The Baltimore Sun

Rex A. Wright is chairman of the Baltimore chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit group that helps companies make their buildings environmentally friendly. The group has established a rating system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) that lists criteria buildings have to meet to be considered green. LEED is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of energy-efficient buildings. It is used by architects, engineers, interior designers, lenders and government officials, among others. Wright talked to The Sun about the increasing interest by businesses in becoming more Earth-friendly.

Tell us a little about USGBC in Baltimore.

The USGBC Baltimore region chapter is a chapter of the national United States Green Building Council, which has been around only for about 10 years now. The Baltimore chapter - we are going into our fifth year of operation - is just growing exponentially as far as our participation is concerned. When I first started coming to meetings four years ago, maybe 10 people would show up. And now it's not unusual to have hundreds at an event.

On a grand scale, our purpose is to transform the building industry to use more sustainable practices. That means to use all resources wisely. Building structures that have access to public transit, to be respectful of the existing landscape. To always be looking at the quality of the indoor environment, through natural light, through indoor air quality and temperature comfort. What makes a building green?

A lot of things. The U.S. Green Building Council looks at five areas. And they're about the site. So you're looking for a sustainable site. What does that mean? Reusing an existing building or water efficiency. Energy is also a big one. You can use renewable energy on your building. It would be everything from lighting to the heating and air-conditioning system, which is one of your biggest users.

The other issue is going to be the indoor air quality. There are a number of studies that show day lighting in schools improves test scores. ... Material and resources is another thing that we look at. You're looking for recycled products, if at all possible. The commercial furniture industry has actually been proactive as a whole in providing recycled furniture and other renewable types of services. Another one of the big things that is happening is that most commercial carpet is now made from recycled content. They either make it from recycled carpet or plastic bottles. Again, these are things that have happened in the last five years. It' s become more mainstream so there's no premium for it. It's just done that way. Why are businesses adopting more environmentally friendly standards? What has happened in the last five years?

The cost has become pretty much equal on the front end. On the back end it's always been better to do it this way because you're going to have lower energy costs. You also have higher worker retention and less absenteeism.

There's roughly a 35 percent lower energy cost in a LEED-registered building. So it's all good on the backside now.

Also, businesses are starting to look at the triple-bottom-line viewpoint. Where they're looking at not only dollars, but they're looking at their environmental footprint, they're looking at their social interaction with who they do business. A number of companies are not only providing annual reports, but they provide a sustainability report as well, which looks at environmental issues.

It's a differentiator in the marketplace as well as for people who are starting to look more for that - customers and other businesses. If you have a business that has adopted a sustainability program, then they're going to be looking for other businesses to support their sustainability plan. So there is an awful lot of economic reasons in addition to the environmental reasons and the social reasons to do these things. Does Al Gore have anything to do with that?

I think it does. I mean, I personally think that Al Gore was in the right place at the right time. And that the message needed to get out. And he's done a lot to get the message out so people are not willing to just let things go.

One of the things with USGBC is it's a third-party verification. So you can't just go out and say you have a green building. That's one of the reasons it was developed, because there was so many definitions out there and everybody was calling themselves green and nobody knew what that meant. So USGBC has developed a standard and said, "When you get certified as one of our buildings, this is what that means." What are the biggest gripes you hear from people about becoming environmentally friendly?

It starts off as a conversation about money. And it was true. There's good reason that's out there. Because not so long ago, there was a significant premium to build a LEED-registered building. It might have been a 10 percent premium. But because the market has transformed, because the products are there, because people are becoming familiar with the process, it's gone down and evened itself out.

Designers are also starting to understand the process. What I mean by that is the money is still spent, but it's spent differently. In traditional marketplace construction, you're going to have an architect and engineer. In the past they would design the building and then they would design the LEED portion of it. So they would take an existing building and transform it into a LEED building. Now that they understand there's a give-and-take, it moves the money around but the big bucket doesn't change. You might have more expensive windows but they're more energy-efficient. So you can actually be able to downsize your [heating, ventilating and air-conditioning] unit. The same thing with lighting. Lighting is actually a very large heat load on a building, so it costs you a lot of money on your air conditioner. Is it hard to convince people that the cost is not a hindrance?

There is still skepticism. But the data is continuing to get better. Originally, there wasn't enough data out there to have a convincing argument. It was always understood that it was a good idea in the life cycle. People would accept that relatively easily. But people said, 'I only have $10 million. I can't afford to pay $11 million even if I save $5 million later.' The people who control the building budget don't care how much it costs in the long run. Which expenses seem too high for businesses?

Once you get past that conversation we just had about how the money is going to be spent differently, the reluctance comes about actually doing it differently. Their first thing is it's going to cost too much. Well, once you kind of walk through that, you have to get through the resistance about doing something different. And that's just anything in life. How important is government involvement?

Government was probably one of the middle adopters. The first were the ones that were making a statement. Like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. If they weren't in a green building you'd be surprised. The government piece of it is very important from a leadership standpoint. And from another standpoint, of adding volume to the marketplace so people learn about it and it becomes more and more common practice. The government is a big buyer of almost anything. When they transform their purchasing practices it has a tendency to transform the rest of the market. If the government comes out and says, "I'm going to use it on every building that I buy," people are going to learn how to do it. And subsequently that brings the cost down. So they're bringing the volume to the market that brings the cost down. They're also bringing that leadership role and saying, "As a society, it's good for all of us to build to save energy." Do you ever get criticized for not pushing companies to do enough?

Not really. We're kind of struggling with USFGB in Baltimore because we had this explosive growth. We're just a small group of people absorbing the need. The desire now has become the challenge as opposed to getting the message out. Now that the message is out there, we have to be able to support it. How do companies balance having a green building with building profits?

You can actually get lower insurance rates on a LEED-registered building. There is also a lot of data out there that says production increases. And if you look at the life cycle of a building, that's your stock, the people who work there.

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