Placing Green Tenant Improvements Within Reach

Oct. 1, 2008
With planning and thoughtful choices, designers can create high-performance, sustainable spaces that serve the client's best interests without breaking the bank.

The rising price of resources, climate change, and indoor environmental quality issues have inspired both public and private clients to take a heightened interest in sustainable spaces. Tenant improvement (TI) projects offer an ideal opportunity to create high-performance spaces that safeguard the welfare of the employees, visitors and the environment. One looming question clients often have, however, is regarding the cost of implementing sustainable measures. Fortunately, there is an array of budget-conscious choices for developing green TI projects, and when long-term benefits are factored in, the field of options widens even further.

Thoughtful upfront planning provides a blueprint for a sustainable space without adding project cost. When possible, use the LEED®-CI (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Commercial Interiors) framework to help guide the decision-making process from the project's inception.

  • Begin by choosing the right building with good environmental attributes. Look for a building with some of the following features:
    • Energy Star certification
    • Access to public transportation
    • On-site stormwater management
    • Water-efficient plumbing fixtures and water-efficient irrigation with drought-tolerant landscaping
    • Shower facilities accessible to all staff to promote bicycling or exercise opportunities during the day

  • Coordinate with the building landlord. Develop a lease where the tenant is submetered and can track their utility usage. Opt for a lease that doesn't provide tenant parking to encourage employees to take transit or arrive by bike. Work with building management to develop a green cleaning policy and program that protects janitorial staff and employees from potential chemical contaminates.

  • Adopt a solid strategy for teamwork. Integrated design approaches more effectively leverage sustainable measures by ensuring that systems and solutions work together. Autodesk, a company that makes building information modeling (BIM) software, decided it was only fitting to take the collaborative process even further on its offices in Waltham, MA, and San Francisco, CA. The company is seeking LEED Platinum certification on both projects and employed its own integrated project delivery (IPD) methodology to help meet that objective.

Autodesk, the projects' designers and the contractors signed a three-party agreement placing the stakeholders on equal terms. Each member participates in every decision, and financial incentives are tied to achieving project budget, schedule and sustainable goals. By structuring the IPD process to require active collaboration, the team can reduce design and construction conflicts, minimize waste, save money, and make sure the green features coordinate with one another.

Phil Bernstein, FAIA, vice president for Building Industry Strategy and Relations at Autodesk, says that becoming familiar with the collaborative process is a crucial step for industry professionals in crafting integrated sustainable designs.

"Sustainable design will one day be where life safety is now. A number of jurisdictions are already requiring elements of it for building permits," explains Bernstein. "Owners need to take a long-term view, and look at how green strategies can support their specific functional and operational strategies. If an owner isn't convinced that green features are worth the expense, it's the designer's responsibility to make that argument."

Analyzing the design strategies early on can help keep TI project costs down. For example, a well thought out lighting plan can reduce the amount of required fixtures and lower energy costs. Consider using ComCheck software to determine the lighting power density for a space. Surprisingly, many lighting plans are overly lit based upon ASHRAE 90.1 2004 requirements.

  • Work with the general contractor to minimize construction waste, use the proper materials, and safeguard indoor air quality. Develop specification standards where the contractors are required to provide a construction waste management plan and divert as much construction material from the landfill as possible. Some regions in the country can attain as much as 95 percent construction waste management on their projects.

  • Research and select sustainable products and materials. Be sure new materials are made with recycled content, and obtain locally manufactured products whenever possible. Specify adhesives, sealants, paints, coatings, carpet, and composite wood products with no or low volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Have the contractor build to SMACNA (Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association) indoor air quality guidelines, which are a LEED requirement. SMACNA mandates that ducts are sealed during construction to keep particulate matter out of the ventilation system, and that construction materials are kept clean and dry. In addition to ensuring the TI space meets good indoor air quality standards, this practice protects the remaining building area and tenants from contaminates during the construction process. When adding new mechanical systems, choose those with climate-friendly, non-CFC or HCFC refrigerants.

Salvaging and reusing materials is another excellent option. Mint Dental Works in Portland, OR, is the first LEED-certified dental office in the nation, which recently received a Platinum award for its commercial interiors renovation. Project co-owner Rebecca McMillan salvaged and repurposed countless treasures using an innovative perspective and some elbow grease. The space includes old wooden doors, ironwork embedded wainscot, and a conference table made from reclaimed bowling alley flooring atop an industrial sewing machine base.

While many owners many not have the time to hunt for and refinish construction items, McMillan says that reusing furnishings is exceptionally easy. "If you're willing to be a bit eclectic, you can buy great pieces from thrift shops, craigslist and on eBay. It's amazing how much is available. You can search for vintage pieces by designer or get current designer pieces at half the price."

The office desks, lunchroom table, chairs, reception hardware, and lighting globes are all reused pieces. McMillan says the drawer pulls in the reception area were less than $1 a piece. While it saved money and helped them earn a LEED innovation credit, the real reason the McMillans were adamant about material reuse was that it kept waste out of the landfill and reduced energy consumption from manufacturing and transporting new materials.

Raising the sustainable quotient of a facility higher can be achieved with incremental increases in expense. Specifying daylighting controls and occupancy sensors may cost a bit more but they reduce tenant energy use.

  • Investigate incentives to offset initial costs. Purchasing Energy Star computers and appliances is a great way to save energy and money, and financial incentives are frequently available at the state and federal level for these items.

  • Work with the landlord or property manager. If existing plumbing fixtures do not comply with Energy Star benchmarking, speak to the landlord about retrofitting with lower flow fixtures. Manufactures now offer many low-flow fixtures at cost-competitive prices, so research the lowest flow fixtures available on the market.

    Other small cost green items include adding bicycle storage on-site to encourage alternative transportation, and selecting Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood for flooring and finishes. Specifying formaldehyde-free wood products may have a slight price increase, but the benefits to human health far outweigh the added costs.

  • Reducing the number of finishes. Exposing the structure uses less materials, but be aware that it could increase the budget, according to Chuck Halling, AIA, sustainability manager at Walsh Construction Co. "If you want the project to look architectural, there's a cost associated with it. It requires much more coordination on the part of the contractor to make sure the duct work is straight and the visible elements are finished and clean."

    There are many inexpensive ways to minimize finishings, however, and Halling suggests, for example, staining a concrete floor rather than installing carpeting.

  • Take the time to develop design ventilation requirements based on the needs of the proposed space program. It is possible that the existing ventilation system won't provide adequate outside air to accommodate the number of occupants for the space's new use. Once installed, test and balance the equipment to confirm that enough outside air introduced into the system meets the design requirements.

Certain measures cost more initially, but their long-term impacts offer substantial benefits. Higher indoor air quality promotes occupant health and comfort, which translates to greater employee productivity and reduced absenteeism. Energy and water conservation features that formerly took multiple years to earn a return on investment are now paying off in record time as utility rates continue to rise.

  • Incorporate high-efficiency mechanical systems, CO2 sensors and variable air volume boxes. These are tied to outside air to save energy and allow occupants thermal control of their environment.

  • Commission the space. Because many TIs are design-build projects that don't include detailed mechanical engineering plans, commissioning becomes extremely important. The simplest control systems may not always be the best choice. For example, Green Building Services recently commissioned a project for a Northwest retailer where the mechanical system met indoor air quality requirements but not in an energy-efficient manner. Commissioning identified a small change in controls that had a big impact on the space's energy efficiency—a key consideration when dealing with tight operating budgets. Now, the system performs at optimal efficiency while providing adequate outside air flow to maintain good indoor air quality and space pressurization.

With planning and thoughtful choices, entering the realm of sustainable design doesn't need to cost more. But buildings significantly influence the environment and human health, and the bar is being raised. As designers seek to create high-performance spaces that will endure for decades to come, it's critical to weigh added costs against the measures that will serve the client's best interests over time and achieve their overall values.

Elaine Aye, IIDA, LEED AP, is a principal of Green Building Services Inc., one of the most comprehensive green building consulting firms in the nation. Aye can be reached at (866) 743-4277 or [email protected].

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