California Office Building Named Greenest in U.S.

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 24, 2004
Photo sensors dim lamps when sunlight is bright enough to read by. Conference-
room chairs are made from recycled seatbelts. Water collected from the
roof is used to flush toilets—except the urinals. They're

Welcome to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) office in Santa Monica, California—named the greenest office building in America.

Situated in a busy commercial area, a stone's throw from the city's popular Third Street Promenade, the three-story clapboard building looks like a larger version of the swanky California beach bungalows next door.

But step inside, and you will soon understand why the U.S. Green Building Council has given the building, which opened officially in December last year, its highest green rating.

Three multilevel, lighthouse-style atria with environmental sensors distribute sunlight and fresh air throughout the 15,000-square-foot (1,400-square-meter) structure, which houses 36 lawyers and scientists. There is no main air conditioning. Each office has its own advanced heating and cooling system that shuts off when windows are opened.

The structure uses 60 to 75 percent less energy than a typical office building.

You might expect an office of the NRDC, an environmental organization with more than a million members, to be green. But it's hardly the only one.

Green building is booming. One expert estimates that more than U.S. $30 billion is now being spent on constructing hundreds of green buildings worldwide.

"This is a big market transformation," said Drew Wesling, a project manager at Matt Construction in Santa Fe Springs, California, who also runs the local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. "Green building is here to stay."

Buildings have an enormous impact on the environment. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, they consume 40 percent of the world's energy, 25 percent of its wood harvest, and 16 percent of its water.

Platinum Ratings

The U.S. Green Building Council is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization of architects, designers, and engineers. They define a green building as "environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work."

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, India—though 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.

Generational Change

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 Beauty

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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