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Green is the New Black

Tax breaks, lower electric bills, impressed customers -- companies are finding plenty of benefits in greening up their buildings. And it's not that hard.
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A few years ago, Chuck Richards began to make plans to double the size of his health club, the Sunset Athletic Club in Portland, Oreg. In addition to adding 55,000 square feet, Richards wanted to explore transforming the gym into a green building, a structure that's healthier for the people in it and for the environment. He did his reading on the subject and learned enough to assure himself that the move would be good for him economically -- especially when it turned out that he could get state tax credits for energy conservation. Even so, Richards was shocked when a local green building consultant estimated the energy cost savings the remodeled building would realize after five years -- close to $1 million. "It was a really big number," he says. "Something I wouldn't have expected to reach for at least 10 years out."

From the floors to the ceiling, the Sunset Athletic Club is now filled with ecofriendly modifications. Recycled paints cover the walls, and the floors are composed of recycled rubber. Most of the gym is insulated with UltraTouch, a nontoxic and flame-retardant material made from recycled cotton denim and T-shirts. Light sensors overhead automatically turn the gym lights on and off based on the amount of sunlight streaming in from its large windows.

Conserving electricity is one of the key elements of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. These voluntary standards, available on usgbc.org, measure how green a building is by providing target levels of energy use, water use, waste generation, and more. Some states -- Maryland, New York, and Oregon among them -- are already beginning to offer tax advantages to companies that get certified, and other states may soon follow.

In October, the council released a new set of standards, the LEED-EB, for greening up existing buildings while leaving most of the interior and exterior unchanged. The New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colo., was one of the first companies to rework a building in accordance with the new EB standards. New Belgium made changes to its facilities so that heat created by its brewing process is captured and reused to heat water for making beer. "We're closing energy loops," says New Belgium's sustainability director, Hillary Mizia. "That's the principle behind everything we do."

To that end, the company treated its windows with a low-emission glaze that reflects long-wave heat rays in sunlight. As a result, the offices stay cool in the summer using less air conditioning. It also retrofitted some of its windows with so-called sun shelves or light shelves. Made of perforated metal and painted white, the shelves sit under the top fourth of the windows (like a higher window sill). They can bring up to 50% additional daylight into a space when placed on south-facing windows.

But the addition of a green roof didn't work as well for New Belgium as anticipated. Covering a building's roof with plants can reduce storm water runoff and keep a building cooler. But green roofs are difficult to install, especially on existing buildings that weren't designed to support the extra weight of watered plants. Not long after it was finished, New Belgium's sod roof -- made of native grass and thick, leafy plants called seedum -- started turning brown. The liner under the soil had sprung a leak and rainwater was draining away. Still, CEO Kim Jordan and her staff have decided to try again.

The roof is being redesigned, and Jordan expects it will be looking green again by fall.

In the meantime, Jordan is continuing to look for new ways to eliminate waste at New Belgium. It's an important issue to her employees, and they like dreaming up imaginative solutions. "I often joke that we're going to make six-pack carriers that you can eat after you drink the beer," says Jordan. That way it doesn't end up in landfills and, she adds, you don't get a hangover. Edible beer carriers might be a long way off, but the green technology at New Belgium is already having an impact, attracting more environmentally conscious talent and customers. "It speaks to what New Belgium is as an entity," says Jordan.

Richards says he's getting a good response from his employees and customers too. Plus, his monthly energy bills are 40% of what they would have been in a conventional building of the same size. "We let our members know about this, we talk about it," he says. "There's a pride we all have in what we're doing."

Looking to green up your building?

Here are a few inexpensive ways

Walls Chuck Richards painted his walls with a product from MetroPaint, a regional government program in Oregon that recycles leftover latex paint. An even greener option is organic paint from companies such as AFM, BioShield, and Dunn-Edwards. It costs only a few dollars more per gallon than conventional latex-based paint, emits fewer noxious fumes, and is biodegradable.

Floors Sunshine Athletic Club has flooring made from recycled tires. Another green option is using carpet tiles from companies such as Interface and Avalon, made from recycled carpets or recycled plastics. Individual tiles can be replaced when they become worn without ripping up and discarding the whole floor. Other green flooring ideas include formaldehyde-free wool carpets from Nature's Carpets and bamboo flooring, which is more plentiful and grows faster than trees. It's also less expensive than wood.

Furniture Another easy way to go green is with the type of office furniture you buy. Companies such as Herman Miller, Baltix, and Formway offer durable products made from recycled or recyclable materials. Baltix's Ecobuzz workstations, for example, are nontoxic and made from sunflower hulls, soybeans, and wheat straw.




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