Welcome to Green Building Capital, USA

Think about Grand Rapids-area architecture. A lot of new construction is going on. There are so many cranes overlooking downtown today, you’d think we were living in Beijing.

Let’s look a little closer at some of these glamorous attention getters: certainly, The Lacks Cancer Center. The Rapids' Central Station. The new Metropolitan Hospital. But also, look at some smaller projects: The Helmus Building. Keystone Community Church. The East Hills Center (of the Universe.). What do all these destinations have in common?

One thing they have in common is that all are certified, or are seeking to be certified, by the U.S. Green Building Council as embodying characteristics that make them “green.” Greater Grand Rapids, as it turns out, has an extraordinary number of certifiably green buildings, and so does the West Michigan region as a whole. How did this come about, and what is the meaning of it?

The U.S. Green Building Council manages a program titled “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design,” or LEED, which since the mid-1990’s has evaluated such buildings and honored the ones that meet its tough standards. LEED buildings began going up regionally as far back as 1995 with the groundbreaking for Herman Miller’s famous “GreenHouse” building, designed by architect William McDonough. The first LEED-certified building inside the city limits of Grand Rapids was the Helmus Building, renovated by Bazzani Associates in 2003.

Not all the certified structures are new construction. The Helmus Building was built in 1918. It turns a well-preserved face to Wealthy Street, hardly distinguishable at a glance from any other historical commercial building of the period. The environmental features are mostly the result of Bazzani’s thorough and well thought-out retrofit.

With area manufacturers like Herman Miller and Steelcase leading the way, LEED design gained favor locally as a way to demonstrate commitment to values of efficiency and environmental concern. In that sense, Grand Rapids surfs the same big wave that is carrying LEED construction projects to completion all over the country.

But a remarkable burst of LEED participation has occurred here as in few other places. In fact, 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.

The Anatomy of a Green Building
Much of the credit for this fact undoubtedly must go to philanthropist and Steelcase heir Peter Wege, who has donated large sums over the years for environmental and conservation causes. Whether Wege foresaw that he could set Grand Rapids on the road to leadership in LEED, who can say? And certainly he didn’t do it all alone.

But he went out of his way to make LEED certification a condition of his support for a number of important local building projects, of which the new Grand Rapids Art Museum is only the latest and greatest. In so doing, he taught a lot of investors and developers the benefits of going green and striving to achieve sustainability.

One of the things I like about LEED buildings in our neck of the woods is that, typically, they don’t wear their green credentials on their sleeve, if you will. You may have to nose around them a while before you notice anything different about them. There are no windmills towering over them, and generally there is not a solar panel anywhere to be seen. Where environmental buildings over the last generation have normally fashioned themselves very deliberately after yurts, buckyballs, igloos, lunar modules, or other examples of the overly theoretical and barely livable, today’s buildings are arresting in their ordinariness.

My own office space in the East Hills Center is the example I know the most about. There are a few clever gimmicks there you might not see elsewhere, like water-saving dual-flush toilets and lighting that senses the ambient daylight. But in general they work by making smart use of proven, off-the-shelf technologies that blend right in. The HVAC systems and kitchen appliances are fairly standard Energy Star products, as are the office electronics. The light shelf is a passive architectural feature: designed expressly for our latitude, it spreads natural daylight throughout our space while reducing heat intake in summer, increasing it in winter. The chairs and tables in our offices are made largely from local resources and products, and represent the work of furniture manufacturers from throughout the region.

The most remarkable visual feature of my building doesn’t reveal itself until you go up on the roof and see the garden in full bloom. This feature, which incorporates relatively cheaply into LEED buildings, links with a rain garden adjacent to the parking lot and treats, for free, all the rainwater that falls on our site.

Dollars and Sense
All this is very well and very clever, you might say, but what use is it and why should I do it? Before last season’s big price spikes in natural gas and coal, I sometimes had to explain laboriously why conserving was not just personal virtue but might just make economic sense as well. Now, by contrast, there’s not much need for these kinds of explanations. Is there?

Not to rub it in, but just to drive the point home: I’m probably paying about half, on average, the price being paid per square foot for heat and light by my peer tenants in commercial office space. To enjoy this estimable result, we don’t pile bales of straw around the walls and we don’t dress for the seasons – any more than anybody else. If we get cold we turn up the furnace. If we get too warm, we turn on the air.

By the way, there’s nothing wrong with a little personal virtue, either. Forty-eight per cent of our national energy bill is bound up in the heating, cooling, lighting, construction, and operation of our buildings. A significant reduction in use, or a shift to alternative and renewable energy sources, holds the promise of big pollution reductions, better human health, maybe even less oil and gas money for terrorists.

All good reasons not to feel sheepish about personal virtue.