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Shades of Green

The many ways commercial developers build sustainability into their plans

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Russ Pratt was bothered by the amount of heat let off by desktop computers. A mechanical engineer at architectural firm CSHQA, he'd been looking for opportunities to do something with that energy for 20 years.

"Each desktop generates somewhere around 150 watts of waste heat, and usually, it's just dumped into the space and we have to provide air conditioning to combat that," Pratt said.

In his Boise garage, he started tinkering with an idea: What if he could pull the heat from the computers, and do something with it?

When his firm took over half of a 60-year-old warehouse on Broad Street in August 2013, it was Pratt's chance to execute his plan.

He installed a little mechanism at each desk in the office that captured the heat coming off each processor. In the summertime, that heat gets pushed outside, making for a cooler office space and less need for air conditioning. In the winter, the heat is recirculated into the ventilation, making up almost half the office's heating.

The way this works is complicated, of course. Engineer-level complicated.

"Luckily I hooked up with some people here who are willing to do something different and go out on a limb," Pratt said, referring to his employers. "They like the idea of being on the bleeding edge of innovation."

Everyone likes the idea of green innovation, including--and maybe especially--Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who has pushed for everything from solar-powered street lamps to a city office of sustainability. He spoke at a press conference put on by the U.S. Green Building Council late last month, applauding local business initiatives to be more sustainable. The group patted itself on the back for the cameras, but there are many shades of "green," and some are more difficult to achieve than others.

CSHQA, which has designed projects including the Idaho State Capitol renovation and Whole Foods, is as close to the "bleeding edge of innovation" as commercial buildings get when it comes to energy efficiency. Parking spots are made of brick and sand to allow stormwater to percolate into the ground instead of down the gutter and into the river. Geothermal water heats the floors; low-water native plants make up the landscape; there are 27 different LED light fixtures not expected to burn out for five years; double-pane windows; low-flow toilets; and 14 skylights.

Not all energy-efficiency measures are so intensive though. CSHQA dress code allows shorts and sandals, and every desk has a recycling bin rather than a garbage can.

K.K. Lipsey, business development director for CSHQA, said the cost of the project wasn't so out of reach.

"Sometimes you see these really high-performance buildings in green building magazines, and they cost $750 per square foot to be that way," Lipsey said. "We spent $110 per square foot."

CSHQA is pursuing platinum certification in LEED--Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

But LEED is a funny thing; it's hard to attain, maintain and expand.

"The public thinks, 'Oh, it's LEED-certified, it's a really energy-efficient building,'" said Charlie Woodruff, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council-Idaho Chapter. "But [these] buildings constantly have to be fine-tuned. You can design it to LEED standards, but there's so much that happens between the hand off of the design to the construction to the operation side. You can't just put a stamp on it and walk away."

It's a long process. Woodruff said it comes down to a lot of paperwork, tracking building materials and seeing where they came from, then getting all the contractors and subcontractors to do the same. Then it goes through a review process and sometimes comes back and has to be addressed before being reviewed again.

Ada County has 47 LEED-certified buildings, seven of which are public. The Ada County Courthouse became the first in 2005, and 154 have followed since then statewide. Many of Boise's recent high-profile construction projects have their sights on LEED certification, including the the Eighth and Main building, Simplot's JUMP and the new City Center Plaza--which broke ground July 1. The overwhelming majority are private, but Mayor Bieter is rooting for every new public building to have energy-efficiency measures.

"It makes sense to incorporate sustainability practices around your business every day," he said in the press conference. "Make it part of your DNA. It's not an add-on, it's not something you do when you've done everything else. It's part of the very core of your practice."

The city has focused on sustainability efforts--especially in infrastructure.

"But implementation is always the challenge," Woodruff said, "just look at the number of recommendations on that climate action plan that we've moved forward on. There's a bunch in there that haven't been pushed forward. Boise's Energy Future Plan never moved past draft form."

He added that when the market doesn't value energy efficiency over immediate return on investment, building to LEED standards is hard. Then, there's the green-washing.

"The most glaring example here is people saying, 'We're going to build to LEED standards,' knowing LEED means something to people. 'We're going to build to LEED, but we're not going for LEED certification.' It's like saying, 'I studied, I just didn't take the test,'" Woodruff said.

It saves builders a lot of money and time, but he said it doesn't help the Treasure Valley combat climate change.

"We've seen such serious impacts here," he said. "We want to be aggressive, getting people to see that it's really connected to how we build."