The Green Goddess

Recent fads have people goin’ green in nearly every direction, from cars to dry-cleaning, but now enviromentalists have set their sights on something bigger: buildings.

Under a push from forner District 10 Councilman Chip Haass, the City Council passed an ordinance last April that requires all new City-owned buildings to receive at least a LEED Silver rating — no small feat by any standard. The decision means higher construction expenses but a significant decrease in utility fees, which costs the city on average nearly 2 million a month.

LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification system sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council. Certified structures may receive Silver, Gold, and Platinum ratings depending on their designated score.

Two local architectural firms recently proved the city’s decision plausible. In mid-May, San Antonio-based O’Neil Conrad Oppelt Architects and Alamo Architects opened the city’s first “green” architects’ office. Though the two firms still await the USGBC’s official certification, they have met the basic requirements.

“We may get Silver,” said Mickey Conrad, part owner of OCO. “It takes a couple of years to get certified. There’s a lot of background data to submit.”

The compound scored well on the LEED checklist by sustaining the natural landscape as much as possible, employing recycled materials, and capturing sunlight rather than relying on artificial light fixtures. It also features a rainwater-collection tank for lawn irrigation.

“They’re just common-sense principles that we’ve been using for years: Energy, water, and material conservation,” said Conrad.

The recent demand for recycled building materials has spurred a whole new industry aimed at curbing the more than 3 billion tons of raw materials used every year for construction. In order to score well with the USGBC, builders must construct with materials that are not only salvaged but also composed of renewable sources, manufactured with resource-efficient processes, locally produced, non-toxic, and durable.

“We’re learning to reuse what in the past has been scrapped,” said John Malitz, contractor for the Alamo/OCO project. “It’s a relatively new process and we’re going to go through a huge learning curve.”

The green office building takes transportation conservation beyond just carpooling. Special, closer parking places for hybrid cars are added as an incentive for employees to trade in gas-guzzling autos. Not everyone can afford a vehicle, so LEED developers also take into account the availability of public transportation.

Though the LEED principles look good on paper, many builders aren’t used to such highly regulated conservation methods. Some in the field even see the city’s decision as impossible, stating that the rise in building standards is too steep.

“Well the obvious statement is that it’s great,” said Julian Alonso, president of the real-estate and development company Riosol Partners Ltd. “It looks nice, people seem to like it. But I don’t see it happening on the large scale anytime soon. We’re still many years from it.”

Conrad remains optimistic, firmly believing the City will meet its goal.

“It’s a very noble venture, `the City` needs to make an example. It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but like all things you just need to practice it,” said Conrad. “For generations to come, it’s going to pay off.”

— GG

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