Bay Area green buildings strive for LEED certification


San Francisco's iconic spire just turned green; the Transamerica Pyramid isn't changing colors - but changing the way it functions.

"The Transamerica Pyramid now produces its own electricity with an efficient co-generation plant, has dramatically reduced its utility usage and now recycles and diverts waste that would otherwise take space in local landfills," said Christoph Gabler of AEGON USA.

The Pyramid now joins an elite club of 35,000 buildings around the world that have achieved the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification.

Since 2000, the council has set the standard for going green by ranking buildings based on how ecologically friendly they are. Using a point system, buildings are given credit for reducing waste generated, water use, and electricity. The more points - the higher the ranking.

San Francisco is quickly becoming the capitol for green building.

"San Francisco is a small 47-and-a-half square mile city that has more LEED certified buildings than any city in the United States of America," said San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

The Federal Building on 7th Street and the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park are two recent examples of new construction with LEED certification. Glass replaces light bulbs and windows that open take the place of air conditioners -- saving money and resources.

Dan Geiger heads up the Green Building Council's local chapter.

"Buildings are responsible for 40 percent of carbon emissions in the United States, we can reduce that by half," said Geiger.

The city of San Francisco has already put into place some of the strictest environmental building standards in the nation. Its attention is now turning to existing buildings. A city task force recently found that cutting energy use in commercial buildings in half by 2030 -- would be like taking 17,500 cars off the road every year.

"It's difficult, it's large, it's complex - we know how to do it, we can do this," said Geiger.

Margo Crosman knows firsthand, she is the general manager of 100 Pine Street, a nearly 40-year-old office tower in downtown San Francisco. It started with a recycling program for the buildings 2,000 workers in 1998. It earned LEED certification in 2008. As a result, this old building has elevators that generate power for the building and a garden made of local plants and recycled materials. Today, Crosman is the director of sustainability for all Unico Properties.

"The core challenge is having an investor, or an owner, that supports you, having vendors that are willing to work with you, having some capital -- because you'll probably have to invest in capital, and having your tenants be willing to change their behavior," said Crosman.

Under Crosman's watch, every time a tenant remodels or moves, they must adhere to LEED guidelines. That includes the installation of motion sensors for lights and modular floor tiles to reduce waste and limit the use of toxic glue. They also must divert 90 percent of their waste from landfills by recycling and composting.

"If you think about it in a really simplistic way - sustainability is about everything that comes into the building and everything that goes out of the building," said Crosman.

Going green and getting LEED certified doesn't come without problems -- most of which center around adjusting to new technology and adopting the LEED philosophy as part of a building's daily workings.

The Academy of Sciences has the highest LEED rating possible -- that's platinum. It's also visited by 2 million people each year which means constant maintenance. Even changing the janitorial supplies must be carefully weighed for its potential environmental impact.

"It's a whole other set of matrixes, a whole other set of measurements we take as far as proving how efficient you are," said Ari Harding of the California Academy of Sciences.

The San Francisco Federal Building is rated LEED silver.

"We take advantage of the natural breezes in the San Francisco and that's what cools the spaces in the tower," said acting GSA Regional Administrator Jeff Neely.

Planners overestimated the amount of light that came into the building and the heat that it generated. The ambitious plan to control the temperature using a mesh skin over the structure, doesn't always function the way it's supposed to. Managers say they problems are minor. Blinds took care of the sunlight issue - maintenance will handle mechanical problems.

"Just small little tweaks here and there and really learning how to operate manage and maintain the building the way it was designed," said Neely.

The National Building Institute's study of LEED buildings indicate that on average, LEED buildings perform 25 percent better than buildings built to code.

"So many things are developed, and they are brand new, and they need tweaking along the way, they are designed to do certain things -- sometimes they work perfectly, sometimes they don't," said Geiger.

That's part of the reason the U.S. Green Building Council is currently working on a way to track buildings going forward -- to ensure that they continue to adhere to LEED guidelines.

"We've been wasting our resources for a good hundred years now. We cannot afford to do that, it's economically stupid -- it's not profitable and it is harming our planet," said Geiger.

Mayor Newsom is now pushing a program called SF Squared which would allow property owners to fund environmental improvements to their buildings by taking a loan from the city and paying it back over time through increased property taxes.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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