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New 'Green' Office Buildings Put the 'Eco' in Economical

Toyota's complex shows how companies can tap technology to benefit the environment -- and not break the bank.

March 30, 2003|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

In the commercial real estate world, environmentally friendly buildings are getting a boost from a new reality about the bottom line: It doesn't take a lot of green to be green anymore.

Environmentalists have been pushing so-called green construction since before the first Earth Day in 1970. But until recently, most mainstream commercial builders and their clients were uninterested, put off by technology that was cumbersome, unreliable and -- the real deal breaker -- expensive.

"We're a very practical nation," said architect Dan Heinfeld of Irvine-based LPA. "As soon as you're telling people something costs more, it goes against their basic grain."

Toyota Motor Corp. was no exception. The Japanese automaker wanted to make a statement about its commitment to producing clean, fuel-efficient vehicles, but it was unwilling to spend substantially more to make its sprawling new complex on Western Avenue in Torrance easy on the environment.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
Green building -- An article on environmentally friendly construction in Sunday's Business section incorrectly identified Robert Pitts as vice president of administrative services at architecture firm LPA. He holds that title at Toyota Motor Corp. The story also said the Natural Resources Defense Council building nearing completion in Santa Monica would be the first "platinum"-certified green building in the U.S. There are such buildings in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Barbara.

Then it discovered something remarkable: It didn't have to.

"The cost didn't go up appreciably" to make the two low-rise buildings among the country's "greenest" commercial structures, said Robert Pitts, vice president of administrative services at LPA, which designed the Toyota buildings. "It was definitely reasonable."

In fact, the $87-million price tag was roughly equivalent to that for good-quality steel-frame buildings, said Richard Vishanoff, chief managing editor of Marshall & Swift, a construction cost services provider.

How kind to the environment is the Toyota complex? For one thing, the materials used to build it -- from the foundation to the ceiling tiles -- contain an average of 50% recycled content.

Standard fluorescent tubes illuminate the interiors, but the light bounces off the ceiling first; such indirect lighting uses less power than traditional parabolic lighting if it's evenly dispersed. It's also more pleasant, especially for people working on computers. And all the lights are controlled by motion sensors or time clocks to conserve electricity.

Fresh Ideas, Used Water

Heat and air conditioning are provided by a natural-gas- powered system that circulates hot or cold water through pipes in the ceilings in the 624,000-square-foot complex. The system was slightly more expensive than traditional rooftop heating and cooling units, said Toyota real estate manager Sanford Smith, but it uses significantly less energy and doesn't emit chlorofluorocarbons or other gases associated with damage to the ozone layer.

What's more, air conditioning won't be a huge power sapper even on the hottest days, because windows are large on the north and south sides of the buildings but small on the east and west sides, which get the most direct sunlight.

In the restrooms, toilets flush with recycled water. Urinals in some of the men's restrooms operate with special chemical treatment systems and save energy by not flushing at all.

Toyota spent $700,000 for a connection to the West Basin Municipal Water District pipeline that brings in used water not only for the toilets but also to irrigate drought-tolerant landscaping on the 165-acre campus. Used water, which has been treated but isn't drinkable, is 30% cheaper than fresh water, Smith noted.

Then there's the crowning glory: what Toyota says is the country's largest privately owned rooftop photovoltaic power collection system. It can generate 500 kilowatts of electricity, or about 20% of the buildings' total energy demand. And the longer the sun is shining, the more power is produced -- meaning Toyota has to tap that much less from the state electricity grid.

"We're at our most efficient in the summertime, when California has its greatest demand for energy," architect Heinfeld said. "It's a peak-shaving device."

It will take about seven years for savings from the photovoltaic system to pay off its $1.5-million cost, said real estate manager Smith, adding that "after that, we'll be making money."

Money -- actually, mostly a desire by building owners not to spend too much of it -- drives commercial real estate construction. So it's a boon for environmentalists that building "green" is not as expensive as it once was.

The building supply industry has grown to appreciate the cost-effectiveness of recycled products, which these days are almost commonplace. Carpet fibers and ceramic floor tiles are made with recycled glass, for example, and paving materials include ground-up concrete that was first poured years ago.

"Five years ago, you couldn't find 10% of products that were recycled," Heinfeld said. "It's about 50% to 60% now and may be 90% in the next few years."

Certified 'Green'

The Green Building Council, a 9-year-old coalition of environmentally conscious building industry leaders, has deemed the Toyota office complex eligible for its "gold"-level certification. A decision is expected by next month.

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