The council rates structures according to a 69-point scale known as LEED, for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Buildings accumulate points for water efficiency, using recycled building materials, maximizing natural light, and having showers to encourage employees to bicycle to work.
During the past four years commercial and high-rise residential building space certified under national green building standards has increased from 8 million square feet (740,000 square meters) in 2000 to 149 million square feet (13.8 million square meters) today.
Three of the four buildings to get the highest, or platinum, rating are in California: the NRDC office in Santa Monica; the Audubon Center in Los Angeles; and the Inland Empire Utilities Agency office in Chino. The NRDC office received more points than the other two buildings.
The highest-rated green building anywhere, however, is the CII-Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre in Hyderabad, Indiathough that could change. NRDC staff are campaigning to get one more point for reducing the mercury content of the lighting in their Santa Monica building. That would tie their office with the building in India.
Hernando Miranda is a green consultant who runs his own company, Soltierra, in Dana Point, California. He worked on the first building to be LEED-certified in the state, a Ford Motor Company building in Irvine. He says attitudes have changed over generations.
"Before, there wasn't a market for green building, because a lot of upper and middle management simply weren't interested," he said. "Now the [younger] people have come into positions of power, and they are deciding they want to go green."
A certified green building costs, on average, 2 percent more than a traditional building of the same size. But a recent study showed that the extra cost yields a tenfold savings over 20 years, through lower energy and water bills, reduced waste disposal costs, and increased productivity and health of employees.
Wesling, who runs the Green Building Council's L.A. chapter, said, "With time, I'm predicting there will be no cost premium at all."
California has long been considered a leader in green building, partly because the state's energy code is 10 percent more stringent than any similar code in the U.S. Many city councils have voted to require U.S. Green Building Council's standards on all new government buildings.
The National Audubon Society's new urban nature center is the first off-the-grid, solar-powered building in Los Angeles.
"The only thing connected up is the phone," said Miranda, who worked on the project.
Green architecture, industry experts say, should not be considered different from regular architecture. "There is only good architecture and bad architecture," said Rob Watson, a senior NRDC scientist in New York and the chairman of the LEED green building rating system. "If it's not green, it's just not good architecture."
Watson, who worked on the Santa Monica building, says he wanted to help build a "centrally located, environmentally high-performing, stunningly beautiful place, demystifying the notion that green buildings are somehow ugly."
The group of visitors who toured the building on a recent afternoon seemed to have been won over. Geraldine Anderson, 88 years old and a long-time NRDC member, admired the hardwood floors made from bamboo. Bamboo grows back so rapidly that it can be used as building material without depleting forests.
"I just came back from a trip to Canada, where I saw how many trees are being cut down," she said. "We're wasting so much of our environment. Soon we won't have any place to live."
Evelyne Slavin, the tour leader who also runs the Environmental Action Center at the street level of the building, says she loves her commute: a 15-minute bicycle-ride along the beach from the nearby city of Venice.
"It is all part of sustainable living," she said. "Live close to where you work."
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