When bank executive Gary J. Saulson told his project team that he wanted to turn a partly constructed operations center in Pittsburgh into a "green" building, they called him "well-intentioned" -- but "crazy."
Five years later, no one is questioning Saulson's sanity. Thanks to mid-course changes in the building's design, materials, lighting and heating and cooling systems, the 647,000-square-foot steel, stone and curved glass structure overlooking the Monongahela River spends $1.5 million a year on utilities -- 26 percent less per square foot than one of the bank's comparable standard buildings.
Today, Saulson, director of corporate real estate for PNC Financial Services Group Inc., is overseeing the construction of new "green" PNC branches.
Not so crazy anymore
Green construction and renovation techniques are spreading in the commercial real estate industry. Innovations -- such as sun-reflecting ceramic dots in windows, giant vats of ice for overnight energy storage, plant-covered rooftops, bigger eaves and compact fluorescent lighting -- are being used in structures ranging from an unassuming PNC branch that opened last month in Ashburn to the new Bank of America building that will soon be New York City's second-tallest skyscraper. The new designs have been spurred not only by concerns for the environment but also by the cold, hard calculation of the potential savings in energy bills.
"It's prudent on many levels," said Kathy Barnes, senior vice president for property management at Akridge, which has 18 commercial buildings in the Washington area. "We all have a civic responsibility." And, she added, "if we're not doing it, we're not going to be competitive in the marketplace."
Commercial buildings devour more than a third of the nation's electricity. During heat waves like the one this week, they often rely on auxiliary generators that are less efficient and more polluting than electricity on the grid.
While industrial use of electricity has flattened over the past decade, consumption by commercial buildings has risen about 4 percent a year, according to the Energy Information Administration. Energy-efficiency experts say that better construction techniques, new energy saving devices and smarter management can reduce electricity consumption by 20 percent in older commercial buildings and up to 50 percent in new ones, vastly reducing air pollution and utility bills.
"We can do a lot," said Quilian Riano, who works with a group called Architecture 2030. By 2035, virtually all commercial buildings will be new or renovated. "Are they going to be energy hogs or are they going to be different?" he said.
Greening a new NYC landmark
Perhaps the flashiest green building will be the 945-foot Bank of America tower under construction on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. Architect Robert Fox used a computer model to determine the energy effects of altering the walls, ceilings, mechanical devices and other parts of the 2.2 million square foot building.
As these techniques become more common, costs are falling. Fox said "greening" the tower will add just 2 percent to its $1.3 billion cost.
"One of the more important things is to understand how your building acts," Fox said. "It's not just a matter of how much insulation you use." Central to the energy efficiency of the building is a 5 megawatt cogeneration unit that will recapture energy from the heat that goes up the building's chimney, cutting energy costs 40 percent.
Fox made the ceilings about a foot higher than in most office buildings to let in more sunlight and reduce lighting costs. Interior lights typically account for 20 to 30 percent of energy use, according to a Harvard Business Review article by consultant Charles Lockwood, because they use electricity and generate heat that boosts air conditioning needs.
To keep the sun from overheating the building through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, Fox is using double-paned glass with tiny dots of ceramic baked to the inside surface to reflect the sun's rays. The dots will be dense toward the floor and ceiling, and unnoticeable at eye level.
The building will also have LED lighting and an under-the-floor ventilation system that will give individual employees more control over the temperature at their work spaces.
"Our goal is to absolutely consume the least amount of power," Fox said. Two things he rejected were a windmill at the top of the building and solar panels. The windmill wasn't economical and the dark solar panels didn't match the transparent look of the tower, he said.
Remodeling the green way
Owners of older buildings are also looking for ways to save energy. An Akridge official said that after real estate taxes, utilities are the most expensive component of operating a building with costs ranging from $2.60 to $2.85 a square foot, up from $1.75 five years ago.
So last year Akridge budgeted $20,000 for energy-saving measures in each of its buildings, and it aims to cut electricity consumption by 5 percent this year. It has changed the ballasts that drive fluorescent tubes with more efficient ones, replaced the 40-watt bulbs in exit signs with LEDs that use as little as six watts, wrapped blankets around water heaters, and installed motion sensors that turn off the lights when rooms are empty. With thousands of fixtures in a building, the savings add up, said Barnes, the Akridge manager.
A lot of energy-saving technology has improved, she said. For example, motion sensors are more reliable and less ugly, she said, and "now we can put them in a rest room without worrying about someone being left in the dark."
Akridge this year bought a $9,000 infrared camera so it could monitor heat lost from its buildings in winter and plug the escape routes.
Akridge has also shut off equipment that sucks up electricity without serving much purpose. It turns down some heating and cooling systems half an hour earlier, which has no effect on office climate until after most people have gone home. If hardworking lawyers come in on the weekend, a system linked to their keys will provide ventilation specifically for those zones.
No ordinary garden
Akridge rejected new windows or heat-blocking filters on existing windows as too expensive. But Patrick Clugston of Eastern Metallizing Inc. said that putting sun-filtering film on windows can pay off in 14 to 24 months. He said his firm has done that for the American Institute of Architects, the National Geographic Society and World Bank.
Black rooftops can waste energy. Fox's firm is going to put plants on the roof outside its penthouse New York office. On Thursday afternoon it measured the temperature on the roof: At 2:30, the average reading was 174 degrees. A green roof is rarely hotter than 100.
After its Pittsburgh operations center went up, PNC began erecting green bank branches; it opened its 23rd on July 19 in Ashburn. Saulson said that each 3,650-square foot PNC branch costs $1.3 million to $1.4 million, at least $100,000 less than those built by competitors.
The branches use about 45 percent less energy than those of similar size elsewhere, taking advantage of natural light, sun shades and big eaves. "We build the building around the windows," Saulson said. The branches are modular and can face any direction, depending on the orientation of a site. In some places, college architecture classes have visited. "These are things you wouldn't necessarily associate with a bank branch," Saulson said.
Fox said green buildings can be healthier and more comfortable for employees, too, because they use different air filters, carpeting material and furniture. His firm is looking at redesigning a building in South Korea and it is designing a green apartment building that the Louis Dreyfus Group is planning at Second and H streets NE in the District.
"The corporate world is catching on real fast," Fox said. "They understand the financial benefit but they also see this as the right corporate model. Stockholders are asking them what they are doing about climate change. When you get a blank stare from the CEO, that's a problem."