Rethinking sustainability: A greener Grand Rapids starts from the ground up

As environmental calamity looms ever closer in the future, building green is one way the City, local businesses, and nonprofits can work to help turn the tide.
In 2006, local media proclaimed the Grand Rapids area as the Green Building Capitol, the region leading the nation in the number of LEED Certified buildings. An August 3, 2006 Rapid Growth story stated “the U.S. Green Building Council estimates that metro Grand Rapids now has more square footage per capita under LEED certification than any other city in the United States.”

Fast forward to 2017. The current US Green Building Council website doesn’t offer a top cities list, but the top ten states recognized do not include Michigan. Although the rest of the nation has caught up, the early push from a decade ago has solidly changed the area’s building paradigm.

A greener Grand Rapids

One example, the City of Grand Rapids now employs a sustainability manager. “Look at the number of firsts that Grand Rapids had,” says Alison Waske Sutter, who has held the position since September. “Grand Rapids had the first LEED Certified bus station (Rapid Central Bus Station), the first LEED certified museum (Grand Rapids Art Museum), and the first LEED Certified brewery (Brewery Vivant).”

Sutter is excited about the City’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, established last August. The program provides building owners with long-term, fixed-interest loans financed by private lenders. The loans can be used to improve energy efficiency or install renewable energy features. Money saved on utilities and operating costs repays the loans. And, Grand Rapids won the ESC 2017 Leadership in Energy Efficiency Award from the Energy Services Coalition Michigan Chapter for energy efficiency in its Lake Michigan Filtration Plant that provides potable water from Lake Michigan to City residents.

Alison Waske Sutter

“I think that the city, its private business owners, and nonprofits are very committed to green buildings,” Sutter says. “The community understands how resource-intensive the building sector is. When looking to make reductions, you are going to focus on your building stock.”

She also sees Grand Rapids’ downtown 2030 District designation as a bold step towards increasing sustainability measures in building stock. Initiated in Seattle in 2011, 2030 Districts create private/public partnerships that seek to reduce energy use, water use, and transportation emissions. Grand Rapids’ 2030 District encompasses more than 60 buildings in downtown Grand Rapids, approximately 10 million square feet of downtown real estate.

“We have two City goals in our sustainability plan for fiscal ‘17 through '21,” Sutter says. “One, we as a city seek to have 100 percent of energy from renewable sources for our own city operations. I'm really focused on moving us to that by 2025. The second goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 25 percent—compared to 2009—by 2021.”

Greening the industry

In many local architecture and construction management firms, experts in sustainable building practices not only oversee LEED certified projects but ensure that green building practices are utilized whenever a client wishes or cost efficiencies allow.

Aaron Jenks, Architectural and Sustainability Manager for Triangle Inc., manages a staff of three that reviews every job that comes in and advises on sustainability measures. In addition, he keeps the company up-to-speed with the latest green techniques and LEED requirements as well as local sources for green building materials—so fuel use for shipping materials is reduced.

“We realize that building sustainably is not only important for the community but also saves us money and helps the environment at the same time,” he says. “I think green industry is natural design. It’s the way you should design a building. It’s good practice.”
Bill Wood, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Council (WMEAC) sees the “triple bottom-line” philosophy of approaching environmental concerns in a way that benefits people, planet, and profit as being an effective tool for the West Michigan business mindset. The trick is ensuring that people and planet are given the same weight as profit. “In theory, if all are given same weight, we should be forcing ourselves to achieve that balance. We can work within that framework, it’s the only one that will work in a place like Grand Rapids that is rapidly growing.”

Like Jenks, Wood sees building materials as an important part of building green. Sourcing products from sustainably managed forests and finding manufacturers who do not use industrial pollutants not only reduces impact on the environment but also creates a healthier built environment.

“Grand Rapids has been ahead of the curve for a long time. The curve may have caught up with us. At one time, we were a country leader. I feel were not as out-in-front as we were, although it is still critical for us,” Wood says. “The best way to get there is the low hanging fruit. That makes things like LEED or Energy Star important, to adopt these as the norm. If we are going to keep trending to this low-energy footprint, we need to keep doing it and increase it.”

At home with green

Before coming to work for WMEAC, Wood worked for Habitat for Humanity in Pennsylvania. There, he worked on a project for veterans that intentionally used building materials free of chemicals so as not to exacerbate medical conditions brought on by chemical exposures during tours of duty. For example, the homes utilized low-VOC paints and carpets that did not off-gas chemicals.

Bill Wood in front of WMEAC, which has a LEED certified building.

Brett Little, executive director of the GreenHome Institute, believes that the residential building sector is as important to sustainability as the business and industrial sectors when it comes to green building. “A lot of people moving here are demanding green homes or trying to find a builder of architect to work with,” he says. “Currently, these are hard to find or overpriced.”

Little cites studies showing that owners of energy efficient homes are 30 percent less likely to default on home mortgages, LEED certified homes have higher resale values, and sellers who disclose utility data sell their homes faster. He feels demand for green homes outweighs supply in the Grand Rapids area. The GreenHome Institute website lists local firms who are designing and building green.

As environmental calamity looms ever closer in the future, building green is one way the City, local businesses, and nonprofits can work to help turn the tide. “Here in West Michigan, there is a commitment to sustainability. The business community follows in the City’s footsteps so we try to be as innovative as possible,” Sutter concludes. “It’s about reduced costs and great impacts for quality of life.”

“Constructing the future” is a new 12-part series from Rapid Growth that will explore issues facing, and related to, West Michigan’s construction industry and the numerous organizations, trends, and innovations seeking to create positive advances in our community. The series is sponsored by Triangle Associates, a West Michigan-based construction company that provides construction management, design/build services, general contracting, integrated project delivery, and more to projects locally and across the country.

A working writer since 1992, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness and the arts. Stelle serves as communications manager for Our Kitchen Table and chairs the City of Wyoming Tree Commission (The Tree Amigos). You can contact Stelle at [email protected] or via her website,

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio
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