In the commercial real estate world, environmentally friendly buildings are getting a boost from a new reality about the bottom line: It doesn't take a lot of green to be green anymore.
Environmentalists have been pushing so-called green construction since before the first Earth Day in 1970. But until recently, most mainstream commercial builders and their clients were uninterested, put off by technology that was cumbersome, unreliable and -- the real deal breaker -- expensive.
"We're a very practical nation," said architect Dan Heinfeld of Irvine-based LPA. "As soon as you're telling people something costs more, it goes against their basic grain."
Toyota Motor Corp. was no exception. The Japanese automaker wanted to make a statement about its commitment to producing clean, fuel-efficient vehicles, but it was unwilling to spend substantially more to make its sprawling new complex on Western Avenue in Torrance easy on the environment.
Then it discovered something remarkable: It didn't have to.
"The cost didn't go up appreciably" to make the two low-rise buildings among the country's "greenest" commercial structures, said Robert Pitts, vice president of administrative services at LPA, which designed the Toyota buildings. "It was definitely reasonable."
In fact, the $87-million price tag was roughly equivalent to that for good-quality steel-frame buildings, said Richard Vishanoff, chief managing editor of Marshall & Swift, a construction cost services provider.
How kind to the environment is the Toyota complex? For one thing, the materials used to build it -- from the foundation to the ceiling tiles -- contain an average of 50% recycled content.
Standard fluorescent tubes illuminate the interiors, but the light bounces off the ceiling first; such indirect lighting uses less power than traditional parabolic lighting if it's evenly dispersed. It's also more pleasant, especially for people working on computers. And all the lights are controlled by motion sensors or time clocks to conserve electricity.
Fresh Ideas, Used Water
Heat and air conditioning are provided by a natural-gas- powered system that circulates hot or cold water through pipes in the ceilings in the 624,000-square-foot complex. The system was slightly more expensive than traditional rooftop heating and cooling units, said Toyota real estate manager Sanford Smith, but it uses significantly less energy and doesn't emit chlorofluorocarbons or other gases associated with damage to the ozone layer.
What's more, air conditioning won't be a huge power sapper even on the hottest days, because windows are large on the north and south sides of the buildings but small on the east and west sides, which get the most direct sunlight.
In the restrooms, toilets flush with recycled water. Urinals in some of the men's restrooms operate with special chemical treatment systems and save energy by not flushing at all.
Toyota spent $700,000 for a connection to the West Basin Municipal Water District pipeline that brings in used water not only for the toilets but also to irrigate drought-tolerant landscaping on the 165-acre campus. Used water, which has been treated but isn't drinkable, is 30% cheaper than fresh water, Smith noted.
Then there's the crowning glory: what Toyota says is the country's largest privately owned rooftop photovoltaic power collection system. It can generate 500 kilowatts of electricity, or about 20% of the buildings' total energy demand. And the longer the sun is shining, the more power is produced -- meaning Toyota has to tap that much less from the state electricity grid.
"We're at our most efficient in the summertime, when California has its greatest demand for energy," architect Heinfeld said. "It's a peak-shaving device."
It will take about seven years for savings from the photovoltaic system to pay off its $1.5-million cost, said real estate manager Smith, adding that "after that, we'll be making money."
Money -- actually, mostly a desire by building owners not to spend too much of it -- drives commercial real estate construction. So it's a boon for environmentalists that building "green" is not as expensive as it once was.
The building supply industry has grown to appreciate the cost-effectiveness of recycled products, which these days are almost commonplace. Carpet fibers and ceramic floor tiles are made with recycled glass, for example, and paving materials include ground-up concrete that was first poured years ago.
"Five years ago, you couldn't find 10% of products that were recycled," Heinfeld said. "It's about 50% to 60% now and may be 90% in the next few years."
The Green Building Council, a 9-year-old coalition of environmentally conscious building industry leaders, has deemed the Toyota office complex eligible for its "gold"-level certification. A decision is expected by next month.
The council certifies buildings under its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, which awards "basic," "silver," "gold" and "platinum" honors depending on factors such as how storm-water runoff is handled, whether adhesives used in construction give off toxic gases and whether any wood installed is of a type that is easily regrown.
So far, one nongovernmental building in Southern California has been certified: the 30,000-square-foot Irvine headquarters of Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group, which received a "basic" in late 2001.
The council has certified about 50 buildings in the country, though about 700 are in the pipeline. Rob Watson, chairman of the certification program's steering committee and a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said membership in the Green Building Council and the number of square feet in the certification program have doubled every year for the last five years.
No state requires public projects to be certified by the council, though California and several others are considering doing so. In Los Angeles, the City Council last April voted to require certification for public works projects larger than 7,500 square feet. And in San Jose, municipal buildings over 10,000 square feet must have council certificates.
Santa Monica, which has its own "green" building guidelines, may soon be home to the nation's first platinum-certified building. The Natural Resources Defense Council is close to completing the renovation of a 15,000-square-foot building on 2nd Street that will raise the bar for environmental performance: It will use 75% less energy than a conventional building its size and 70% less water, in part because rainwater will be collected and recycled.
"We looked at every con- ceivable thing we could 'green' within our budget, and we did it," Watson said.
For Toyota, one incentive for being eco-friendly in Torrance was the memory of the California electricity crisis of 2001 and 2002, when wholesale power prices went through the roof.
Another was the possibility of improved productivity: The Green Building Council says it has measured output increases of 1.5% to 15% by workers in "green" buildings, which typically have a lot of natural light.
"We don't have our own statistics," said Toyota's Smith, "but a lot of research indicates that in light, bright buildings with good air quality, you have less downtime with your associates."