Sustainable building techniques are good for the environment and can lead to long-term savings, but they often come with a downside: higher construction costs. And when the building in question is a public project funded by taxpayers, anything that raises the upfront cost can become a tough sell.
That's the challenge facing the Lake Oswego School District as its board finalizes the parameters of a $187 million bond measure that is expected to appear on voters' ballots in May, and last week it was the subject of "Beyond Green Building," a discussion organized by the Lake Oswego Sustainability Network.
The event featured presentations by PAE Engineering President Paul Schwer, Lease Crutcher Lewis CEO Bart Ricketts and Randy Miller, the LOSD's executive director of project management. The discussion focused on advances in "green" design and construction techniques and how they could be applied in Lake Oswego, particularly for upgrades and replacements to LOSD buildings that will be covered by the bond measure.
"They've already decided that, from a seismic standpoint, the new buildings will be (certified for) immediate occupancy," said Duke Castle, one of LOSN's founders. "We're pushing for all of us to look at net-zero energy buildings, but net zero is not the endgame either."
The "immediate occupancy" standard refers to buildings that are designed to not only remain standing during a major earthquake, but also to remain safe for people to re-enter immediately afterwards. "Net zero" describes buildings that include solar panels or other renewable energy sources that produce at least enough power to offset whatever amount the building draws from the regular power grid.
Miller's presentation focused on the School Board's three-year process for setting the criteria for a bond, including assessments of the current facilities and the creation of a long-range plan. He said the board intended to invest in sustainable design features, but said there were challenges that would need to be addressed in order to do so.
One of the biggest challenges, he said, is education. Voters need to understand the value of sustainable buildings, and the students and staff who use them need to know how to make sure the buildings function as intended.
"To get there, we have to develop a culture of conservation, even more than we have now," he said. "The occupants have to buy in — you've got to make it easy for them to do that."
Schwer took the stage next to discuss how sustainable technology and design have advanced in recent years. The foremost example, he said, is solar power, which has seen an "incredibly quick" drop in the average price per panel in the last five years.
"It's like with TVs," he said. "They get cheaper, and they get better. That's exactly what's happening with PV (photovoltaic solar panels)."
He offered several other examples of sustainable techniques that can be applied to school buildings, including window designs that allow for naturally lit classrooms and walls so well-insulated that the building can retain the heat generated by the bodies of the people inside, eliminating the need for a central forced-air heating system with a power-hungry boiler room.
Schwer discussed a design approach called "living buildings" in which the buildings are analogized to trees — they have to survive (or in this case, operate) using only the immediately available sunlight and water resources, without the ability to import energy or export waste material.
"The energy budget is the sun," he said. "Whatever lands on your roof, that's what you get to use."
Schwer also talked about the Bullitt Center office building in Seattle, one of PAE's recent projects. The company designed the building to be 'net zero' not only for energy consumption, but for all other consumption as well. The building's water supply consists solely of harvested rainwater and wastewater that is treated and reclaimed onsite, and produces no sewage waste — only fertilizer.
"This is where we want to go," Castle said during his opening statement, in reference to the Bullit Center. "How close can we get to this?"
For Ricketts' portion of the presentation, the discussion turned to sustainable construction techniques.
"Once the engineers work their magic, somebody's got to build it," he said. "That's where we come in."
Ricketts said builders need to work constantly to innovate, finding new ways to minimize waste during construction and better ways to use the natural resources around the building. And it's not just about recent developments like LEED certification, he said — increasing efficiency has always been an important aspect of building design and construction.
"These strategies have been around," he said. "It's just how do we perfect them and keep using them?"
One major point: People shouldn't be afraid to update and reuse older buildings. Ricketts discussed various ways that older structures can be renovated and retrofitted with modern sustainable design features. Teardowns are an enormous source of trash and waste, he said, so it's almost always better to find more-efficient ways to keep using what's already there instead of starting over.
Lease Crutcher Lewis is currently building the mixed-use development on the Wizer Block in downtown Lake Oswego, and Ricketts pointed to the project as another example of the natural alignment between sustainability and construction efficiency. While the new buildings aren't necessarily designed with high-tech sustainability in mind, he said, they'll still benefit from more-efficient construction techniques that have simply become industry-standard, such as improved wall insulation.
"You just don't have to heat and cool as much if you have good-performing skin on the building," he said.
The presentations were followed byquestions from an audience of Lake Oswego residents, School Board members, City Councilors and City staff. In response to a question about seismic standards, Schwer and Ricketts both stressed that earthquake resistance should be incorporated into the design process, because no retrofit will ever be as secure as a building constructed from scratch with earthquakes in mind.
"The time to talk about seismic stuff is when you're building the building," Schwer said. "You only get one shot at the foundation and columns."
When asked how cities and developers can encourage better sustainable construction, both Schwer and Ricketts emphasized the need for collaborative design processes that give everyone input in the project.
"When we're all in the room together, we get better ideas," Ricketts said.
Local developer Jay Haladay asked the panelists if they thought Lake Oswego's development codes made it more difficult to incorporate sustainable features. The City's standards call for building exteriors to fit with "village character," which often means specific design features like sloping roofs and Craftsman-style architecture.
Ricketts acknowledged that design codes and sustainability goals can sometimes be in conflict, but Schwer pointed to alternative options for some features, such as off-site community solar stations instead of rooftop arrays, or other sustainable features that don't affect the exterior appearance of a building.
"Most of the efficient elements are unseen," he said. "If you put triple-glazed windows in there, no one would say to stop."