated in a large metropolis where, as in all big cities, air quality is a concern. The garden is intended as an oasis for city dwellers, so it was important to Jennifer Ward Souder, director of capital projects, that air-quality issues be addressed. Interior products, such as fabrics, sealants, caulks and paints, used in the Visitor and Administration Building contain no or very low levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs—chemicals that evaporate easily, causing a decline in indoor air quality.

And though air quality was a concern locally, Souder drew a wider bubble when selecting endlessly recyclable carpeting with Cradle-to-Cradle certification (a designation conferred by the design firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry), which takes into account corporate and social responsibility. So not only does Cradle-to-Cradle certification address end users' well-being but also the health of those involved in a product's manufacture—"what people are breathing when they make this stuff," Souder said.

Educating and entertaining children and promoting their development is the mission of the Madison Children's Museum, so their health and safety is of paramount importance. Planning a play space for children 5 and under, Baker felt that using all-natural materials would make for a healthier environment.

"Using rounded corners and the usual safety precautions seemed inadequate," she said. "We wanted the space to be intrinsically safe so the materials weren't poisoning kids."

That's because Baker's research in the mid-1990s, when the play space was in development, revealed that most materials used to construct standard museum exhibits emit VOCs and other toxins. Additionally, they contribute to environmental degradation and come from sources that are not rapidly renewable. These widely used materials include Plexiglas, laminates, fiberglass, plywood, paints, solvents, adhesives, stains, finishes, wood, metal primers, sealants, particleboard, drywall compound, fabrics, furniture finishes and carpeting.

"Long-term damage can result from kids' repeated exposure to these materials, especially during early childhood when their immune systems are still developing," Baker said.

"A lot of people think if you have kids crawling around on the floor you need carpeting," she added. "But children's respiratory rate is twice that of adults, so if you can imagine a child crawling on newly laid carpeting, so close to the ground and breathing in the harmful emissions twice as fast, it's a double whammy to their immune systems."

The play space features area rugs made from natural, non-emitting materials such as wool and jute. Banners throughout the museum are printed with soybean-based ink on fabrics made out of recycled soda bottles and old T-shirts.

Even though the museum's play space made its debut in 1999, well ahead of the green explosion and the concomitant steep reduction in price and scarcity of eco-friendly materials, the play space cost the museum $116 per square foot, including all materials, outside labor and staff time. The museum typically spent $100 to $160 per square foot for in-house-designed and -developed exhibits of similar magnitude.

Yet nearly a decade later, the misconception persists that green design is prohibitively expensive.

Asked what surprised new clients most about eco-friendly construction, Shemwell of Overland Partners said, "I'd say if they're taken aback by anything, it's by how green they can go without spending a whole lot of money."