NOLA Rides Green Wave in Design, Construction

Robin Shannon, Reporter | New Orleans City Business | October 13, 2014

Prior to 2005, the only building in Louisiana with energy-efficient certification through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program was a Coca Cola bottling plant in Baton Rouge. Today, the statewide LEED tally has blossomed to more than 1,000 properties with several more projects in the planning stages.

The boom in green building is particularly prevalent in the New Orleans area, where 4.53 million square feet of commercial space is LEED certified. Some in the industry say those results are part of the reason behind the U.S. Green Building Council bringing its annual Greenbuild conference to the city for the first time this month.

Contractors and architects in the New Orleans area say attitudes toward green building and sustainability have evolved in recent years as materials have become easier to obtain, and building techniques have become more popular among property owners and developers.

General contractor Ryan Gootee said there had been a time when builders shied away from LEED techniques because of cost prohibitive factors and the time and effort needed to calculate the points needed to achieve certification. Also, some building methods done in the past have since been recognized as energy efficient.

“Things are being labeled differently and sustainable building elements are more recognizable now,” Gootee said. “It makes sense to do more with things like windows and skylights to bring more light in and save on energy costs for the owner. There are opportunities where we are practicing energy efficiency on projects not seeking certification. It’s just part of the normal process.”

Z Smith, director of sustainability and building performance for the architecture firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, said interest in LEED and green building among developers and project owners still varies widely locally. Some owners know they want it and ask for it by name, while others are interested but don’t want to add to their construction costs.

“You have groups like the Recovery School District that have worked it into their best practices for rebuilding of schools and demand it,” Smith said. “Other owners are just interested in the performance of their buildings and don’t necessarily care about certification.”

Smith said about 20 percent of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple’s work involves LEED certification, but nearly every project design at the firm involves some element of sustainability or energy efficiency. Cost is becoming less of a deciding factor when owners decide whether to pursue green techniques, he added.

A project the firm designed for Tulane University School of Medicine was targeting LEED silver certification. After replacing the downtown building’s windows, redoing its roof and adding skylights and insulation, Smith said the project was under budget and qualified as LEED platinum, the highest level of U.S. Green Building Council recognition.

“It comes down to making the right choices,” he said.

Making those decisions is becoming easier, contractors say, because green building practices are more prevalent in New Orleans than they were 10 years ago.

“If someone hasn’t worked a LEED project in town it is surprising,” Landis Construction executive vice president Christian Generes said. “We’ve gotten to a point where everyone understands what it is and what it is trying to accomplish.”

Not so long ago, Generes said options were limited for owners and developers seeking contractors with LEED knowledge, and projects were cost prohibitive. Today, the practices are being included in building codes, making the standards required in many instances.

“It isn’t hard to find sustainable products and recycled materials,” Generes said. “More companies are involved, and it is being demanded by owners. They want to have efficiently run systems.”

Landis Construction’s first foray into LEED certification was in 2007 when the company partnered with Global Green to build affordable housing in the Holy Cross neighborhood. Over the past seven years, the firm has done at least one LEED project a year.

A project on the horizon for Landis is the redevelopment of the 234 Loyola Building for Green Coast Enterprises and Crescent City Community Land Trust. The partners are converting the former office tower into affordable housing with construction slated to begin by the end of the year.

Green Coast President Will Bradshaw said the project is part of the company’s mission of taking on projects that go beyond traditional real estate development.

“We started with a mission of rebuilding in a way that was better than what was once there,” Bradshaw said. “When we started doing projects in 2007, the southeastern part of the country was lagging as far as green building. We saw it as a business opportunity.”

Bradshaw said when Green Coast started development projects in the city after Hurricane Katrina, much of its work involved partnerships with nonprofit organizations similar to Crescent City Community Land Trust. He explained that these partnerships make it easier for Green Coast to open the door for more public and private partnerships involving sustainable construction.

“You have a wealth of professionals who are interested in [building green] matched with a community that embraces it,” Bradshaw said. “General contractors and smaller subs are more educated on it and there are more opportunities. Nonprofits are no longer the only groups doing it.”