Sustainable building moves from concept to
With governors and municipal leaders promoting green building from
California to Florida to New York, some in the industry are
worrying about added construction costs boosting home prices during
an already pronounced slump.
"Right now, the one thing that we don't need and are very concerned
about are significant spikes to our costs," says Douglas Buck,
director of governmental affairs for the Florida Home Builders
Green building, often defined as increasing energy efficiency while
reducing negative impacts on the environment, has long been an
option for environmentally minded home buyers and builders. But
with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Florida Governor
Charlie Crist, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and others
publicly embracing the concept in recent months, policymakers are
steadily writing important elements of the concept into state and
municipal policies and building codes.
Developed land vs. conservation land. The future is at stake,
says Florida Governor Crist, New York City Mayor Bloomberg, and
other policymakers who have passed environmental initiatives aimed
at balancing the impact of developed lands on natural lands and
As of this fall, at least 24 states and 90 municipalities had green
building initiatives in place, says Jason Hartke, manager for state
and local advocacy with the U.S. Green Building Council. Those
numbers will likely grow: more than 500 U.S. cities have signed on
to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement,
which encourages green building. Meanwhile, Minnesota Governor Tim
Pawlenty announced in July that he would make "securing a clean
energy future" his top priority for his term as chairman of the
National Governors Association — a move met with wide support
from his peers.
"There are a lot of really interesting policies being put in place
whether you are in Seattle or Florida," Hartke notes.
Today, buildings account for 71% of electricity use and 40% of
carbon emissions nationwide. Stemming largely from coal- and
gas-burning power plants, emissions tied to buildings eclipse even
the 33% from transportation, Hartke explains.
Policymakers clearly hope to reduce those numbers. Today's most
common green building initiative among states and municipalities
requires new publicly owned buildings to be green, often as
dictated by the Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design (LEED) certification program, Hartke says.
These policies are hardly confined to government office buildings:
New Jersey, for example, requires developers of affordable housing
units to meet minimum green building standards.
Offering builders incentives to adopt green building techniques is
almost as common as mandating public green buildings, Hartke adds.
Cities and states have extended the majority of incentives, from
tax relief, expedited permit review, and density rule exceptions or
exemptions to commercial projects. But they are rapidly expanding
into residential construction. New Mexico, for example, recently
passed a tax credit for residential structures, with the credit
amount pegged to the efficiency level of the home, notes
Less common but also on the increase are new or strengthened state
or municipal green building codes. Some new codes are tied to
incentives. Maryland's Howard County, for instance, recently
coupled stepped-up green building codes with property tax
abatements. Other codes stand alone. This spring in Florida, for
example, Governor Crist issued an executive order seeking to
require all newly constructed homes and buildings to be at least
15% more efficient by 2009. The order, which is now being
considered by the Florida Building Commission, got a tepid
reception from the industry and some builders.
The main objection: that the added cost of efficiency improvements
would turn away already scarce home buyers unless they result in
clear and rapid energy savings — savings that could be
directly marketed to home buyers. "Unless the homeowner sees a
payback period of time — hopefully it's not 55 years, it's
seven years, which is the length of time I might own a home —
the homes are at a price disadvantage to existing construction,"
explains Buck, of the Florida Home Builders Association.
Energy-efficiency advocates insist builders can achieve the 15%
reduction easily and cheaply. Danny Parker, principal research
scientist for buildings at the Florida Solar Energy Center, says
doing so would likely require only three steps: using compact
fluorescent bulbs, sealing ductwork, and choosing light colors for
roofing and exterior walls. "No problem; easy to do," he says of
the 2009 deadline outlined in Crist's order.
Buck isn't so sure. Home construction codes and standards have
become so numerous that each new one increases potential conflicts,
he explains. One cheap way to make homes more efficient is to use
fewer windows, for example, but that may violate fire codes. "We
are so finely tuned in our homes that you can't have a ying without
a yang," he comments.
Hartke says it's key to involve builders and other stakeholders in
discussions leading up to new green building codes or rules.
Nevertheless, it seems likely more objections will flare up as
green building transitions from concept to code nationwide. —
Mapping DisasterOngoing research
George Fernandez remembers sitting beside his father, a soldier in
the U.S. Army Reserve, as he drove around South Florida handing out
food and bottled water in the days following Hurricane
He was just a young boy in 1992. But 15 years later, Fernandez has
returned to hurricane recovery, this time as undergraduate civil
engineering student and member of a team of University of Florida
"I think our research is vital to helping people survive the
aftermath of a hurricane," he says. "Considering we can't stop
hurricanes, we might as well learn how to prevent the most damage
that we can."
Fernandez was among over a half-dozen students and two faculty
members at the ready this hurricane season to travel anyplace where
a hurricane landfall was expected, to gather data on its wind
speeds and forces.
The team planned to make the trips as part of the Florida Coastal
Monitoring Program, a nine-year-old UF-led effort to learn more
about low-altitude hurricane winds and the forces they impart on
homes and businesses.
Heading out from Gainesville in a small fleet of white Ford F250
trucks, researchers tow four trailer-based towers equipped with
devices that measure wind speeds, barometric pressure, and rainfall
to projected landfall locations. They also keep tabs on 30 homes
around coastal Florida modified to include roof-mounted pressure
monitors and other devices aimed at monitoring their performance
The goal: to correlate the low-altitude wind speeds measured by the
towers with wind forces on the homes, establishing relationships
needed to understand, predict and — with luck — help
prevent onshore hurricane damage.
"When you define Category 1, 2, or 3 hurricanes, that's based on
what's happening over water," says Kurt Gurley, a UF associate
professor of civil and coastal engineering and the lead researcher
on the project. "The missing piece is, how do you take that and
translate it into what's happening over the land?"
With partner Clemson University, UF has collected data from the
towers, modified houses, or both during least 18 tropical storms
hurricanes dating as far back Hurricane Georges in 1998. While that
sounds like a lot, the amount and variety of data is only now
reaching the level required to draw potentially new conclusions
about low-altitude hurricane winds and determine precisely how they
"The important thing," Gurley explains, "is to get a critical mass
of different storms hitting different parts of the state at
Down-to-earth data. The Florida Coastal Monitoring Program
erects towers as close to the path of Hurricane Wilma as possible.
Wind-speed data from the towers, along with wind-pressure data from
houses wired with instruments, is part of a growing body of
real-world data used to establish hurricane-resistant building
techniques. Most of the data prior to this has been from buoys that
measure hurricane winds over open water or from airplanes gathering
it high above the sites where the damage actually takes
He and several students are currently working on analyzing the data
bank, a project that could lead to reexamining the American Society
of Civil Engineers Wind Load Provisions — guidelines used by
engineers nationwide in assessing potential wind loading on homes
and other structures. It's unclear at this point whether the
research will suggest that the provisions should be revised, but it
will have value even if it serves only to confirm the accuracy of
existing provisions, Gurley says.
More immediately, the towers since 2003 have provided real-time
wind data, via cell phone and now a satellite connection, to the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA plugs the
data — the only such information gathered from low altitudes
over land — into a computer model of hurricane wind speeds
The Federal Emergency Management Agency uses a portion of HWIND in
another model, HAZUS, that projects anticipated hurricane damage.
That model in turn helps FEMA decide where to prioritize its
response and recovery activities, notes Gurley.
The UF researchers are also working with utility companies seeking
to find ways to reduce hurricane-caused outages and repair jobs.
"They are investigating a number of different options," he says,
"and they want to work with the scientists to make sure their
approach is going to be cost effective." — A.H.