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Building project encounters ‘green’ construction paradox

The University’s drive for “green” buildings is encountering an inconvenient truth. In the world of environmentally friendly structures, “silver, gold and platinum” designations don’t always glitter as much as officials would like.

It’s a perplexing paradox, says University Architect Mark Rodgers: Getting the best green designation may not always be best for DU.

“Some projects fit well within the criteria and other projects might not,” Rodgers says. “We don’t want to be trapped in the ones that don’t.”

The paradox has emerged most recently in plans for Cherrington Hall, where a $3.8 million effort is under way to build a 5,460-square-foot addition on the south side of the building and a 1,656-square-foot addition to the addition.

The larger structure is to house the Institute for Sino- American International Dialogue (ISAID), a think tank for influencing American and Chinese policy on energy, water and environmental issues. The smaller portion will house the Pardee Center for international Futures at the Graduate School of International Studies.

Funding for ISAID was from the Anna and John J. Sie Foundation; funding for the futures program came from philanthropist Frederick Pardee.

“Cherrington is a very unique project,” Rodgers says. “It is not clearly a stand-alone building and not a renovation project. LEED hasn’t developed a category that says what you do when you plug a building onto an existing building.”

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is a program that rates buildings for their green qualities. It was created by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit group formed in 1993.

The program evaluates buildings, awarding points for practices in six categories: sustainable sites; water savings; energy efficiency; materials selection; indoor environmental quality; and innovation and design. Point totals determine designations, which are Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum.

DU’s Ricketson Law Building holds a gold designation, and the soon-to-open Nagel Hall — the University’s newest residence hall — is solidly silver and possibly gold. The ruling on points won’t be final until after the building is completed.

By themselves, the additions to Cherrington are ordinary, Rodgers says, but constructing them will result in improvements to the existing building that will be substantial. A new mechanical system will provide all of Cherrington — not just the additions — with more fresh air and better heating and cooling than it has now, he says.

The University also is evaluating the possibility of installing solar arrays atop Cherrington to cut power costs and reduce DU’s carbon footprint, says Director of Facilities Jeff Bemelen. The solar panels would be mostly symbolic, he points out, because they’d generate such a small portion of the electricity the University uses annually. Nevertheless, the arrays would generate more power than the additions will consume and make a “green” statement the University believes is important.

“The net energy the building was using before will actually be less after we do the additions,” Rodgers says. “But we’ll only get credit for the additions’ footprint.”

The LEED program is “a way to look at the components of a green building and get the conversation going,” notes Melissa Gallagher-Rogers, manager for the building council’s higher education sector. She anticipates “tweaks” to improve the system sometime in the fall.

All well and good, Rodgers says, but it’s still up to the University to connect green-building dollars and sense. LEED awards points to an individual project for buying green power, Rodgers says, but those same dollars could be used to purchase energy efficient light fixtures for buildings across campus that would save more than buying green power.

And, Rodgers notes, not all green innovations are proven, reasonable or cost effective. For instance, installing waterless urinals in Ricketson’s men’s rooms helped win that building LEED gold. But five years later the urinals are problematic and may have to be removed, Rodgers says.

Challenges like that are driving a lot of hard thought about how to build the Cherrington additions, which are scheduled to get under way late this summer and be completed in January 2009. The project is envisioned as unique, iconic meeting space reflective of both Chinese architecture and the mission of the programs it houses.

“The project has taught us a lot,” Rodgers says. “We’re learning.”

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