A new study finds that a “Living Building,” a building that generates its own power, as well as cleans and reuses its water is the most financially responsible design approach to new construction in the mid to long term.   Buildings that are only slightly green may end up costing more in ten years than a building that is designed and built as high performance as is currently possible.  Living Buildings offer significantly larger savings in energy and water costs.   They also cost less to construct than previously believed.  Study participants include leading design, engineering, building research, construction and development firms.

Living Buildings, as defined by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, are the smartest financial option in today’s economy, given the rising cost of energy and water.   “Spec” buildings meant to be “flipped” in a few years are the  only exceptions, according to a study team led by SERA Architects with Skanska USA Building, Gerding Edlen Development, New Buildings Institute, and Interface Engineering, are
The study was initiated in an effort to put a price tag on the Living Building Challenge rating system – a relatively new program that has already sparked huge interest in North America with at least 60 proposed Living Buildings in some stage of design or actual construction.

The study was done by examining construction documentation on nine buildings, ranging from schools to homes and high-rises, in four different US cities representing various climate zones. Each of these reference buildings were certified LEED Gold, already incorporating many green features and representing current best practices. The construction documents were modified to meet the goals of a Living Building and then re-priced based on the modifications, with the purpose of comparing the cost difference of making the leap to net-zero energy and water. The science behind the study is the same methodology that is typically used by the construction industry for cost-estimating projects prior to construction. While initial costs are higher, the bottom-line finding is that investing in Living Buildings will have significant economic impact – with less than a ten-year payback in several instances. The study finds that Living Buildings can cost as little as five percent to no more than 49 percent more depending on the building type and location, representing paybacks for many buildings that are well within the range (less than 7-15 yrs) for any institution, corporation or homeowner looking at holding onto their asset for a few years.  One of the most exciting surprises from the study was finding basically no extra cost to build a University classroom building in Portland, Oregon to the ultra high-performance standard of a Living Building.

The degree of cost effectiveness depends on the following five key factors:

* Use of the building: Public schools and classrooms had the lowest cost. Private sector developers building spec buildings had the largest cost differential.
* Size of the building and the roof: The larger the building and roof size (for solar and water catchment systems), the lower the cost premium.
* Climate matters: A mild climate with regular rainfall provides the most cost-effective opportunity for a Living Building, although net-zero energy and water is technically possible for all regions in the study.
* Incentives and rebates matter: When communities offer incentives and rebates for saving energy and using renewable energy, it reduces the cost premium significantly.
* Cost of resources matter: The higher the cost of energy and water, the shorter the payback period, making a Living Building more feasible in areas with high energy rates.

The study was done by examining the construction documentation on nine buildings, ranging from high-rises to schools and homes high-rises, in four different US cities representing various climate zones.    Each of these buildings were certified LEED Gold, already incorporating many green features and representing current best practices.  The construction documents were modified to meet the goals of a Living Building and then re-priced based on the modifications, with the purpose of comparing the cost difference of making the leap to net-zero energy and water.  The science behind the study is the same methodology that is typically used by the construction industry for cost-estimating projects prior to construction.

© 2009, Tracey de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Tracey de Morsella (323 Articles)

Tracey de Morsella started her career working as an editor for US Technology Magazine. She used that experience to launch Delaware Valley Network, a publication for professionals in the Greater Philadelphia area. Years later, she used the contacts and resources she acquired to work in executive search specializing in technical and diversity recruitment. She has conducted recruitment training seminars for Wachovia Bank, the Department of Interior and the US Postal Service. During this time, she also created a diversity portal called The Multicultural Advantage and published the Diversity Recruitment Advertising Toolkit, a directory of recruiting resources for human resources professionals. Her career and recruitment articles have appeared in numerous publications and web portals including Woman Engineer Magazine, Monster.com, About.com Job Search Channel, Workplace Diversity Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management web site, NSBE Engineering Magazine, HR.com, and Human Resource Consultants Association Newsletter. Her work with technology professionals drew her to pursuing training and work in web development, which led to a stint at Merrill Lynch as an Intranet Manager. In March, she decided to combine her technical and career management expertise with her passion for the environment, and with her husband, launched The Green Economy Post, a blog providing green career information and covering the impact of the environment, sustainable building, cleantech and renewable energy on the US economy. Her sustainability articles have appeared on Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation, Chem.Info,FastCompany and CleanTechies.