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April 20, 2007

Albemarle examines cost, benefits of green buildings

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Albemarle County is one of several dozen jurisdictions around the country that are beginning to change policies to make way for green building practices such as the LEED certification. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, was created by the U.S. Green Building Council to help measure the environmental impact of using such practices such as the use of recycled materials, and the use of better plumbing to eliminate the waste of water.

In December, the Albemarle County Planning Commission passed a resolution of intent to amend the comprehensive plan to encourage builders to adopt green techniques. County planner Sean Dougherty says the Board of Supervisors is generally supportive of green building practices, "as long as budgetary impacts are kept in check."  That resolution led to a February decision by the County Board of Supervisors to have its future public buildings be LEED certified.

20070320copcgreenLast March, the Commission heard from Jason Hartke, Manager of State and Local Advocacy at the U.S. Green Building Council. He told the commission LEED-certified buildings practices can reduce energy bills by up to thirty percent by reducing water use and preventing heat loss. In his presentation, Hartke addressed the costs of such benefits.

"We know that green buildings increase property value, they also decrease liability, but they also have a huge impact on health and well-being." He even says green buildings can increase productivity and reduce absenteeism by providing healthier places to work and learn. But, he told the commission the dollar value of such improvements are hard to quantify.

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To become LEED-certified, builders must use materials that are more expensive. Architects and engineers must also spend more time integrating the building practices into their designs. He points to a 2003 study produced by Greg Katz of the firm Capital E which says green buildings cost an average of 2 percent more than traditional methods. Hartke says the extra spending will pay dividends, with savings up to twenty percent of the construction costs over the lifetime of the building.

"An initial upfront investment of up to $100,000 to incorporate green building features into a five million dollar project would result in one million dollars over the life of the building," Hartke told the commission, reading from the Katz report. The report also demonstrates that LEED-certified buildings use 30 percent less energy.

The idea is catching on. Hartke said the General Services Administration is now requiring its new buildings to be LEED certified. He says ten other federal agencies now have similar requirements.

"But it's really the local level where there's been a laboratory of innovation," Hartke said. "More than twenty jurisdictions have developed incentives for the private sector, in the form of tax credits, density bonuses, expedited permit reviews, and grant programs."

"When folks have a public ordinance in terms of requiring LEED they usually see a lot of savings," says Hartke. He says San Diego has recently begun an initiative to push development towards the LEED-Gold status.

Sean Tubbs


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