Architects go for the green

Triangle architects are scrambling to pad their ranks with experts in green design as local developers ramp up plans for earth-friendly buildings.

In each of the past three years, seven Triangle projects have sought coveted green building distinctions from the U.S. Green Building Council. This year's tally is already up to eight. Six of them were added to the list last week.

The movement is why Raleigh-based JDavis Architects last week hired a Philadelphia-based director of sustainable design. And it's why architecture firm SFL&A acquired Raleigh-based Brown Architecture, known for its expertise in sustainable design.

"More of our clients are not only receptive to, but demanding, sustainable, green buildings," SFL&A president Robbie Ferris said.

In 2000, the U.S. Green Building Council established the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System to promote construction of buildings that are environmentally friendly and energy efficient.

Developers can earn points toward LEED certification by incorporating innovations such as recycled materials and systems that conserve water, and lighting that reduces dependence on heating and air conditioning systems.

When the LEED system was introduced, green buildings were seen as a novelty -- stuff for cutting-edge designers or feel-good public relations for developers. But in the past two years, as energy prices have ridden a roller coaster and as municipalities from Washington, D.C., to Chapel Hill have tried to legislate green development, more developers are getting on board.

"The day is coming very quickly when people are going to insist that what they buy be as environmentally benign as it can be," said Roger Perry, president of East West Partners, which is planning hundreds of green condominiums, shops, offices and hotel rooms in Chapel Hill.

The Triangle is home to half of the state's 12 LEED certified buildings. More than half of the 71 North Carolina buildings seeking LEED certification are in the Triangle. Eight of them were added to the list this year.

"It used to be sort of an interesting option, but now it's almost a mandate," said Marvin Malecha, dean of N.C. State University's College of Design. The college plans to add classes on sustainable design, and boost emphasis on the subject in existing classes.

In the past, developers paid closest attention to construction costs. Now they're paying more attention to the cost of operating buildings.

A 100,000-square-foot building without sustainable-design features might cost about $30 million to operate over 40 years, according to a case study by SFL&A. The same building with about $3.5 million in green design features could save the operator $8 million in utility costs over the same period, based on current energy prices.

That kind of thinking has become more popular with government agencies, which typical hold their investments longer than private developers and investors.

Indeed, all the LEED-certified buildings in the Triangle are owned by institutions. More are expected: Durham's human services complex will feature special windows that reflect heat and sun shades that help reduce the need for air-conditioning. Raleigh's new convention center is also seeking LEED certification.

More private developers are expected to enter the arena.

Greenfire Development last week said it is seeking LEED certification for the redevelopment of three buildings at the intersection of City Hall Plaza, Mangum and Parrish streets in downtown Durham. They could be the city's first privately owned commercial buildings that are LEED certified.

"It's a distinction people are looking for, not only in their buildings, but in their automobiles, in the clothing they wear," said Philip Freelon, president of The Freelon Group, the Durham firm designing the human services building. "There's been a heightened sensitivity to being good stewards to the environment. This is permeating through the general public and finding its way to the marketplace. It's here to stay."

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