Will green go brown in downturn?

Time Alexander
The planned Riverfront Museum will be green.

A recent study suggests that the economic downturn, combined with cheaper oil prices, could produce a drastic about-face in the “green building” movement and a slowdown of green enterprise in the U.S. overall.

How a downward trend in green construction would play out regarding local public and private construction projects remains to be seen.

We plan to go green

 Many construction experts and green advocates are saying now is not the time to turn away from green building due to the energy savings the practice brings.

Sheldon Schafer, vice-president of education for Lakeview Museum, is among them.

He said plans to “go green” in the construction and day-to-day operations of Peoria’s planned Riverfront Museum remain intact.

“As it is playing out, we will still have a green building,” said Schafer, who ran for election in Illinois’ 18th Congressional District on the Green Party platform in November.

“One of the initial, major components of the downtown museum project was that we would have a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified building. It’s still an important part of our mission.”

The study, issued by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, states that U.S. firms have a “weaker emphasis” on meeting requirements that “minimize the impact on the ecological environment” due to the current economic strife.

According to Dan Bulley, executive vice president of the Green Construction Institute, that trend could apply both to green products and green building.

“A financial slowdown could shift the priorities of consumers, causing them to switch to less expensive brands that are not green,” Bulley said in a news release. “Applying that same shift in priorities to green building would have long-term negative results for businesses nationwide.”

Many construction officials and green proponents feel the economic downturn should be viewed as a compelling reason for the business community to pursue green building, not shy away from it. The reason: future energy savings.

According to the Green Building SmartMarket Report 2006, energy represents the single largest controllable operating expense for office buildings.

The SmartMarket report states that the U.S. could save 30 percent, or $7.2 billion annually, by improving building operation standards.

“Green building requires intensive planning to ensure optimal results, but that additional effort is worth it when you consider that operating costs will be substantially reduced for the life of the facility,” Bulley stated.

Nick Whitaker of Whitaker Homes, a green home builder located in Peoria, said that though the housing market is down, customers still inquire about including green features in their new structures.

“Before, it seemed people were more interested in the environmental aspects of green building,” said Whitaker.

“Now, people are viewing long-term savings on their utility bills as a reason to go green.”

Ashley Katz, a spokesperson for the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C., agreed that green building is more important in light of the current economic crisis.

“To meet the challenge, USGBC is turning its focus to greening our existing buildings — homes, schools and offices. Focusing on existing buildings will create new green jobs that save money and energy,” Katz said. “Greening our existing buildings will make money.”

“Green” museum

Schafer reviewed a copy of the Duke University report and agreed with those who said green building should be prioritized in these tough financial times. The museum planners “can’t afford not to go green,” he said, citing the savings in operational costs. 

“We would be foolish, I think, not to do those things. It’s sometimes easier to raise capital costs than the ongoing operational costs,” said Schafer. “You have to continually work hard for every nickel to pay the bills, and for a museum, that’s particularly important.”

Schafer said green building features save money through “the energy conservation measures you employ, (such as) a highly efficient heating system and a better-insulated building. Another green measure is taking advantage of renewable, sustainable energies, and a third, related part of the story is using green materials.”

Schafer said that currently there are no plans to build a museum powered by wind, water or solar energy. “If there are opportunities for solar, we would probably build it in, but we aren’t at this point,” he said. 

Most Peorians wonder whether the proposed Riverfront Museum, a joint venture with Caterpillar Inc., will ever become a reality. A great deal depends on an April referendum calling for an additional 25 cents per $100 retail sales tax to be levied on certain non-essential items purchased in Peoria County. Approval of the tax would allow the greenlighting of $25 million to $35 million in bonds to be issued for capital costs associated with the museum, Schafer said.

Regardless of the referendum’s outcome, museum proponents remain optimistic that somehow, someway, the museum will be built and will attract a wide range of visitors to the riverfront area.

But the question remains, will plans for green building be shaved away like so many other proposed features of the museum?

“Presuming we go forward after the referendum in April, will we still have all the green components in the project? Yes. We’re confident we’ll be certifiable,” Schafer said.