It's getting easier to be green.
A growing focus on Earth-friendly design, construction and operation is fueling a surge in green building activity in San Luis Obispo County and throughout the country.
"I think everyone is beginning to understand that global warming is real," said Polly Cooper, an architect and co-founder of San Luis Sustainability Group, a Santa Margarita-based architecture firm specializing in sustainable planning, ecological design and technology for residential and commercial facilities.
"We've been singing this song for a long time," Cooper said. "The chorus is finally beginning to develop."
Green building -- the practice of increasing the energy, water and materials efficiency of buildings and building sites to reduce the impact on human health and environment -- is no longer a fringe concept.
Mounting evidence of global warming and increasing awareness of indoor air pollution have pushed green building into the mainstream with both the National Home Builders Association and the American Institute of Architects, which have identified it as a top priority in recent years.
The data demonstrates that green building is on the rise. The U.S. Green Building Council -- a Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit that formulated the rigorous LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) point-based rating program, which is the industry standard -- counts 669 buildings with LEED status. That's up from 38 nationally in 2002 -- but just a small percentage of the 4,912 buildings currently in the process of certification, said Taryn Holowka, spokeswoman for the group.
"I have been in this business for 20 years, and I have been trying to convince people that this is the right thing to do," said Marilyn Farmer, a LEED-accredited professional and principal at Habitat Studio in San Luis Obispo. "All of a sudden -- within the last two years and even more so in the last year -- there have been huge changes, and green building is moving into the mainstream."
While there are no LEED-certified buildings in the county, there are several that plan to seek certification.
"We've seen a tremendous increase in interest recently in the county (in green building)," said Cooper, a LEED-accredited professional who was recognized by Natural Home magazine as one of the top 10 green architects nationally in 2005.
Among its many projects, San Luis Sustainability recently completed the green building for Congregation Beth David in San Luis Obispo and is working on the San Luis Obispo Botanical Gardens, the Mountainbrook Community Church in San Luis Obispo and the planned structure for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Luis Obispo County.
Local LEED Leaders
Elizabeth Scott-Graham, development and outreach director with the San Luis Obispo Botanical Gardens, said that the organization hopes to attain gold LEED status eventually, the second-highest level of LEED certification.
"Sustainability is part of our mission. That's not just about planting native gardens, it extends to our buildings, which we are building to be as green as we can make it," said Scott-Graham.
The first phase of the botanical gardens is nearly complete and includes a 3,000-square-foot multipurpose room that has no heating system, she said. Instead, the building will use passive solar design to best take advantage of the local climate and sun without the use of mechanical devices. Other green practices include photovoltaic panels on the roof that will generate electricity for office equipment and lighting, recycling a significant portion of the construction waste and ensuring that none of the building materials will come from further than 350 miles away, Scott-Graham said.
The next phase of development, which will include a 16-acre garden, research center, visitor's center and multipurpose building, is scheduled to break ground in 2009.
"The green process may cost a little more to construct than an ordinary building," Scott-Graham said, "but our architects tell us our energy bill will be $6 (a year)."
But going green doesn't have to be more expensive, said Andy Pease, an architect and founder of Build It Green Consulting in San Luis Obispo. She is a board member at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and the LEED coordinator on the new site, which will break ground this fall.
"Does green building cost more? For us, no," said Pease, who said the church has budgeted $1.5 million for construction. "The thoughtfulness of the design means we don't need air conditioning and very little heat. We will orient the building due south so that we can take advantage of sunlight and utilize straw bale, an agricultural by-product, for good insulation."
Responding to demand
Several local developers are also catching on to the burgeoning trend of green building. Covelop Inc., a San Luis Obispo-based real estate investment and construction company, broke ground in late December in Grover Beach on a 16-unit condo project that is adhering to green building principles.
Brad Vernon, principal at Covelop, said he first went green at home and is now hoping to incorporate environmentally friendly elements to his developments.
"I'm a big advocate for green development. It feels good to do it and I think that it will add value for potential homeowners, particularly in a softer market where we have to find ways to offer something that no one else is offering," explained Vernon.
The units will stress indoor air quality by using low-emitting paint, cabinet and flooring materials and Energy Star appliances. The building process will also manage its construction waste by redirecting as much as possible away from a landfill into the production of other products, use passive solar design to increase energy efficiency and grow edible gardens among its many green plans.
Vernon estimates that the units will cost about 2 percent more to build than traditional construction. However, he hopes to recapture that difference when he sells the properties. Industry analysis demonstrates that green building on averages boosts a building's value by 7.5 percent and improves return on investment by 6.6 percent on average, according to McGraw-Hill Construction's "Green Building SmartMarket Report: 2006."
"I think it will all pencil out. It may cost a small amount more to buy upfront, but green housing is a lot less expensive to live in when you consider the energy efficiency," said Vernon. He is working with Leonard Grant Architect (LGA) in Pismo Beach to design his project.
Covelop is just one of several green residential projects being planned in the county, said Traci Adams, a junior designer and LEED-accredited professional at LGA. She is also working on a 10-unit town home development in Arroyo Grande and a 250-acre neighborhood development in Paso Robles.
In addition, LGA is working on a commercial development in Paso Robles, called The Marketplace at River Oaks, being developed by Estrella Associates. The Marketplace, which is expected to break ground this spring, will have 50,000 square feet of office and retail space, Adams said.
Plans for the project include waterless urinals, drought- resistant plantings, educating tenants on creating green tenant improvements and building with insulated concrete forms, which provide energy-efficient walls and lessen dependence on wood.
Increasing green resources
The push from individuals wanting to remodel, build or buy homes with environmentally friendly features is leading architects and developers to respond. For example, RRM Design Group, an architecture firm based in San Luis Obispo, expects its pool of LEED- accredited professionals to more than triple by year-end from the eight in San Luis Obispo currently, said Frank Thaxter, LEED project administrator at RRM. Twenty-eight professionals are preparing for LEED certification in the San Luis Obispo office, and 25 more are seeking accreditation at RRM's other California offices.
Local Web resources are also expanding. Green Building Pages, an online building materials database, which was started 10 years ago by Farmer of Habitat Studio, was recognized in 2006 for increasing consumer awareness nationally.
Meanwhile, SLO Green Build, a local nonprofit promoting city and county green building programs, is busy educating local officials about green design and construction, particularly in public buildings. The group, explained one of its founders, Mikel Robertson, has compiled green building guidelines on its Web site to provide homeowners, architects and developers a green checklist. It is also in the process of placing information kiosks about green materials and techniques in city buildings throughout the county.
"We are still at the first stage of educating people, but progress is definitely being made," said Robertson, who also co-founded Green Goods, a retail building supplies store in Atascadero.
"Green (building) has always made social and environmental sense," said Robertson. "Now, the economic bottom line is there, too."