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An Introduction to the Ecotastic World of Green Buildings

Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a home or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to tips@curbed.com. Today's topic: green buildings!

Green buildings, whether we're aware of it or not, are becoming much more common. In fact, in New York City, constructing a new building to the sustainable standard of LEED has become "like putting a gym in a building," says Rick Cook, a founding principal of the architecture firm COOKFOX. "It doesn't cost much more, so you just do it because someone might want it." Still, a lot of questions about green buildings remain.

What do the different sets of standards mean? What are common features of sustainable buildings? How does a green building affect its occupants? Where and when do owners or residents see cost savings? To answer these questions, we consulted dozens of online resources and studies and talked with Cook, whose firm is dedicated to eco-friendly design. They are responsible many sustainable projects in NYC, including the world's first LEED Platinum commercial skyscraper, the Bank of America Tower, and the first ever LEED Platinum project in New York State, their very own offices. Green building is an extremely broad topic, so we're breaking it down into two parts. Today, we'll talk about the different types and features, and next week, we'll dive into the cost-saving benefits.

Types of Green Buildings In NYC
There are a lot of different standards for green building, but we're going to stick with just three that have been used in New York.

The most common is LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a standard created by the U.S. Green Building Council. According to Cook, "LEED is far and away the best standard for determining how green a building is." A multitude of things are taken into consideration, from how materials are transported to and from the site to what types of appliances are installed to where the building is located. There are three levels?Silver, Gold, and Platinum (bet you can figure out which is the highest)?and buildings are assessed on a 110-point system (for homes, its 136 points). Some elements, like locating the building in an area that does not adversely affect wildlife or wetlands, are required, but for most things, buildings can score points. For instance, a building can earn up to 7 points for reducing dependency on cars, which is as simple as being close to a subway stop.

Another type of sustainable building we're seeing more of in NYC is the Passive House. A passive house is an extremely well-insulated building that's virtually airtight and uses 90 percent less energy to heat and cool. They are primarily heated by solar heat gain and the people/stuff inside them, and energy loss is extremely low, as you can see by the above thermal image of NYC's first certified passive house. The passive house is blue because it's giving off very little residual heat, while the neighbors are red and yellow because they are leaking heat like crazy. High performance triple-glazed windows, super-insulation, and an airtight building shell are a few of the main elements of the comprehensive Passive House methodology. To be certified as a true Passive House, a building must meet strict energy requirements; the numbers don't really mean anything to us, but you can check them out here, if that's your thing.

The final building standard we'll mention is the Living Building Challenge, which is the toughest green standard out there because of its strict water and energy requirements. EcoBrooklyn notes that in many places, it's violates building codes because it calls for net zero water usage, which is near impossible if a building is required to be connected to the water lines and sewer system. The standard was created by the Living Future Institute, which says an LBC-certified building is "designed and constructed to function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower." It is "informed by its bioregion's characteristics," "generates all of its own energy with renewable resources," and "captures and treats all of its water." Basically, it's a living building. See what we did there? It takes about 14-16 months to go through the certification process because the buildings need to measure their water and energy usage, and very few buildings have been certified. But COOKFOX is hoping to bring the first LBC building to NYC. The firm is constructing a composting restroom in Riverside Park according to the LBC standards.

Common Features In Green Residential Buildings
Now that we've talked about the different types of green buildings, let's move on to common features for sustainable buildings, particularly those in New York City. To keep this relatively simple, we'll stick to residential buildings. Let's start with the things people can actually see and experience:
· Low-flow bathroom fixtures
· Local or sustainably-made materials, like bamboo anything (bamboo is one of the most sustainable resources available), recycled glass bathroom tiles, countertops made from recycled anything (there are a lot of options)
· Energy Star appliances
· Energy-efficient lighting (LEDs and CFLs), which is now pretty much the standard everywhere since incandescent light bulbs are being phased out.
· Any type of planted outdoor space, whether it's a green roof, terrace, or even landscaping on the ground level. All of these help to absorb rainwater runoff and reduce solar heat gain.
· Optimal natural light. Not only do people prefer natural light to artificial, but this will reduce the need to turn on lights and can help warm a space in cooler months.

Now onto the less noticeable, but just as important features:
· Efficient heating and cooling systems. In NYC, the energy code is actually very agressive, so all new buildings, LEED-seeking or not, have efficient HVAC systems. New laws also now require older buildings to replace aging boilers that use dirty heating oils.
· Sustainable construction practices. This includes how the materials are transported to the site, recycling procedures, and what types of materials are used. For example, using concrete that contains fly ash instead of cement can significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air. If you're thinking "WTF is fly ash," you can learn more here. Short story: it's an eco-friendly cement substitute. The first developer to use it in NYC was the Albanese Organization in Battery Park City (they completed the country's first sustainable residential building in 2003), and since then, it's become pretty common (Gary Barnett and the Durst Organization?two developers COOKFOX has worked with?both use it).
· Materials with low VOCs. Now you're thinking, "WTF is a VOC?" It's a volatile organic compound, aka bad chemicals. Everything from carpet to upholstery to paint can contain them, and they are released into the air as silent killers (That new car smell? Yeah, that's just a bunch of poison). As green building has become more common, more and more companies now make low-VOC versions of their products. However, if a LEED-seeking building uses the traditional materials, an off-gassing period is required before people can occupy the space.
· Energy production. It's still pretty uncommon for residential buildings in NYC to be topped with solar panels or wind turbines (aside from the Solaire, pictured above), but there are plenty of commercial buildings in the city that utilize natural resources for energy. Just to name a few: the Solaire has solar panels built into its facade, IKEA in Brooklyn has a huge solar array, and the new Brooklyn Botanic Garden visitor's center uses geothermal energy. However, the DOB is working to make it easier for buildings and homeowners to install solar power equipment.

So how do these features affect residents? In what specific ways do you see or experience changes?
For starters, residents of sustainable buildings will have lower energy bills, as the appliances and systems will consume less energy. If the building happens to generate some of its own power, even better. Physically, the light and air in the apartment will be better. Cook says that the biggest difference is the quality of the air. Green buildings have more efficient heating and cooling systems, so they are less noisy and produce better air than through-wall systems. Cook also stressed that it's a different, more thoughtful process that goes into creating a green building, so the management will likely be more conscientious. "Anything that requires a developer to adhere to a set of standards is going to take more time and effort," Cook says. Therefore, the parties involved will inherently have a different attitude about the way a place should operate.

[Graphic from the WGBC study]

Now that we're familiar with types of green buildings and common features, how does the cost of all this compare to the cost of traditional building?
The World Green Building Council recently put out an excellent study that details the cost savings of green buildings, which we will dive into next week as Part Two of this Curbed U topic. But for now, we will say this: Cost is a tricky question. The cost of a green building, like the cost of any building, is inextricably linked to the quality of the space you want to create. If you want to build a beautiful, well-made space?green or not green?it's going to cost more than the cheapest, fastest option. According to Cook, construction of a well-made green building costs only fractionally more than building a well-made non-green building.

In Cook's experience, a developer's decision to build green doesn't necessarily hinge on whether or not it's going to cost more. It's more about a person's attitude, as cliched as that sounds. They need to want to build a better building. You'll probably never convince the slap-dash, make-money-quick people (not that we're naming names) to invest the time to construct a sustainable building.
· COOKFOX [official]
· LEED certification [usgbc.org]
· The Business Case for Green Buildings [official PDF study]
· All Curbed University [Curbed]