Green building is often seen as a luxury. A lot of projects are capital-intensive, and take years to make up for their costs in energy savings. But as energy prices rise, sustainable buildings are starting to make even more fiscal sense for all types of buildings.
The corner of Seventh and Liberty streets in downtown Louisville is loud and busy. A bus stops, letting off passengers.
Across the street, there’s an unexpected break from the concrete: a slightly unruly garden in front of the Metropolitan Sewer District’s downtown headquarters.
“I had never seen a butterfly at the corner of Seventh and Liberty before we put this in and now we have butterflies and other things that will be part of our outside-scape,” Brian Bingham says. He’s the Regulatory Services director for the MSD, and he’s standing in the agency’s rain garden, which is:
“…a bio-infiltration area. We’ve excavated it out to make it an area that can hold water for a short period of time. We have amended the soils within that area to allow the water to be able to go through it instead of actually ponding in it. And then we’ve come back in with deep-rooted native plants and put them in,” Bingham says.
The rain garden has been here since 2009, and it collects water that runs off the building’s roof and keeps it from ending up in the sewer.
MSD is doing this because they have to—as a result of a settlement with the federal government, they’re required to reduce the amount of water that overflows the sewer and is discharged into the river.
Bingham says the rain garden makes fiscal sense, too. In case of flooding, there are huge storage tanks to hold sewer overflow, and those cost the MSD about 30 cents for every gallon they keep out of the river. The rain gardens—the one outside their building and others they’re working to build around Louisville—cost about 6 cents a gallon.
And it’s these cost savings that make sense to other private and public entities.
At the Green Building in the NuLu neighborhood, Stephanie Brothers is giving a tour of the facility. She says the building’s electrical and heating systems required a lot of up-front investment, but they’ll be worth it in the long run.
“The solar panel array that we installed will actually start paying us back sometime within the next 8 to 12 years,” she said. “The geothermal system that we installed will start paying us back on that original investment sometime in the next six years.”
The Green Building is Louisville’s only Platinum LEED-certified building and nearly every piece of it is recycled or engineered to be efficient. But this is an extreme case.
Greg Luhan is a professor of architecture at the University of Kentucky. He says green building techniques can be deployed on a much smaller scale.
“Good green building strategies always take advantage of everything that’s free, first. And take advantage of views and the site,” he said. “And of course, from a planning standpoint if you can develop subdivisions or even any type of building that takes advantage of all those things first, the value-added concepts are passed directly from the builder to the homeowner.”
It’s easy to build a top-of-the-line green building and spend lots of money, Luhan says. But it’s more of a challenge to design an inexpensive home that’s efficient and will save its owners money on their utility bills—and he thinks those smaller buildings can be more beneficial to the environment.
“If you get into large-scale production homebuilders and Habitat for Humanity, for instance, is the largest homebuilder in the country, if you can now do thousands or hundreds or tens of thousands of these buildings at the scale of the impact of doing good green design and best practices, it’ll have a lot greater impact on the environment,” Luhan said.
UK is working with several Kentucky Habitat for Humanity chapters to develop homes that will produce as much energy as they consume. The standard house in Kentucky has an average utility bill of five dollars per day. Right now, Luhan’s prototype is down to 54 cents a day, and he says it will eventually be below zero and sell energy back to the grid.