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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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New projects are making Madison a much greener place
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Ask Madison's green queen, Sonya Newenhouse, how we stack up when it comes to green building, and she gushes.

"Nationally, we're ahead of the curve," says Newenhouse, president of Madison Environmental Group, as she rattles off a list of a dozen building projects she'd call green. "I would bet we're in the top 2%. We're ahead of the curve, but we have to keep climbing. The city of Madison has done an excellent job encouraging sustainability. Watch out, world!"

We certainly have our share of sustainable private developments, as well as such government buildings as the Emil Street Engineering Building, the Monona Terrace convention center (which received a coveted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification), and the yet-to-be-built Union South, which will seek LEED certification. Infill development is on the rise, meaning the city is growing up as well as out. New zoning ordinances and the city's comprehensive plan encourage sustainability.

So does Madison deserve a big pat on the back? It depends who you ask.

"Nationally, I don't think Madison's ahead of the pack," says Brian Ohm, chair of the UW's department of urban planning and development. "[It's] trying to keep up with the pack, but it's by no means ahead of the pack."

When it comes to sustainability, says Ohm, cities like Portland, Austin and San Francisco are setting the pace. That owes partly to lifestyle; we're still a county full of commuters with transit service that barely makes it past city lines. And Ohm says some of these other cities actually mandate that any new developments plan for LEED or similar certification. In Wisconsin, that's not an option, because cities here are not allowed to supersede state building codes with such requirements.

Mixed greens

Let's back up. What, exactly, makes a building "green"?

Take, for example, the new Capitol West complex. Newenhouse's firm helped developer Alexander Company and builder Findorff & Sons recycle 95% of the waste created in converting the former Meriter Hospital into high-end condos and townhouses. In fact, one might say the building itself was recycled, since the developers added a couple floors on top of the structure rather than leveling it.

The builders used local materials as much as possible. The floors are covered with recycled carpet; parking is underground rather than sprawling across the block, causing runoff problems; the paints are low in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. There are spots for 200 bicycles, and the exterior stairs are designed to make walking bikes up them easier.

Then there's the location. Capital West is an infill development, the opposite of sprawl. "There was no need to take down cornfields to put up houses," says Dan Peterson, Alexander Company spokesman. "That's the last thing we need to do right now."

And it's right on bus lines, which encourages people not to use their cars to get to work. (It remains to be seen whether folks who can afford up to $962,000 for their living space are the same kind of people who take the bus.)

All this has to do with the building itself and how it was built. What about the way it operates? Beyond energy-efficient windows, there isn't much - not even outreach to residents encouraging them to go green in their daily lives (though Peterson concedes it's a "good idea").

Contrast that with the headquarters of Iconica (formerly Planning Design Build) at 901 Deming Way. The company, which designs and builds green buildings, holds out its own office as a showcase.

The building was state-of-the-art when it went up in 1998, with energy-efficient windows and a good thermal envelope (meaning controlling the inside temperature is easy and efficient). Improvements have continued to boost the building's efficiency. Interior water use is reduced by 40% through low-flow faucets, electronic controls and dual-flush toilets (which use, to put it bluntly, less water for number one).

Outside, a sophisticated system monitors sunlight, humidity and soil moisture, and waters the lawn only when it's needed. That, along with management's decision to tolerate a little bit of brown on the edges, has led to annual water savings of 450,000 gallons, about a third. The watering system paid for itself in just three years.

And for Iconica, sustainability goes beyond physical features. "It has always been kind of the fabric or culture of our company," says company president Ken Pientka. To that end, construction schedules on new projects run four days a week, when possible, and office workers at headquarters are encouraged to telecommute at least part of the time, to keep cars off the road. Hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles get preferred parking.

But what about that sprawl problem? Most of Iconica's projects are in the Old Sauk neighborhood, much maligned by those who'd just as soon the city never make it farther west than the Beltline.

Asked whether sprawl development is inherently less green than infill, Pientka's response is surprising. "I'd agree with that," he says, acknowledging that his buildings required a sacrifice of farmland. Which is why, he says, his company must go above and beyond.

"At this point, we all have an obligation," he says. "People are living out here and want those services, so what can you do to minimize the harm? Sustainability is all about serving the needs of today without compromising tomorrow."

Taking the LEED

So, which one is greener? Iconica's headquarters did achieve LEED certification for existing buildings last year, which helps.

"It's a verifiable third-party-review process," says Newenhouse. "In addition to saying you're green, you have the documentation to prove it. When you go through such a rigorous protocol, you end up with a healthy building. Buildings can be green without LEED; they just need to do more work in proving it."

Which is where Alexander Company finds itself. The LEED-certification process is time-consuming and can cost tens of thousands of dollars. "We put that money back into the development," Peterson says. But that makes it harder for the company to substantiate its claims.

LEED is one of a number of certifications, all of which have different standards and purposes. For example, Green Built Home is a Wisconsin-only standard applied mostly to single-family residences, though the Park Central Apartments on East Washington Avenue recently became the first multi-family development to earn that label. And the Wisconsin Department of Tourism administers the Travel Green Wisconsin certification, which relies as much on education, outreach and day-to-day practices as it does on building design.

But LEED remains the gold standard.

"Sometimes you can't just rely on people to say, 'We built a green building for you,'" says Sue Loomans, executive director of the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance. "There's a term called 'greenwashing.'"

Greenwashing - coined all the way back in 1986 by New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt - essentially refers to a company or builder marketing itself as green because it adds value, but not making the underlying commitment.

Without question, the market for green has grown in recent years. "It is becoming a selling point," says Peterson. "The whole green thing is a big buzz term."

Indeed, the United States Green Building Council, which administers the LEED certification, recently found that buildings with LEED certification enjoy dramatically higher occupancy rates and command higher rents and resale values. Not to mention all those savings on electricity, gas and water.

Two of the Madison area's newest big-box stores - the SuperTarget in Fitchburg and the Wal-Mart in Monona - claim to be "green." Wal-Mart spokeswoman Lisa Nelson cites green building materials, efficient LED lights, hot water recycling and daylight harvesting (whereby the electrical lights monitor the levels of light coming in through skylights and dim themselves accordingly). And the store was built in an existing development rather than a sprawl zone.

"Store design is one element, but it goes way beyond the store," says Nelson. "Thinking outside the box, literally."

In addition, Wal-Mart has worked with suppliers to redesign packaging and revamp transport practices to reduce fuel consumption; it's set a goal to reduce plastic bag waste by 33%. The company has also decided to sell only concentrated laundry detergent, which will, Nelson says, save plastic for bottles as well as fuel in transport.

"That changed the whole laundry detergent business," says Nelson, referring to how Wal-Mart's Goliath presence in the retail market ensures that every move it makes ripples throughout the worldwide consumer market.

The company also engages customers to make changes in their own lives. In 2007, for instance, it set a goal of selling 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs by the end the year, and it did.

All of this increased efficiency saves Wal-Mart money, and compact fluorescents command a higher price than the less-efficient incandescents. Wal-Mart's commitment to being green is not purely altruistic; it helps keep the greenbacks flowing its way.

"Wal-Mart is recognizing that it's good for their corporate image to be seen as green," says Loomans. But, she adds, Wal-Mart will likely never live up to some standards of greenness. "It's not just what you have in hand, but it's the whole lifecycle. Bringing in things from across the world has a huge carbon footprint."

A movement, not a trend

Given the blend of economic and environmental benefits, opportunities abound to deepen our greenness.

There are voluntary efforts we haven't gotten in on yet, such as the new LEED for Neighborhood certification program. Neighborhoods in the Fox Valley and southeastern Wisconsin are in the prototype phase of the program, and Madison might be able to jump in soon.

"This whole thing is evolving fairly quickly," Ohm says. "We'll see more communities around the country incorporating these standards in their planning."

For her part, Newenhouse is optimistic those opportunities will be realized; it's as much about our heritage as our future. "It's a Midwestern value blended with progressive ideas and a can-do attitude," she says, attributing our desire to save energy to our basic frugality. "This is nothing new here."

But Newenhouse stresses that the move to greener pastures "is not a trend. It's here to stay and here to grow. With energy issues and solid-waste issues and air-quality issues worsening, with resources beginning to diminish, the green movement will grow further. If you look at civil rights or the women's movement, those aren't trends. Those are here to stay. It's a movement that's not going anywhere but up."

Green Giants

Monona Wal-Mart

2101 Royal Ave., Monona

Use: Retail

Built: Summer 2007

Green features: Daylight harvesting, LED lights, concrete floors rather than PVC tile, water recycling

Other green practices: Only selling concentrated laundry detergent; promoting compact fluorescent light bulbs; reducing number of plastic bags used and discarded; replacing fleet vehicles with hybrids

Of note: Company's sale of energy-efficient products boosts its bottom line

Iconica

901 Deming Way, Madison

Use: Office

Built: Winter 1998

Green features: Excellent energy performance thanks to efficient lighting system and good thermal envelope; 40% water savings due to waterless urinals, dual-flush toilets, low-flow aerators on faucets, electronic controls and high-tech lawn-watering system; natural day lighting

Other green practices: Preferred parking for hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles; short work weeks on job sites; encouragement of telecommuting

Of note: Company builds green buildings for clients, mostly in the Old Sauk Road area

Park Central Apartments

301 S. Ingersoll, Madison

Use: Residential

Built: Spring 2008

Green features: Used salvaged/overstock materials including wood flooring, ceramic tile and carpet; low-VOC paint

Other green practices: motion sensors in common areas; compact fluorescents in common areas; solar panels on roof heat building's water

Of note: First multi-unit residential building in Wisconsin to earn Green Built Home certification

Home Savings Bank

3762 E. Washington Ave., Madison

Use: Retail

Built: Fall 2005

Green features: 75% of construction waste recycled; rain gardens along drive-through lanes; windows placed for optimum natural light; many interior surfaces made of recycled materials

Other green practices: "Green" checking account uses checks made of recycled paper and sends only electronic statements; commitment to local purchasing

Of note: First LEED-certified bank in Wisconsin

Capitol West

309 W. Washington Ave., Madison

Use: Residential

Built: Spring 2008

Green features: Infill development on bus lines; 200 bike stalls and bike-friendly exterior stairs; recycled carpet; low-VOC paints; rooftop gardens, underground parking

Other green practices: Local materials, to the extent possible

Of note: Uses shell of former Meriter Hospital building

SuperTarget

6321 McKee Rd., Fitchburg

Use: Retail

Built: Summer 2007

Green features: White roof to reflect energy and keep store cooler; motion sensors in offices and stockrooms; low-flow water fixtures; exterior LED lighting

Other green practices: Some fleet trucks run on natural gas; clothes hangers now reused 3-5 times before being recycled

Of note: The Fitchburg store is open 24 hours, but lighting is dimmed to 50% during overnight hours. In other stores, the cleaning crew's shift was moved to coincide with the early morning shift so that all lights could be turned off when the store is closed.

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