Going Green: Renewable Design and Construction in Utah
Historically one of the driest states in the nation with mostly a desert landscape, outsiders might consider Utah to be anything but green, yet take one look at the state's renewable design and construction landscape and you'll see that green is the color of choice.
"Green is the new black," says Rachel David, director of sustainability for Cooper Roberts Simonsen Associates (CRSA), a Utah-based architectural firm that focuses solely on green projects.
"Sustainability has both a presence and a value now," she adds. "Early on, there wasn't a lot of understanding about sustainable design. Now, you had better be on board or you're going to get left behind."
Sustainable design and construction efforts in Utah started to take off about 10 years ago, but in the last five years a significant transformation has taken place across the state -- from state agencies to city and county governments, to the private sector -- going green is, indeed, the present and the future.
EDCUtah President & CEO Jeff Edwards adds that Utah's landscape is a rare gift, and the efforts being made in renewable design and construction within the state will only help to preserve that gift. "Being renewable is good for the environment. It's good for our health, and it makes good business sense," he says.
Energy Efficiency Goal
In 2006, former Governor Jon Huntsman set a goal for all state-owned facilities to improve their energy efficiency 20 percent by 2015, and for 20 percent of Utah's electricity generation to come from renewable sources by 2025. Additionally, all new state construction projects must achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification. Meanwhile, the Utah State Energy Program is partnering with the Utah Division of Facilities Construction and Management to invest more than $50 million in energy efficiency measures in state-owned buildings.
In 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy named Salt Lake City one of the first Solar America Cities. The department has since partnered with Salt Lake County, Rio Tinto Kennecott Land, Rocky Mountain Power, and Utah Clean Energy, a local nonprofit public interest organization, to achieve 10,000 solar installations or 10 megawatts of solar power generation by the year 2015.
What's more, Salt Lake Community College is helping the green transformation by preparing a green workforce. The school is a certified North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners testing facility, offers a solar photovoltaic installer course, and plans to offer an energy management associate degree program.
A Vacant School Turned Green
Sustainable design and construction in Utah isn't limited to state government buildings, nor is it limited to new construction projects. In 2005 the City of Moab retrofitted an old, vacant school and turned it into a state-of-the-art city center using sustainable design and construction technologies. The new design employed recycled construction materials and a ground source geothermal heating and cooling system that transfers warm air into and out of the building according to the season of the year. The geothermal system is shared with the adjacent Grand County Library.
The city center's landscape design retains all storm water runoff onsite and recharges the underground aquifer, while energy-efficient electrical equipment and low-flow plumbing fixtures reduce operating and maintenance costs.
"We didn't know what certification we would get, but ended up being LEED Silver-certified, which is pretty darn good," says Moab Mayor Dan Sakrison. In addition to consolidating city operations into one building, the renewable retrofit has helped Moab cut its natural gas cost by about $20,000 per year. "It's worked out really well for us," the mayor adds.
While the number of sustainable construction projects in the state, either completed or in process, are too numerous to mention, one of the most notable sustainability designs is the Swaner EcoCenter near Park City. It produces 12 percent of its own energy, generated from photovoltaic and solar hot water arrays, and harvests rainwater for onsite landscape irrigation and toilet flushing. Approximately 80 percent of EcoCenter is lit by natural daylight. Nearly half the building materials used came from either recycled content, derived locally, or from rapidly renewable resources.
Jack Wixom, vice president of corporate relations for Jacobsen Construction, points out that what LEED does is certify a building will protect the environment. "LEED is really a science about preserving the environment," he adds, "and its quite exciting to see the types of returns that it generates."
It Starts With the Dirt
In approaching renewability, designers and construction companies look at projects from a full building perspective that considers such things as the type of materials to be used and how far they have to travel to the construction site, the recycling of waste, the carbon footprint, the reduction of water use, available natural light, the efficiency of HVAC systems, the construction envelope, the internal environment, the management of storm water, and many other factors.
"But it all starts with the dirt," says John Alley, vice president at Layton Construction Company. "Site selection has one of the most significant impacts on the success of a project for sustainable design and LEED certification. A company can blow its desired LEED certification simply with the wrong property purchase, as the property and its building placement have a lot to with achieving sustainability measures."
Some of the certification factors tied to property location include the density surrounding the building, available parking, access to public transportation, and building site orientation. Alley says real estate brokers, corporate real estate executives, and site selectors need to be familiar with LEED credits and how they work; otherwise they may be disappointed with the resulting LEED certification they receive.
Forrest McNabb, senior vice president of Big-D Construction, notes that obtaining a LEED certification requires the coordination and support of the entire team -- the property owners, designers, contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers -- everyone has a role in the effort.
In order to help guide commercial construction projects in their quest for LEED certification, three of Utah's major commercial construction companies (and EDCUtah investors), Layton Construction Companies, Big-D Construction, and Jacobsen Construction, all employ numerous LEED accredited professionals, as do many of the architectural and engineering firms in the state, because most of the construction projects today have goals to achieve some type of LEED certification.
While renewable design is not unique to Utah, certain renewable technologies work very well here, including low humidity, indirect direct evaporative coolers; ground source heat pumps; ambient light; low flow water fixtures; and solar photovoltaic panels and solar water heating systems.
John Fortuna, vice president and project executive at Jacobsen Construction, says greater efforts are being made to reduce water use and recapture grey water. As an example, he says a new, high performance, multi-state agency office building retains and reuses approximately 3,500 gallons of waste water from the building's HVAC system, rather than sending it down the drain. Better management of storm water is also an area of focus. Landscaped burms and swales are being used to capture runoff, to allow the water to seep into the ground, where it can recharge aquifers rather than collect in storm drains and eventually end up in a river.
Even Utah parking lots are becoming green, adds Alley. New, permeable paving products allow storm water to seep into the ground, rather than fill up the storm drains. Meanwhile, low, even light sources are replacing bright lights to reduce carbon foot prints. Studies show the low, even lights also make parking lots safer because they remove the deep shadows where people can hide.
Greater use of ambient light and more efficient lighting technologies are also making the interiors of buildings more renewable. Fortuna says new lighting controls measure the amount of ambient light in a room and automatically adjust the electrical lighting to supplement the natural light. High efficiency HVAC systems, coupled with tighter, more self-contained buildings are also an important part of sustainability.
Making City Ordinances 'Renewable'
As a side note, Alley says Utah's construction industry may be more attuned to renewable design and construction than most municipalities, and that greater effort needs to be made to align local building ordinances with renewable design practices.
"Generally, the private sector is ready to build green, but may end up in conflict with out-of-date building ordinances. While some cities are quite progressive about renewable design, there is an element of education that needs to take place as the public and private sectors work together to achieve the best sustainability practices and ordinances," he explains. "City managers and mayors should complete a review of city ordinances to determine whether they help or hurt sustainable practices, and interact with the owners, designers, and the construction community in achieving sustainable design."