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Green builders find that location matters

Going beyond measuring a building's energy-efficiency, green builders are attempting to determine how much energy commuters use to reach that building. But quantifying how location affects carbon footprints has been a challenge.

February 03, 2011|By Julie Wernau
  • Experts say the ability to quantify the energy spent getting to and from a building could force businesses to reconsider what it means to be green.
Experts say the ability to quantify the energy spent getting to and from… (Chicago Tribune )

Reporting from Chicago — If you plop a green building in the middle of nowhere, is it still green?

That's exactly what businesses, sustainability experts and planners are trying to find out. The growing "green buildings" movement is taking a new direction with the development of computer models that go beyond measuring a building's carbon footprint and attempt to quantify the amount of energy people consume to reach that building.

Take electric utility Exelon Corp.'s uber-green headquarters in downtown Chicago, with its energy-efficient lighting, intelligent heating, ventilation and cooling systems that power down on command, and lights that shut off automatically when a room is unoccupied. If we could airlift that building to the Illinois suburb of Hoffman Estates, how green would it be?

A calculator developed recently by the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology shows that with Exelon in the downtown district, 55% of its employees take public transportation to work and a small percentage bike or walk. But in Hoffman Estates, where public transportation is scarce, 99% of those employees would drive to work, with only 10% carpooling.

The energy spent commuting to Hoffman Estates, measured in British thermal units, would double. And each employee would add 22.9 pounds of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere per day just getting to and from work there as opposed to 16.2 pounds to the Chicago site. (As a point of reference, cars emit about 25 pounds of carbon dioxide for every gallon of gas.)

Experts say the ability to quantify the energy spent getting to and from a building could force businesses to reconsider what it means to be green. Transportation emissions account for 29% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and the newly quantifiable data could spur development in urban areas served by public transportation.

Commutes to work matter, said Emma Stewart, senior manager for sustainability at Autodesk Inc., a San Rafael, Calif., maker of 3-D design software applications. Overall, one out of five trips and one out of four miles are traveled in commutes, according to Census Transportation Planning Products. For work, people fly to conferences, hail cabs on lunch breaks and drive to far-flung suburbs.

"This is a new frontier in carbon accounting," said Stewart, who is part of a separate effort to digitally map buildings and infrastructure like train lines for urban planning purposes. "The practice thus far has really been focused around direct emissions."

Indirect emissions such as travel emissions are harder to control, she said, but once quantified can be managed.

Autodesk is encouraging employees to teleconference to meetings, Stewart said, and has added the equipment to make that possible after measuring the kilowatt hours the company invested in transporting employees to events, conferences, expos and internal meetings.

"We now have 18 telepresence sites, 50 roundtable systems, and every employee has the right to a webcam," she said.

Opponents to the new green order are companies that have traditionally built in more remote areas because land is cheaper, said Martha VanGeem, head of Chicago-based CTLGroup's building science and sustainability practice.

VanGeem helped draft and develop the ASHRAE Standard 189.1, which is a system from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers that is similar to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, but in a format for building codes.

To be green, the ASHRAE standard requires that buildings be located in developed areas or within walking distance of at least 10 services (grocery stores, restaurants, banks, etc.), a train or subway station, a bus stop or apartments or condominiums.

Adding that standard was a fight, VanGeem said, particularly among large manufacturing companies.

"We're trying to reduce a building's footprint, but what we found is that commuters are having a bigger footprint than the buildings themselves a lot of times," she said. "So we have to focus on the commuters."

More than 60% of businesses leasing commercial office space (and the people who work for them) say a building's proximity to transportation is an important factor in their decision to lease space and for quality of life, according to a survey of managers and building occupants by McGraw-Hill Construction.

"It's kind of implicit in some things, right?" said Peter Hass, chief research scientist at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago. "When you get an apartment and it says, 'near the L,' for instance," he said, referring to Chicago's elevated railway, "they could charge more for rent. There's implicit value there."

But thus far, quantifying how location affects carbon footprints has been a challenge.

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