In the future, green may be bland

There was a time in the not-too-distant past that a developer could stand in front of the county Board of Supervisors or the city’s Planning Commission, tout his or her project’s green-building designs and ride the environmentally feel-good wave all the way to approval. That time may be beginning to pass.

The revolution of green-building practices, earning national certifications like EarthCraft or LEED, is roaring ahead locally. But like any revolution, it’s bound to become institutionalized. And as this happens, will the beacon of green building lose not only some of its brightness, but also bargaining power?

The Transit Center is but one of a slew of buildings touting its ecofriendliness.

“I believe it’s becoming the norm,” says Doug Lowe of Artisan Construction Inc., a leader in the local green-building movement and one of the first to build a LEED-certified house in the area. “Your projects are looked at a little more favorably if they’re green and environmentally responsible. But the story underneath the story is people’s motivation for doing it.”

And doing it they are. The last year saw Charlottesville open the Transit Center, its first LEED-certified building. UVA and Albemarle County adopted policies mandating that future public buildings will be LEED certified. The county also approved a host of new developments that waved their environmental accoutrements like a big, green banner. The Biscuit Run and Hollymead developments proffered that a set percentage of their buildings would be LEED-certified buildings, and Belvedere turned green into a marketing strategy.

In each development, a project’s green features not only set it apart but also eased its way through the rezoning approval process.

“At the end of the day, we’re deciding whether a project that is proffered is in the public interest,” says county Supervisor Dennis Rooker. “And I, for one, consider green-building attributes something that adds to the public-interest aspect of a project.”

But because certifications like EarthCraft and LEED have moved from a niche market into the construction market proper, building green may soon lose some of its power to win over local officials who decide the fate of the project. It has started the trek from ideal to commodity.

“There’s a competitive factor out there for businesses now, in the sense that they don’t want someone to be greener than they are,” says Rooker. “It’s a status symbol. And I think that will be true for homebuyers.”

With public buildings like the Transit Center and the county’s dedication to LEED certification for future buildings leading the way, Lowe says local builders are going to have to catch up.

“Builders and people in the industry who may or may not have had an interest in green-building concepts,” he says, “if they’re going to be doing business in the area, they’re going to have to learn it.”

Those green elements that builders may have touted in the past as special features may soon be seen as something different—simple requirements. Lowe says that bits and pieces of green building are becoming part of the building code. The idea of writing into the code things like LEED requirements dealing with things with waste management is a stretch, says Lowe. “Building codes evolve, and eventually they may adopt a lot of these principles.”

In his six years on the Board, Rooker has seen significant changes in the way projects incorporate green features.
“I hope we get to a point where green building features are so standard you don’t even need to articulate them,” he says. “But we’re not there yet. In my opinion, it will get to the point where green-building features are built into every project. I think we’ll get to that.”

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