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LD+A The Magazine of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America

Sustainable Design  

Sustainable Design vs. The Budget:
When Green Meets Green


Can designers advocating sustainability and bean counters worried about budget constraints co-exist without driving each other crazy? “Yes,” said Denise Fong of Candela and Craig Kohring of MDA Engineering during a spirited discussion at the IES Annual Conference in Austin, TX.

According to Fong, part of the pushback against green design in the U.S. comes from the fact that Americans have for years enjoyed a free lunch when it comes to resource consumption. “We don’t pay enough for oil and gas, and we don’t pay enough for electricity,” says Fong. When the price of a gallon of gas goes over $3, there is outrage, even though most of the world pays far more. Similarly, while Denmark pays $0.43 per kWh and Germany pays $0.34 for electricity, the U.S. comes in a modest $0.11. “Wouldn’t our decisions be different if we were paying more?” Fong asks. The fact that we’re conditioned to expect low prices is one reason why sustainability is so hard to justify economically.

Even so, building owners operate in a micro world centered on their own projects and may balk when asked to spend a premium for green design. And the fact that they perceive sustainable design to be a budget-buster only adds to the challenge. Kohring reeled off a number of statistics on owners’ perceptions of green design:

  • 62 percent said, “yes” when asked if there is a “significant” cost difference between green building and standard building products and practices.
  • Of those answering yes, 37 percent pegged the cost premium at 10-25 percent, while 9 percent estimated it at more than 25 percent.
Kohring sums up the owner’s attitude as follows: “Our company is going to have to hire a team from NASA to maintain my building after it’s completed.” But the truth, according to the Sustainable Rhythm Research Series, is that a typical LEED Silver building adds only 1.7 percent to project cost.

So, to our original question, how can green design and budgets co-exist without driving each other crazy? The answer, of, course, is the C word, as in compromise. Kohring described the situation at the Toledo Zoo to illustrate his point. The initial estimate for a new zoo exhibit was $5.5 million and called for LEED Silver certification, daylight harvesting in all spaces and extensive use of LEDs. To accomplish this, however, the design budget estimate had to be nearly doubled to $10.2 million—too much for the owner to handle. The final result was a true compromise: The budget came in at $7.7 million, as private donations supplemented public money. LEED certification was not pursued (although the project would have met the criteria if registered). LEDs and daylight harvesting were limited to “impact areas” only, while the proposed wind turbines were eliminated.

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