Developers skeptical of benefits to going green

Nov. 1--Del Sur is going green.

Developers of the subdivision in Carmel Valley plan to install solar panels on 20 percent of the project's eventual 4,500 homes. The community's sales office/information center is the only building in San Diego County to achieve a LEED Platinum rating, the highest given by the U.S. Green Building Council for sustainable, energy-efficient design.

Yet when potential home buyers face the choice of paying $15,000 for solar panels or spending a similar amount on granite countertops, they almost always go with the granite, said Fred Maas, chief executive of Black Mountain Ranch LLC, the developer of the project.

This illustrates how advocates for green building -- perhaps the hottest trend in the construction industry -- still have some convincing to do.

The case for going green was the subject of a forum this week at the University of San Diego's Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate, which featured developers, builders, consultants and academics.

The conclusion of many of the speakers is that green building is getting easier as more contractors gain experience doing such projects. But many developers remain skeptical about whether the benefits pay off.

Homeowners worry about the aesthetics and maintenance of solar panels, Maas said. They're also concerned about paperwork hassles for government rebates and dealing with utilities.

Meanwhile, some commercial developers doubt they'll be able to charge high enough rents to recover the higher costs of constructing a building certified through LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. A LEED building can cost 1 percent to 7 percent more to construct than a non-LEED structure, according to current estimates.

Research is beginning to suggest the payoff exists for building green -- at least for commercial structures.

Norm Miller, a professor and director of academic programs at the Burnham-Moores Center, conducted a study that found green buildings nationwide enjoyed a substantially higher price when they sold than their nongreen counterparts -- in the range of 30 percent higher per square foot.

More work needs to be done on the study, which used data from real estate research firm CoStar of Maryland to compare Energy Star-rated buildings with non-Energy Star rated buildings, Miller said.

"The premium is outrageous and we're going to have to continue to study it," Miller said. "What this shows is nongreen buildings are going to go obsolete much faster today."

Energy Star is a voluntary program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Buildings achieve an Energy Star rating if they're in the top 25 percent for energy efficiency.

Miller's study, which focused on top-quality, multitenant office buildings, also found higher occupancy and rental rates in green structures. "Two years ago they were very close," he said. "Now they're starting to differentiate."

Although cars get the bulk of the blame for greenhouse gas emission, buildings have been getting more attention lately for their energy use.

Ed Mazria, a Santa Fe architect and founder of the Architecture 2030 movement -- which seeks to make buildings greenhouse gas neutral in the next 23 years -- said homes and commercial structures account for almost half of the energy consumption in the country, based on U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

That's because buildings are occupied for much longer than cars, said Mazria, who spoke at a different event in San Diego this week.

"The number I think is important is 43 percent of all greenhouse gas emission is attributed just to buildings -- the heating, lighting, cooling and plug load," he said.

Chris Day, a vice president at Swinerton Builders in San Diego, said the cost of green construction does not have to be significant if buildings are designed in an environmentally friendly way from the outset.

Moreover, Day thinks the benefit in increased employee productivity from such things as natural lighting and cleaner air will more than make up for any additional construction costs.

"What is going to make sustainable design and construction fly in the long term is the environment it creates for the people who work there," he said.

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