Building green makes good sense

GORD STEWART
Last updated 12:39 02/11/2012

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A few years ago I was doing research on green buildings and I was pleased to meet Gavin Cherrie who was building one - FIL New Zealand's office and plant in Mt Maunganui.

It was a chance for me to see the process first hand, ask about the challenges and benefits, and reflect on the motivations.

As we toured the site and chatted, I asked Gavin - then general manager of FIL - why go to all the effort with this sustainability stuff.

"You may only get one chance in your life to build a building and I was going to do it right," was his simple reply.

Going green in building makes good sense. It's even common sense now - but it wasn't always so.

Charles Lockwood, in the Harvard Business Review in 2006, wrote: "Just five or six years ago, the term ‘green building' evoked visions of tie-dyed, granola-munching denizens walking around barefoot on straw mats as wind chimes tinkled near open windows. Today, the term suggests lower overhead costs, greater employee productivity, less absenteeism and stronger employee attraction and retention."

It also means lower impact on the environment. The FIL building, for example, up and running with appropriate construction materials and the best in roofing, insulation and lighting, uses 70 per cent less energy than traditional buildings of a similar size.

By capturing rainwater from the factory roof, the building's draw on city water supply is 95 per cent below quantities used at their previous location. Stormwater leaving the site has been reduced by 50 per cent. With a new production design and employee commitment, waste volumes are down 75 per cent.

Other testaments to the value of green building include Meridian Energy's head office on the Wellington waterfront, with a five-star rating from the New Zealand Green Business Council, and the Telecom Tower in Auckland and Otago University's William James (Psychology 3) Building, both four-star rated.

While these examples are all imposing structures, modest developments can go green and reap the benefits. Energy Options retrofitted an office, showroom and workshop in a 1960s concrete-block building in Whakatane.

As well as full insulation in walls and ceilings and double-glazed windows, it boasts solar hot water heating, rainwater collection for toilet flushing, and has environmentally friendly paints, flooring and carpets.

On the residential front, I can attest to some satisfying retrofits and benefits. When we shifted to a 100-year-old house in the country a couple of years ago, my younger son, taking energy studies at university at the time, said: "Dad, you can go off the grid!"

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Not quite, but our new wood burner has put to rest the propane-fuelled forced air heating. With my trusty chainsaw, splitting maul, a bit of petrol, and some fresh air and sweat, I fill the woodshed through selective clearing on our property and windfalls from the neighbouring farm. Making the switch from propane to wood heating has reduced our CO 2 emissions by more than 98 per cent.

Passive solar heating through the entryway warms my office in winter. Wraparound covered verandas help keep the house cool in summer. We're stuck with single-glazed windows - at least we can claim the house is well-ventilated - but lined drapes help.

But not everyone's on to it. An energy specialist tells of a woman ringing him for some help.

"We're building a $5 million house," she said. "Can you give me some advice for energy conservation?"

After a bit of thought, he replied, "Build a $1 million house." He didn't get the commission, but his advice helps serve as a guide. For plant, office or home, whether building, buying or renovating: make it only as big as necessary, but as "green" as possible.

  • Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry and non-profit organisations.

- Nelson

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