Green Building

Green building only continues to rise. According to the Canadian Green Building Council, the 574 projects that received LEED certification in 2013 represented the highest number of any year up until then. And although the 2014 numbers were not yet available at press time, last year remained on that trajectory. Still, some building owners and developers are nervous to jump onto the eco-bandwagon because the factors for earning credits toward LEED certification can be daunting and they don’t know if it’ll work out to be green economically as well as ecologically.

While it may be relatively straightforward to measure how long it will take for a design that leverages natural light to start saving over the cost of that which is sourced from the grid, it’s not as easy to calculate how an investment in employee satisfaction – individual climate control, for example – affects a building’s long-term return on investment. We know that employee productivity is meant to be optimized by a number of LEED credits, but exactly how much that type of capital commitment in your human resources factors into your return on investment is complicated. The truth is, there are some things you can’t know. However, as a quantity surveyor who has consulted on the costs of such projects, I know there is a lot that can be planned for. And if charted correctly from the outset, green building can be set on a path to recoup an owner’s initial capital investment in 10 to 15 years – all while being part of an important movement in building and construction.

Quantity surveyors are not engineers, architects, lawyers or accountants, but they possess knowledge in all of these fields in order to help owners make intelligent decisions about what a design will cost them and what the return on their investment will be. One design feature where this analysis is needed is one of the most visible badges of the green building – the green roof. From a construction point of view, building a green roof – a LEED feature that has become so popular that city bylaws in Toronto and elsewhere have begun mandating them – goes against the age-old tenet that you want to keep water out of your building at all costs. 

In fact, insurance companies have been known to assess a green roof as a risk to the building, and owners need to know going in what that extra cost will be. This doesn’t mean that it’s not worth the investment, of course, and a quantity surveyor looks to offset extra “soft costs” with savings in other places to stay within a project’s budget. If you want to incorporate a green roof, for instance, it may be advisable to go with the more affordable modular trays rather than a fully developed soil system. Or, savings can be found on ground level landscaping, which can be designed to require less water and need less maintenance. 

Down to the Details

Quantity surveyors advise first of all on large-scale building systems – structural, plumbing, heating, electrical etc. – but because capital investment in green buildings has to be measured more than a decade down the road, risk mitigation analysis also goes down to the finest design details. To speak again of lighting, we’ve seen a lot of buildings in the recent past using glass as a great way to provide natural light – condo and commercial towers in Toronto, for example, use wall-size windows with joints sealed by rubber and caulking. 

That type of construction is great for bringing in the natural light that helps earns LEED credits – and many owners will desire the aesthetically pleasing look – but the long-term cost has to be considered at the outset. The caulking may need to be replaced before air and water leaks cause the building to become less efficient than it was originally planned to be. 

As a quantity surveyor, I often work with the various design consultants to consider a number of alternatives – in this case, I would recommend that a higher efficiency curtain wall system with fewer joints or windows could instead be built on a curb and the mullion sloping away from the building so that the water is kept out of the joint connection. 

Allowing Flexibility

As well as looking at how an investment into green building will play out further down the road, cost factors and building economics are also affected by the most current events happening around the world. A quantity surveyor must understand how global events impact the cost of materials. 

When Dubai was exploding with growth five to 10 years ago, for instance, the cost of drywall and steel rose because of the high demand for those in that country. Similarly, as Louisiana rebuilt during the aftermath of Katrina, the cost of raw materials such as lumber and drywall escalated. That said, outside of these surprises, overall the costs of materials used in green building are beginning to trend down. 

A good example of this is photovoltaic systems (solar panels), which are being used in a much wider application than they were 10 years ago. There are solar farms, people have panels on the roofs of their homes, and buildings have them on their property. Their proliferation has caused that cost to decrease significantly and we’ll likely see similar downturns in other materials, such as wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. As more forests transform their operations to incorporate that certification, savings in that area may allow flexibility in other aspects of your green building budget.

All Worth It

As a quantity surveyor with LEED accreditation, I’m sometimes asked if there’s any big pitfall to building green. Is it really worth it? As with every building project – green or not green – there is a margin of error. 

There’s a chance installation will present unforeseen challenges, or the possibility of a design detail that won’t work out. We’re human, after all. But with the right cost planning, there’s no question that an investment in a greener future can also make sound financial sense. 

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