Green construction fails to save cash

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September 26, 2011

9:52 PM

There are times when we all want objects that we cannot afford. However, sometimes the simple fact of the matter is that we must economize.

In recent years, owners, contractors, architects and even the College have increasingly sought to build sustainably. Sure, the environment needs our help. A large part of the sustainability movement is in the green building boom. With six buildings on campus currently, or soon to be, LEED certified, the College is clearly being assertive in this regard.

This week, however, the United States stock market fell 6.4 percent; down to October 2008 mid-crisis levels. Worse still, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Saturday that the European debt crisis is “the most serious risk now confronting the world economy.” What little stability remains in the global economy is now crumbling as the value of money decreases.

In the public arena, cash is tight. Virginia is thankfully relatively stable, but that is not the norm. Is this the time to spend extra money to satisfy some hysterical hippies?

Yes, but not exactly for that reason. Construction premiums on green buildings have been averaged at less than 2 percent. A 2006 study found that simple utility savings over 20 years of life in a LEED-class building would be $7 per square foot — while added construction costs run approximately $3 per square foot. Done correctly, a little extra initial capital expenditure can return the investment exponentially over the lifespan of the building.

On a national scale, if enough buildings begin to significantly alter their energy usage, the market demand will change. A report released by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories noted that a 1 percent decrease in the national market demand for natural gas could lead to long-term price reductions from 0.8 percent to 2 percent. Additionally, electricity, water and building supplies could easily follow suit.

A March 2008 analysis of the green building movement found that while national averages for LEED construction provided encouraging figures, individual projects could be horribly scattered. The sustainable construction industry is inconsistent in its estimations of performance on an individual basis. In such instances, far more money is spent than is needed, or budgeted.

What are we left with? We cannot afford to spend carelessly, as we simply do not have the money. Green buildings can lead to significant savings over their lifespan. They are accompanied by other less quantifiable improvements, such as a decreased national market demand for energy units and psychological effects on building users. However, they can also be hidden cost traps if not planned thoroughly.

Unintelligent spending in environmental construction can be just as significant to the economy as strategic spending — but in opposite ways. Finding the appropriate line between these two significant forces is a difficult prospect. We, as a university and a country, must seek balance in our environmentalism, despite the fact that it is a new and continually evolving field. We must economize with our scarce financial resources — lending them to projects when due diligence has proven them worthy. This is not cruel or ruthlessly pragmatic. It is the tactic by which our actions will affect the most significant change.

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